SD court upholds dismissal of school abuse lawsuitPIERRE (AP) — The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled Thursday that nearly 20 former students who allege they were sexually abused decades ago at an American Indian boarding school cannot continue their lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls and the religious organizations that ran the school.
By: Chet Brokaw, The Associated Press
PIERRE (AP) — The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled Thursday that nearly 20 former students who allege they were sexually abused decades ago at an American Indian boarding school cannot continue their lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls and the religious organizations that ran the school.
In two rulings, the high court upheld a trial judge's decision to dismiss the lawsuits against the diocese and several groups that ran St. Paul's School in Marty at the time of the alleged abuse more than 35 years ago.
The Supreme Court said the students waited too long to sue Blue Cloud Abbey of northeastern South Dakota, Pennsylvania-based Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament of Marty, which ran the school and provided priests, nuns and others to work there.
The justices also said the students cannot sue the diocese because it did not operate or control the school and it was not acting as custodians of the school's students.
Lawyers for the students and the religious organizations did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Thursday.
The legal fight started in 2003, when former students at St. Paul's School and another Indian boarding school in South Dakota filed a federal lawsuit seeking $25 billion in damages from the federal government for the alleged mental, physical and sexual abuse of students at the schools.
After the federal lawsuit was dismissed, the former students filed lawsuits in state court alleging that the religious organizations that ran the schools failed to protect students and were negligent in hiring, retaining and supervising staff.
St. Paul's School was founded in 1922 by religious organizations, but ownership and control were transferred to the Yankton Sioux Tribe in 1975.
At issue in the case was a state law that requires a lawsuit seeking damages for childhood sexual abuse to be filed within three years of the alleged abuse or within three years of the time the victim discovered or should have discovered that an injury was caused by the abuse. The students argued that they should get an extended time to file their lawsuits because they did not discover until much later that their injuries were caused by the alleged abuse.
However, the Supreme Court said the law giving extra time to file such lawsuits only applies in lawsuits against those who engaged in intentional conduct or actually committed the abuse. The former students' lawsuits do not claim any intentional conduct by the religious organizations that ran the school, and there is no evidence that the organizations engaged in criminal conduct, the justices said.
Another law gives victims of childhood sexual abuse until they turn 19 to file such lawsuits, but none of the lawsuits was filed in state court until 2004, long after the youngest former student turned 19 in 1981, Justice Steven Zinter wrote for the court.
"Therefore, none of the students commenced his or cause of action until more than twenty years after the time for filing suit had expired," Zinter wrote.
The lawsuits also argued that the Catholic Diocese could be held liable because the abuse was committed in the scope of employment by priests, nuns and others at the school. But the Supreme Court said the alleged sex abuse was outside the scope of employment and was not committed in pursuit of any diocese business.
The students also contended the diocese should be liable because it exercised control over the school, its employees and the religious organizations that operated it, but the Supreme Court said there is no evidence that the diocese was controlling the school's operation or that the religious organizations were running the school for the diocese.
The high court also rejected the students' argument that the diocese could be sued because it failed to protect students at the school.
"The students identified no facts indicating that the Diocese — as opposed to the priests, monks, nuns, entity defendants, and the school — was acting as the custodian or parent of the students while they attended school," Zinter wrote for the court.