Boarding schools argue victims waited to long to file lawsuits

By Chet Brokaw
Spearfish, South Dakota (AP)

Former students who allege they were sexually abused decades ago at two Indian boarding schools waited too long to sue the religious organizations that ran the schools, lawyers for the organizations told the South Dakota Supreme Court.

The students have failed to provide evidence that would entitle them to more time to file the lawsuits, lawyers for the Catholic organizations said as the high court heard arguments in two similar cases.

But the lawyer representing the former students said the lawsuits should be allowed to continue.

“When in doubt, all doubt should be resolved in favor of the victim,” Gregory Yates of Encino, Calif., told the Supreme Court. The high court will decide the two cases in written opinions that will be issued later.

The two appeals involve conflicting rulings issued by two circuit judges.

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 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.

The federal lawsuit was dismissed, and the former students then filed two similar lawsuits in state court. The lawsuits 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 said the nine had not demonstrated when, how and where they discovered a connection between the alleged abuse and their psychological and other injuries.

Sheila Woodward, a lawyer for the Sisters of St. Francis, told the Supreme Court on Monday that the Rapid City case should be dismissed because the two former students involved in the appeal knew about their alleged injuries more than three years before they filed their lawsuit.

Lloyd One Star wrote a letter in May 2001, more than three years before the lawsuit was filed, describing the alleged abuse and how that led to later problems with drinking and getting along with relatives, Woodward said.

“Mr. One Star, in that letter explicitly ties that abuse to his psychological injuries as an adult,” she said.

Marian Sorace also discovered or should have discovered any connection between the alleged abuse and psychological problems during counseling in 1995, she said.

A reasonable balance must be struck between protecting the rights of alleged victims and those accused in lawsuits because it’s difficult to determine what happened decades after alleged abuse, Woodward said. The lawsuit mentions two sisters at St. Francis, but one is dead and the other is about 80 years old, she said.

“Memories fade. People die. Documents are lost,” she said.

Yates said evidence shows that neither One Star nor Sorace made a firm connection between the abuse and their psychological problems until later, which means they filed the lawsuit on time. The filing of the federal lawsuit also gave them more time to file the lawsuit in state court, he said.

The former students also should get more time to go to court because the religious organizations concealed the abuse, Yates said.

However, Woodward said the students knew who worked at the St. Francis school and which organizations ran it. The students have never made specific allegations that Sisters of St. Francis threatened the students that God would punish them if they reported the alleged abuse, she said.

Yates said the Sioux Falls case should be reinstated because religious organizations involved with the St. Paul’s School in Marty never raised the question of when the former students made a connection between the childhood abuse and their problems as adults.

Yates said the students never got a chance to argue the issue in circuit court because the issue was raised by the judge, not by the religious organizations.

“The way the plaintiffs look at this is this is a dismissal basically by ambush,” Yates said.

But lawyers for the religious organizations said the issue of when the students made the connection between the abuse and their injuries was raised in circuit court. The students, however, did not file evidence to show they made the connection only within three years of going to court, they said.

Jeremiah Murphy of Sioux Falls, representing the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, said St. Paul’s School was run by Benedictine fathers, not by the diocese.

“The Diocese of Sioux Falls has never owned, operated or controlled St. Paul’s,” Murphy said.

Yates said the diocese should remain in the lawsuit because its bishop could approve or disapprove the teachers and other workers at the school.

Yates said the lawsuits should be allowed to continue so the former students are treated fairly. “There’s no limitation on suffering the horrors of childhood sexual abuse.”