Tim Giago: South Dakota law aimed at Indian abuse victims

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2012 Unity South Dakota

Representative Steve Hickey (R-Sioux Falls) introduced a bill to repeal a bill that was passed last year that set a statute of limitation for child sex abuse civil suits.

House Bill 1104 was slipped quietly through the state legislature last year even drawing the support of the Representative from the Pine Ridge Reservation, Jim Bradford. The bill limited the time to file civil suits to three years from the time a victim was abused or three years from the time a victim reasonably discovered they were harmed by the abuse. The bill also read that those that had not reached the age of 40 could still file a suit.

Since nearly all of those involved in lawsuits against the Catholic Church for child sexual abuse are far past the age of 40 and nearly all of them are Native Americans, House Bill 1104 was clearly one of most discriminatory bills ever introduced and passed by the South Dakota State legislators. But here is the clincher as explained by Rep. Hickey. “In 2010 an attorney for a Catholic Church who is presently litigating cases for the Church in our state drafted Bill 1104 to place an arbitrary and discriminatory statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse civil litigation. The bill was not circulated for co-sponsors and no opponent testimony. Those affected by it did not know about it until it passed. The fact that it was drafted by a church attorney so it would shelter his client; those details were not mentioned on the House or Senate floor.”

“I would suggest that the way that House Bill 1104 came to this body in 2010 re-enforces a church cover-up of abuses which has been extensively documented in our state and throughout the world,” Hickey said.

Bill 1104 was retroactive so that dozens of suits filed by Native Americans were automatically thrown out. Attorney Marci Hamilton put it this way, “In part this bill, House Bill 1218 (the bill to repeal 1104) is needed because of the unfortunate House Bill 1104 that passed in 2010, targeted Native American victims of priests within the Roman Catholic Church and I think it opens South Dakota to liability for having violated the U. S. Constitution based on race.”

Isadore Zephier, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, was there to give testimony. He said, “I am a survivor and I went through a lot of suffering when I was seven year old until I was 10 years old. Since there isn’t much time left, I just want to give you something for you to understand where I am coming from. If all of you can imagine yourself being forced to perform oral copulation on a priest for three or four years, constantly, then I hope that will help you understand. To make this law for the victims is all I ask.”

So far the state legislators appear to be on the fence. The first time around the bill to repeal HB 1104, failed, but it may be brought up again. In other words HB 1218 still has life, but it needs the support of more legislators.

It is hard for most Native Americans to understand why a bill aimed solely at them is not considered discriminatory. There is little doubt that sexual abuse of Indian children took place within the confines of the Catholic Indian boarding schools in South Dakota. St. Joseph’s Boarding School in Chamberlain, South Dakota was one of the most notorious and it is the attorney for this school, who also happens to be a state legislator, who introduced HB 1104 in the first place. But stepping upon the civil rights of Indians that have been abused is going about it in the wrong way.

The U. S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, is monitoring the actions of the South Dakota legislative body and if violations of the civil rights of Native Americans are perceived, the state may be open to injunctory relief and monetary damages.

Rep. Hickey said, “For as little as $1,000 premium a year liability insurance can be obtained to protect an institution form the expense of litigation. They do not need laws skewed in their favor. It is understandable that institutions opposing this today are in a self-protection mode doing everything possible to avoid exposure, scandal and accountability.”

It is a crying shame that South Dakota legislators should put a law in place that would protect the Catholic Church from lawsuits filed by so many Native Americans who have suffered all of these years from the sexual abuse heaped upon them by a clergy that held them in near inescapable institutions. The children were in the boarding schools under the complete control of the priests and nuns charged with their protection.

Lives were damaged nearly irreparably and someone has to assume the responsibility for these atrocities. Wake up South Dakota; and please do not add to the harm already done.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net

More from Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: Indians as mascots for America's fun and games (2/13)
Tim Giago: Cobell settlement just another government rip-off (2/6)
Tim Giago: Rosebud constitution should be 'law of the land' (1/30)
Tim Giago: Reservation among poorest counties in America (1/23)
Tim Giago: Alcohol is a red flag that has been waving too long (1/16)
Tim Giago: The new year brings time for a couple of apologies (1/9)
Tim Giago: Wounded Knee a day of infamy for Lakota people (12/29)
Tim Giago: He overheard daughter's prayer on Christmas Eve (12/19)

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