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Abuse uncovered at St. Joseph's Indian school

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CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. - Sexual abuse by a priest some 30 years ago has come to light at St. Joseph's Indian School.

Accusations waged by an unidentified former student against a former priest at the school are not part of a lawsuit, school officials said. The complaint remained internal for almost a year until the school and the religious order that operates the school went public with the information.

Knowledge of the alleged abuse was discovered after meetings with the accuser.

"With a deep sense of sadness, sorrow and an unwavering commitment to our moral, ethical and pastoral obligations we make this information public as a first step toward initiating efforts to promote healing to those who may have suffered," said Deacon David Nagel, president of the South Dakota contingent of the Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart.

The Priests of the Sacred Heart have set up a toll-free phone number (1-888-216-7961) and a Reconciliation Response Office to allow anyone who has experienced sexual abuse at St. Joseph's to call and receive information. The religious order stated that it will provide victims with counseling at the order's expense. All enquiries will be kept

strictly confidential.

"We are saddened by and apologize for the damage done so many years ago and through the Reconciliation Response Office we will offer help to all who were harmed," the Priests of the Sacred Heart said in a prepared statement.

School officials said they contacted the Sioux Falls and Rapid City dioceses and have engaged the services of Catholic Family Services for counseling services. Neither the Sioux Falls nor the Rapid City Diocese has control over the Priests of the Sacred Heart or St. Joseph 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 priest in question now resides at the order's retirement home in Franklin, Wis. where he works in the office and schedules appointments.

The alleged perpetrator has not been questioned by St. Joseph officials and he is not under wraps by the religious order, said Mary Gorski, director of communications for the Priests of the Sacred Heart.

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Gorski said the school officials were at the head of the investigation and the religious order would back up any decision that was made. She said the priest in question has worked at the retirement home for 15 years; he was at St. Joseph's School for six and a half years. There is a period of 12 or 13 years where the priest's whereabouts are unknown.

Gorski directed questions to the officials at St. Joseph's, but Mike Tyrrel, assistant executive director at St. Joseph's, said he was not privy to the priest's location during those years. No one knew why the priest was assigned to the order's retirement facility at its world headquarters.

The order has operated St. Joseph's School since 1927 after it organized missions in South Dakota on 1925 and now has a presence on three of the state's nine reservations. It has primarily served American Indian youth and families.

The Priests of the Sacred Heart has its main offices in Wisconsin. The order has 2,400 members worldwide and some 100 priests in South Dakota. Other reservations served by the order are the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. All are in close proximity to St. Joseph's School. The school began as a government boarding school in 1880 and in 1900 was closed. It reopened as a college then sold to the Priests of the Sacred Heart in 1927.

St. Joseph's officials met with parents and guardians of the students to assure them that there is no threat to students at this time.

Some 30 years ago, school officials agree, there were some rumors of sexual or physical abuse, but the rumors were determined to be unfounded.

There are 180 students in the K-8 grades at St. Joseph's School and 30 more in high school. Elementary students attend classes at the school's campus in Chamberlain and live in group homes supervised by house parents. The high school students attend school at Chamberlain Public High School.

St. Joseph's is accredited through the Council on Accreditation of Services and Families and Children.

There is a risk for reporting the sexual abuse incident, of which there could be more. First, St. Joseph's relies on private donations to keep the school solvent. No student pays tuition and most students come from families that live below the poverty level. Donations could be in jeopardy, school officials said. Also there is the possibility of legal liability.

This allegation is not connected with a class action suit filed in federal court against priests and nuns that owned and operated Marty Mission on the Yankton Sioux Reservation.

The St. Joseph's case is also not connected to the reporting of nearly 40 cases of abuse found within the Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese between the years 1950 and 1992.