S.D. Court to decide if boarding school abuse lawsuits continue

By Chet Brokaw
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) 10-01

The South Dakota Supreme Court will decide whether former students who allege they were sexually abused at two Indian boarding schools waited too long to file lawsuits against religious organizations that ran the schools.

On October 1, the high court heard appeals involving conflicting rulings issued by the two circuit judges handling the lawsuits.

Lawyers in both cases argued before the Supreme Court at Black Hills State University in Spearfish. At issue is a state law that requires a lawsuit seeking damages for childhood sexual abuse to be filed within three years of the alleged abuse or within three years of the time the victim discovered or should have discovered that an injury was caused by the abuse.

The legal battle started in 2003 when former students at Indian boarding schools filed a federal lawsuit seeking $25 billion in damages from the federal government for the alleged mental, physical and sexual abuse of students at the schools. The boarding schools were run by religious organizations from the late 1800s or early 1900s until the 1970s, when most were closed or transferred to tribal control.

After the federal lawsuit was dismissed, the former students filed two similar lawsuits in state court. The students allege that the religious organizations were negligent in hiring, retaining and supervising staff and failed to protect students.

The lawsuit involving St. Paul’s School in Marty was filed in Sioux Falls. It seeks damages from the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls; Blue Cloud Abbey of northeastern South Dakota; Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, based in Pennsylvania; and Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament of Marty.

The second lawsuit, involving the St. Francis Mission School on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, was filed in Rapid City. It seeks damages from the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City; the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus; and the Sisters of St. Francis, based in Denver.

In the Rapid City case, the Sisters of St. Francis argued that two former students waited too long to sue. Circuit Judge A.P. Fuller refused to dismiss the lawsuit, and the Sisters of St. Francis asked the Supreme Court to overturn the circuit judge’s ruling.

But Circuit Judge Bradley Zell of Sioux Falls dismissed the St. Paul’s School lawsuit, ruling that former students had waited too long to sue. Nine former students have asked the Supreme Court to reinstate their lawsuit.

Zell said the nine former students failed to present sufficient evidence to overcome the time limitations on filing such lawsuits. He ruled the nine had not demonstrated when, how and where they discovered a connection between the alleged abuse and their psychological problems and other injuries.

The nine former students argue they presented enough evidence to justify continuing the lawsuit. They contend they never got a chance to argue the issue in circuit court because the judge raised the issue, not the religious organizations being sued.

In addition, the students say they should not be prevented from suing because those working at St. Paul’s prevented disclosure of the alleged abuse by telling students God would punish them if they told anyone what had happened.

The religious organizations counter that the judge was correct in dismissing the lawsuit because too much time had passed.

The Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls argues it should be dismissed from the lawsuit because it never had any authority over the religious organizations that ran the school.

“At no point in its 53-year history as a Catholic school – from its inception in 1922 until it was relinquished to the tribal government in 1975 – did the Diocese have authority over decisions relating to hiring, assigning, supervising, disciplining, or removing staff at the school,” the diocese said in written arguments.

“In short, the Diocese had no relevant connections whatsoever to the school,” the diocese said.

The lawsuit also would violate constitutional provisions by allowing courts to become entangled in religious matters, the diocese contends. It would define standards for a “reasonable bishop,” and restructure the church by changing the relationship between the diocese and the other religious organizations being sued, lawyers say.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Survivors Network For Those Abused by Priests asks that the lawsuit be allowed to continue. Sexually abused children often cannot recognize until later in life that the abuse is the cause of their problems, the organization argues.

Instead of dismissing the lawsuit because it was filed long after the alleged abuse, the courts should allow a jury to decide when the former students discovered the cause of their injuries, the Survivors Network contends.