By Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle 

Sioux Falls, SD (January 29, 2021)Legislation to address the molestation, rape, and torture of nine Native American sisters by priests, nuns, and church staff running an Indian boarding school is once again introduced this legislative session to South Dakota lawmakers.

The South Dakota legislature will be tasked to consider two bills. HB 1178 will eliminate the statute of limitations for bringing a civil action for child sexual abuse, and HB 1181 will introduce a “Look-back Window”.

A statute of limitations is a law that forbids prosecutors from charging someone with a crime that was committed more than a specified number of years ago. A look-back window establishes a short time period within which victims may file a claim regardless of existing statute of limitations.

For over a decade, the Charbonneau sisters have been bringing to light childhood sexual abuse that occurred in Indian boarding schools during a dark time known as the “Indian Termination Era”. Like many indigenous children in the 1950s and 60s, the nine siblings, who are members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, attended a church-run Indian boarding school hundreds of miles from their families and ancestral homelands. The Indian boarding school “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” policy of forced assimilation was used to “civilize” Indian children, to devastating results.

Sexual abuse was prevalent in these boarding schools, which until recently, have been brought to light because of survivors like the Charbonneau sisters speaking out about the many forces of abuse they endured. Native American victims describe a pervasive culture of physical, mental, spiritual, and sexual abuse at the schools.

The Charbonneau sisters, known as the “9 Little Girls”, attended St. Paul’s Catholic Church boarding school in Marty, South Dakota on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. While there, they allege being groped, raped, and molested by clergy. One sister agonizingly shared being raped by a priest, becoming pregnant, and having a forced abortion performed by nuns who incinerated the baby.

The 9 Little Girls are not alone. Between 2004 and 2010, over a dozen Native American sexual abuse victims filed lawsuits against Catholic dioceses and church authorities for sexual abuse they suffered while attending boarding schools. The diocese maintained it was not responsible for what happened at the Catholic-run schools such as St. Paul’s.

In 2010, then-Governor Mike Rounds signed a last-minute law that changed the statute of limitations restricting the ability of any victim aged 40 or older to file civil lawsuits against those responsible for their abuse. Most victims of sexual abuse miss the statute of limitations because trauma affects them in a way that causes them to delay disclosure of their abuse until they are older. Studies show the average age child sex abuse victims disclose abuse is 52.

The law signed by Gov. Rounds limited the legal recourse for victims of abuse that occurred at the schools during the period of time when they were operated by the church.

Then in 2011, South Dakota Supreme Court in Bernie v. Blue Cloud Abbey held that the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse did not apply in these cases and a more restrictive statute of limitations of three years from the time the abuse occurred was applied. The ruling effectively stopped all Indian boarding school survivors of abuse from pursuing their claims.

The Charbonneau sisters return each year to Pierre hoping to undo the 2010 law and to create a look-back window. Sadly, Louise Aamot Charbonneau passed away last year, three weeks before the siblings were to travel to Pierre to confront lawmakers with their gut-wrenching testimonies of sexual abuse. At the hearing one of the sisters, Geraldine Dubourt, told legislators, “We fought so far, but I feel Creator took her home so she didn’t have to come here again, so she didn’t have to be raped all over again by your ‘No’ vote.”

And as they have since 2012, legislators voted down removing the bill. South Dakota is the only state since 2002 to put restrictions on the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases.

Nationwide reform of child sexual abuse laws
Across the United States, lawmakers and elected officials are leading the way to reform laws regarding child sexual abuse. In August 2020, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation extending the look-back window for victims to file claims under the Child Victims Act, regardless of when or how long ago the alleged abuse occurred. Since going into effect last year, the Child Victims Act has provided an avenue for justice for thousands of survivors.

In 2019, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey extended the amount of time victims have to take civil action against perpetrators of child abuse from two years to 12 years, allowing victims to pursue justice up to the age of 30. The bill also allowed victims who did not have the opportunity to take civil action for their abuse due to the previous two-year limit to bring a claim against their perpetrator until December 31, 2020. In addition, the bill allows civil action to be taken against an organization that knew or had notice of the sexual conduct. The bill’s provisions allow victims of child sexual abuse to seek justice and receive relief from a perpetrator.

Time to right a wrong
As victims of childhood sexual abuse come forward across the country, 15 states have moved to extend or suspend the time frames for childhood sexual abuse lawsuits to allow claims that stretch back decades. South Dakota has done the opposite.

The two bills that are introduced to the South Dakota Legislature this session by Democratic leaders will need bipartisan support. South Dakota leaders have the voting power that will enable victims to pursue justice rather than use that power to put obstacles in their path. The sexual victimization of the Charbonneau sisters is not a unique case – untold numbers of individuals have suffered and survived child sexual abuse.

The South Dakota Democratic Party acknowledges historical and intergenerational trauma. The children of the Indian Boarding School Era are now our elders. Many of these survivors have passed on without ever getting the opportunity for justice and to stop the pedophiles they knew were likely to abuse others. Their collective suffering can end with your collective vote. Eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, now.

Please direct questions to SDDP Executive Director Pam Cole via email pam@sddp.org
or phone (605) 271-5405.