Sioux allege abuse at church boarding schools

Washington Post/June 2, 2003
By Sharon Waxman

Rosebud Reservation, S.D. -- The day the Rev. Kenneth Walleman came to the front door, Lloyd "Sonny" One Star went to get his gun.

"I couldn't keep my composure. I kept shaking," said One Star, 46, a leader of the Sioux tribe on this reservation. "I was going to kill him."

Walleman was a former administrator at St. Francis Mission, the Jesuit boarding school One Star had attended through his youth - a priest, One Star says now, who sexually abused him for years.

Walleman fled before he could state his business that day a few years ago, but he might yet face the wrath of Sonny One Star - and that of other former students. After years of holding their silence, hundreds of American Indians are giving accounts of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the priests and nuns who ran a dozen missionary boarding schools across South Dakota through most of the 20th century.

Allegations of priestly sexual abuse in parishes have rocked the Catholic Church over the past year. But what the former students say occurred at the reservation schools into the 1970s was more systemic: They say physical abuse was a routine part of school discipline; that sexual abuse was commonplace; and that both forms of abuse were committed against children in the round-the-clock, unsupervised care of school staff members.

Some former students have filed a $25 billion class action lawsuit in Washington against the federal government, which paid the church to house, feed and educate American Indian children. Since the lawsuit was filed in April, their attorneys said, the number of plaintiffs has expanded to include hundreds.

A series of lawsuits involving the same allegations of abuse is expected to be filed by mid-June against the clerics and dioceses responsible for the schools, according to Jeff Herman, the plaintiffs' Miami-based attorney. The schools were transferred to Indian control in the 1970s.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said it would not comment on ongoing litigation. Church officials said they were investigating One Star's allegations, which are included in both the filed and planned lawsuits, but would not comment further in view of the expected lawsuit. Walleman's superiors in the Society of Jesus said he was not available to comment.

'Trying to Kill a Culture'

'The people who ran these schools were trying to kill a culture," said Charles Haines, a biology professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. He has been researching the history of the boarding schools for several years.

In the 1880s, the federal government mounted a campaign to assimilate American Indians as they signed treaties promising peace. The government set up boarding schools on reservations nationwide, and American Indians asked the church to run others. One popular credo of the time was, "Kill the Indian, save the man."

In the 1920s and '30s, federal agents took Indian children from their parents' homes and placed them in the boarding schools. In later years, according to government documents, the government withheld rations from Indian families unless they sent their children to the schools.

The government has acknowledged its campaign destroyed communities and cultures. Referring to the agency's effort to "destroy all things Indian," Kevin Gover, then assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, said in a speech in 2000: "Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually."

Haines said, "The Catholic schools were actually worse" than the federally run schools. By the 1950s and '60s, he estimates, using government figures, more than half the children on reservations in South Dakota were attending the boarding schools, a few hundred at each school at any given time.

"This was an all-pervasive environment - 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said, adding, "These weren't really schools - they were labor camps." Early in the 20th century, students worked at construction at schools, and as servants and farmhands for white families.

In Canada, former students at Indian boarding schools have made similar allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Lawsuits against the government and churches that ran the schools have resulted in millions of dollars' worth of settlements and a $240 million government "healing fund."

Both the government and the churches have apologized for the abuse. But in the United States, it was not until the pedophile priest scandals emerged that former students came forward, telling their stories to class action activist Gary Frischer.

Alleged Abuse Described

Despite some gestures of reform, such as ending child labor in the mid-1950s, the abuse persisted into the '70s, former students said. In more than a dozen extended interviews at three reservations across South Dakota, former students gave similar accounts of maltreatment by their guardians at three boarding schools.

Priests and nuns, the former students said, routinely whipped them with razor strops and beat them with paddles, sometimes until their shorts were bloody. At times, they said, older children were made to hit younger ones. For such infractions as wetting the bed or speaking in Lakota, their native language, children were locked in closets for hours, made to kneel on boards or forced to eat lye soap.

One former student has alleged a nun threw her down a three-story laundry chute for speaking Lakota, and several others said they witnessed a child hung by his feet from a bell tower as punishment for running away.

Predatory priests and nuns typically targeted children as young as 6 for sexual abuse, former students said. Full-blooded Indians were often singled out, as were orphans who had no parents to check on them. The abuse, the former students said, would cease when the children were old enough to fight their abusers.

Floyd Hand, a medicine man on the Pine Ridge reservation, said a priest at the Holy Rosary school broke his nose in the 1950s. "We were prisoners of that school," he said. "It was a prison camp."

"The little boys were so pitiful," said Sandy Wade, 57, who attended St. Paul's Mission on the Yankton reservation. "My brother Frank always had his ear torn; the sister would twist and rip his ears. His cheeks were always red and bruised from being grabbed."

When Wade's brother was 14, he told her he had been sexually abused by a priest and older boys in the school, but refused to name the priest. He was expelled from the school as an uncontrollable teen-ager and died of drug abuse at age 17.

"Twelve years of punishment, torture," said Sherwyn Zephier, 46, of his years at St. Paul's. He said he saw a nun molesting his cousin, and was made to kneel on a broomstick and pray after he was caught. "Those of us who survived, we never talked about it. We were ashamed of it."

Former students said they did not tell authorities about abuse because they mistrusted the judicial system. Those who told their parents were frequently disbelieved.

"It didn't do no good to tell," said Zephier's former classmate, Mike Archambeau, 45, who said he witnessed the repeated sexual assault of a classmate by a nun. The classmate died as a teen-ager. "If I told my mom, I'd get beat up worse. I got beaten at home, beaten at school. The boys would try to rape me after watching the nun."

Archambeau, like Hand, Wade and Zephier, is participating in the lawsuit against the government and the planned lawsuit against the church.

"There is a lot of historical trauma people carry with them," said Ron Sully, director of an alcohol treatment center on the Yankton reservation. He is not a party to the lawsuit, but attended St. Paul's and said students were mistreated there. "Just about everyone coming through here is carrying it, but they don't know it. They attribute it to something else. All that trauma from the boarding schools - the sexual violence, the family violence - is contributing to alcohol abuse."

Priests, Nuns Respond

Over the years, some priests and nuns have apologized in letters or in conversations with former students for mistreating them generally, without acknowledging specific acts of sexual or physical abuse. One Star said that might be why Walleman visited him after not having any contact for 15 years.

At a Good Friday service in 1998, Sister Miriam Shindelar, a former teacher at St. Paul's, formally apologized on behalf of the parish for historical injustices committed on the reservation, requesting "forgiveness from those we have wounded and injured," according to a news account from the time.

Several priests and nuns living on the reservations said they had learned that sexual abuse had taken place there, but could not talk about it because of the pending litigation.

But in the dioceses, abbeys and convents that ran the schools and supplied the teachers, this is the first time they have been confronted with formal allegations.

Responses have varied. Some say allegations of abuse are exaggerated, and the schools educated children and gave them opportunities to succeed in mainstream society. They point to a number of boarding school graduates who went on to college.

"One hears about extreme circumstances in terms of discipline and punishment. One also hears from their contemporaries who say, " 'Sure it was strict, but' " it also provided an education, said Peter Klink, now president of Holy Rosary.

The Rev. George Lyon, a teacher at St. Paul's in the 1960s and now prior of Blue Cloud Abbey, which sent the Benedictine priests to the school, said: "I see very exaggerated accusations. The idea of a person having been thrown down the steps, things such as this, or hung in a bell tower - in my time there's no evidence of this whatsoever."

Others say wrongs were committed against the children and a full investigation should follow. Asked about the account of Sonny One Star, the Rev. James Grummer, the superior for the Wisconsin province of the Society of Jesus, which sent the priests to St. Francis, said: "We take allegations of misconduct in ministry seriously. We have systems in place for investigating allegations."

The priests and nuns accused of misconduct are in some cases deceased or have left religious service. A few still live on the reservations in a convent or church, no longer teaching but still tolerated within the community.

"I don't think anyone was mistreated unless they asked for it," said Sister Mary Francis Poitra, now in her eighties, as she made her way to Mass at St. Paul's Mission recently. She is accused by numerous former students of both physical and sexual abuse, allegations she calls "gossip." Children, she said, "were spanked, like everybody else. They weren't treated wrong. They asked for everything that happened to them."

'A Terrible Indictment'

At the neat, rectangular building that houses the remaining three Jesuit priests who live and serve on the Rosebud Reservation, Father Joseph Gill, 77, sat with a letter in his lap. It was written by Sonny One Star, and detailed the abuse he says he suffered at St. Francis, where Gill was the principal from 1961 to 1972. He looked pale, stricken as he read the three-page, single-spaced document.

"This is a terrible indictment," he said, staring at the paper. "If these things are true, or some are true, it seems to me that Sonny would have grounds for some kind of recompense."

He went through the list of the accused, all of whom plaintiffs' attorneys said would be named in the lawsuit. One is Theodore Kowalski, a seminarian accused of sexual touching: "I certainly did not know anything about Father Kowalski doing this. That doesn't mean it couldn't have happened."

Kowalski left the Jesuit order and is married. Reached at his home in Houston, Kowalski, 63, said he taught science and math to high schoolers at St. Francis for three years, and sometimes did "monitor little kids at certain hours."

He said he did not know Sonny One Star, and that he never sexually abused any student. "I never did anything in my life," he said. "I'd take a lie-detector test. & My experiences there were squeaky-clean."

He had heard through former students that he was being accused, and said: "After 40-some years this crap is coming up? I have nothing to be ashamed of. But I'm scared to death."

Kenneth Walleman's name was also on One Star's list. "It doesn't seem to tab with what I know of Father Walleman," Gill said. "He had had a mental breakdown at another school. He was sent by his superiors here, where he would have less stress."

Asked to respond to Gill's statements, a spokesman for the Wisconsin province said it would not comment on medical issues regarding its men.

Brother Francis Chapman, accused of fondling One Star: "He bothered me," Gill said. "He wasn't what he said he was. I once walked into his room, he had a young man on his lap. I didn't like the possibilities. We asked him to leave." Chapman is dead and, according to Gill, buried at St. Francis.

Gill himself is accused in the letter of beating boys "out of the blue" and of talking "about Jesus Christ while his hand was down the kid's pants fondling him."

He responded: "There were always children around. The kids were always coming up, looking for attention. I suppose that could be misinterpreted."

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