Sioux Falls, South Dakota - Two dozen former residents of an American Indian orphanage run by the Roman Catholic Church are suing the Sioux Falls diocese, alleging sexual and physical abuse by priests and nuns decades ago.
Some of the victims, who are identified in the 58-page lawsuit filed last week only by their initials, were as young as 4 years old during the alleged assaults at the former Tekakwitha Orphanage in Sisseton, about 150 miles north of Sioux Falls, between the 1940s and 1970s.
They allege that nuns fondled both males and females during bath time, priests and nuns engaged in sexual contact with children and a mother superior forced children to simulate sex acts with a doll.
Rebecca Rhoades, an attorney with Manly and Stewart, a California law firm that has handled hundreds of abuse cases involving Catholic officials and is involved in the filing of the Tekakwitha lawsuit, said she was surprised by the number of claims against nuns and the alleged severity of the abuse.
"Really it was just very perverse, very strange and the clients we have whose abusers were nuns were very, very traumatized," Rhoades said Friday.
The lawsuit was filed July 30 in Minnehaha County Circuit Court.
Jerry Klein, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, said Friday that the diocese has been reaching out to abuse victims for years and wants to continue helping where it can.
"We try to reach out as we can to assist people, and we're certainly going to keep doing that," Klein said.
Also named as defendants are 15 priests, nuns and brothers; Tekakwitha Indian Mission of Sisseton; Sisters of the Divine Savior, a Milwaukee-based organization of nuns; and Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Washington, D.C.-based organization of Catholic brothers and priests.
Kathie Daily, spokeswoman for Sisters of the Divine Savior, said she couldn't address details of the case because so many of the allegations were from so long ago. Some of the nuns named in the lawsuit have since died, she said.
But Daily said the congregation opposes any form of abuse.
"Our sisters are praying for everyone involved in this case," she said. "It's very painful. The allegations are painful, and the people who are making them are in great pain as well."
A woman who answered the phone at the Oblates office on Friday said no one was available to talk about the lawsuit. There was no telephone listing for the Tekakwitha Indian Mission.
The problem of clergy abuse in the U.S. first became widely known in the mid-1980s because of a predator priest in Louisiana, then erupted in 2002 when a court unsealed files in the case of an accused priest in the Archdiocese of Boston.
The total number of claims since 1950 has reached more than 14,000, according to surveys commissioned by the bishops.
Gary Schoener, a consultant on sexual misconduct in the clergy, said there have been cases involving nuns all around the world, but said it's hard to gauge the volume of cases.
"It occurs. There are cases out there," said Schoener, a Minneapolis-based therapist. "This is, however, coming to light much, much later than what happened with the priests."
The Tekakwitha Orphanage, which closed about 20 years ago, was demolished in July as part of a stimulus-funded environmental cleanup.