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Indian School Probes Abuse Allegations

Nov 18, 2003 | AP

A former student at St. Joseph Indian School claims he was sexually abused by a priest three decades ago, school officials said.

And the boarding school, now run by the Catholic order of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, has begun reaching out to alumni to find out if there are other cases of sexual abuse.

"I feel an obligation to provide an opportunity for people to talk to us and to provide assistance to people," Deacon David Nagel, the school's executive director, said. "Where the church has tried to cover up and hide these things, it hasn't been helpful to anyone."

Leaders first heard the story during a brief contact with the former student, said Steve Smith, the school's lawyer. In subsequent meetings, Nagel has come to believe the report is sincere.

The allegation joins a string of stories nationwide of priests abusing children.

The Catholic diocese of Sioux Falls recently made public 38 cases of possible abuse in eastern South Dakota between 1950 and 1992.

There is also a class-action lawsuit alleging abuse at other former Indian boarding schools in South Dakota that does not include St. Joseph.

St. Joseph has set up a toll-free phone number and is asking other former students who may have been victims to call so the school can get counseling for them.

The move could be risky for the school. Legal liability and the impact on donations for the privately funded school is "a great unknown," Smith said. "Do you want to sit quietly by and hope nothing happens, or do you confront the demon ahead of you?"

St. Joseph currently enrolls about 180 students in grades K-8. Forty high school students live at St. Joseph but attend school at Chamberlain High School.

"I find it frustrating and offensive that kind of behavior took place," Nagel said. "There is a sense of shock that this happened, and how do you address something that happened that long ago?"

The alleged abuser worked at St. Joseph for about 60 years, and the incident that came to light took place late in his tenure at the school.

The man, whom school officials decline to name, is still a priest and lives at the Sacred Heart's retirement home in Franklin, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, Nagel said.

St. Joseph officials have not yet questioned the alleged perpetrator. At this point, "We don't really have much contact with him," Smith said.

Mary Gorski, communications director for the Priests of the Sacred Heart in Wisconsin, said the man is not being kept unavailable.

School officials are driving the investigation, and "we need to let the process take place at the St. Joseph Indian School," Gorski said. "We will back up whatever that process ends up being. They are people closest to the situation."

Gorski said the man accused at St. Joseph has worked at the retirement home for about 15 years.

She did not know if he had worked at schools other than St. Joseph. At the retirement home, "He helps with doctors' appointments, things of that nature. It's a support role."

St. Joseph officials have alerted the Catholic dioceses in Rapid City and Sioux Falls to the sexual abuse allegation and have asked for access to diocesan counselors, including Catholic Family Services in Sioux Falls.

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