Clergy abuse alleged at Indian reservations

The Boston Globe/July 12, 2003
By Chet Brokaw

Osebud, S.D. -- Sonny One Star says he learned not to cry or scream when he was beaten and sexually assaulted at his Roman Catholic boarding school on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation.

Four decades later, he says, it is time for a different approach.

''Today, I'm ready for retaliation,'' said One Star, a leader on the reservation.

He and five other Sioux are suing the federal government for $25 billion on behalf of perhaps thousands of students allegedly abused at Indian boarding schools around the country. They hope to have the case certified as a class-action.

''The nuns and the priests -- the ones who are still living -- I just want to let them know I'm coming after them,'' said One Star, 46, who attended the St. Francis Mission school, one of the three Catholic schools named in the lawsuit. ''It was fun for them back then, but I want to get justice. I want to get even.''

Gary Frischer, a Los Angeles consultant working on the case, said preparation for the legal action started last year amid news accounts that Catholic dioceses across the nation were settling lawsuits alleging abuse by priests. Little was being said about abuse in Indian schools. Over the past century, hundreds of thousands of Indians attended boarding schools under a federal effort to get Indians to assimilate into white society.

Tribal leaders often asked religious groups to start boarding schools on reservations, so that their tribes' children would not be sent far away. Most schools were Catholic; most were closed or transferred to tribal control by the 1970s.

The lawsuit, filed in April in the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington, accuses the government of failing to live up to treaties dating to the 1800s requiring it to protect tribes from, as the treaties put it, ''bad men among the whites.''

The lawsuit also argues that the government set up the boarding school system in the late 1800s to try to wipe out Indian culture, tradition, and language.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said that federal officials will comment on the allegations only in court.

Sherwyn Zephier said that he and other students were beaten with boards and leather straps at St. Paul's in Marty, the headquarters of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

''They did it in the name of God,'' said Zephier, now a teacher at the tribal school that replaced St. Paul's. ''All that pertained to our culture was evil. They were trying to torture it out of us.''

Besides St. Paul's and St. Francis, the lawsuit names Holy Rosary on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which also educated Sioux children in South Dakota. Lead attorney Jeff Herman of Hollywood, Fla., said that more lawsuits will be filed in other states.

Abbott Thomas Hillenbrand of Blue Cloud Abbey in northeastern South Dakota, which provided Benedictine priests to St. Paul's for nearly 100 years, said that he does not know whether the allegations are true. But he added: ''If people were hurt in any way, it's our responsibility to try to heal that.'' Officials of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus, which ran the St. Francis and Holy Rosary schools, also said they are investigating and want to provide pastoral care to anyone who might have been abused.

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