Stephanie Woodard Writer, Human Rights
South Dakota Sex Abuse Scandal: A Peek Inside the Church’s Drawers
by Stephanie Woodard Writer, Human RightsPosted: 04/19/11
The letters are casual, even chatty, from officials of St. Francis Mission, on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota, to Catholic Church superiors. The mission ran one of many boarding schools to which Native American parents were required to send their children from the late 1800s until the 1970s, when most of the institutions were closed down or transferred to tribal control.
“All goes along quietly out here,” one priest wrote in 1968, with “good religious and lay faculty” at the mission. There are troublesome staffers, though, including “Chappy,” who is “fooling around with little girls — he had them down the basement of our building in the dark, where we found a pair of panties torn.” Later that year, Brother Francis Chapman was still abusing children, though by 1970, he was “a new man,” the reports say. In 1973, Chappy again “has difficulty with little girls.”
Some documents are more discreet than explicit. In 1967, two nuns at St. Paul’s Indian Mission, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, also in South Dakota, had excessive “interest in” and “dealings with” older male students, says a report to Church higher-ups. (St. Paul’s, pictured below, was renamed Marty Indian School when the tribe took it over in 1975; 2008 graduation tipis are shown in the foreground.) Another nun has “too close a circle of friends, especially two boys.”
What ex-students describe as rampant sexual abuse in South Dakota’s half-dozen boarding schools occurred against a backdrop of extreme violence. “I’ll never forget my sister’s screams as the nuns beat her with a shovel after a pair of scissors went missing,” said Mary Jane Wanna Drum, 64, who attended a Catholic institution in Sisseton, South Dakota, for the children of her tribe, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.
Izzy Zephier, 62, a Yankton Sioux tribal member, recalled a Sunday-evening ritual at St. Paul’s Indian Mission. “Those who’d tried to run away were stripped, lined up, and given 40 lashes each with a thick rubber strap,” he said.
Zephier described a prison-like daily routine. “We were marched along barbed-wire-lined sidewalks from locked dorms to locked classrooms and back again; in grade school, we went outdoors within a barbed-wire-topped pen.” The church building at St. Paul’s had its own crown of thorns in those days; it, too, was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, lest worshippers made a run for it.
Rather than offering the children protection, the Church typically demanded secrecy, with clergy telling youngsters they’d be punished or go to hell if they told anyone what had happened to them, said several former students, male and female. The Church appears to have kept close track of these activities, though. “Every bishop has two sets of files – the public ones and the secret ones chronicling the abuse,” said Joelle Casteix, western regional director of Chicago-headquartered support group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “The Church knows what happened when, and it all comes out in court.”
South Dakota’s Hail Mary Play
Starting in 2003, Native Americans in South Dakota, including Zephier and Drum, began filing lawsuits against the Catholic Dioceses of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, as well as the religious orders that ran the schools. The Native plaintiffs came forward in small groups, then ever-larger ones, claiming rape, sodomy, and molestation by priests, nuns, and others. By mid-2010, the number of plaintiffs topped 100, including six who said they were victims of Brother Francis Chapman, who is now deceased. More than 65 other pedophile clerics and Church employees were named, including the late Father Francis Suttmiller, accused by Zephier and more than a dozen other men and women who were St. Paul’s students.
The lawsuits resulted in the disclosure of Church documents (now public court documents, including those quoted above) that detail the abuse and describe transfers of predators, not all of whom are dead. After complaints about one brother surfaced in South Dakota, he was off to Washington, D.C., where he was convicted of sodomizing young boys there, his recent court testimony shows. Another priest who’s still with us, Father Bruce MacArthur, was transferred out of South Dakota, only to embark on a multi-state, multi-parish spree of sexual assaults of children and the disabled, for which he was convicted and imprisoned in the 1970s and again in 2008.
In March, a South Dakota court dismissed 18 of the Native American lawsuits. The judge’s opinion cited a 2010 South Dakota law limiting civil actions for childhood sexual abuse after the victim turns 40. The Native plaintiffs are older than that, and one of their lawyers, Gregory A. Yates, of Rapid City, South Dakota, and Los Angeles, charged that their cases had been targeted by the legislature. He asked the judge to reconsider his unusual retroactive ruling (applying a new statute to pre-existing cases).
On April 1, the judge refused to do so. The Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, a defendant in the dismissed suits, did not respond to phone calls requesting a comment. Teresa Kettelkamp, who heads the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops child protection division, said the Church offers healing to sexual-abuse victims, but that civil and criminal matters are in an entirely different sphere.
Said Zephier, whose suit was thrown out: “The statute and the judge’s decision are insulting. They say the justice system does not protect Native people and does not care that terrible things happened to Native children.” Commenting on the section of Pope Benedict’s letter to the Church in Ireland, in which the pope favorably compared sex-abuse injuries to Christ’s wounds, Zephier asked, “Did Christ’s wounds include sodomy?”
SNAP director David G. Clohessy observed that South Dakota’s new law swims against the tide of childhood-sexual-abuse prosecutions: “Most states are making it easier to expose predators. South Dakota is the only one making it harder.”
Attorney Steven Smith, of Chamberlain, South Dakota, defended the 2010 law, which he wrote and submitted it as a “constituent bill.” He said plaintiffs are unfairly “trying to grab the brass ring, seeing someone else grab the brass ring, thinking that’s your ticket out of squalor.”
Smith’s client Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart is the defendant in a dozen boarding-school cases, including one involving the convicted sodomite. When speaking to the legislature in support of his bill, Smith described childhood-related cases as hard for the Church to defend against because “few people can remember what happened or didn’t happen.”
When asked about repentance on the part of the Church, Smith responded, “We aren’t going to throw money [sic] just because of this purported healing process the Church has to go through.”
Rolling Back the Stone
Native parents faced severe penalties, including jail time, if they did not send their children to the boarding schools. However, Zephier said, as a young teen he came upon an unexpected escape route: “School had just let out for the day, and I realized I’d forgotten a couple of books. I ran back into the building, where I found that a priest had a girl on the floor. She was fighting and screaming, ‘let me go.’ When the priest saw me, he got up and backhanded me hard. I hit him back and yelled to the girl, ‘run, get out of here!’ I hit the priest five times and knocked him down. The girl took off. The next day, I was expelled.”
He and other ex-students reported reaffirming their traditional spirituality upon leaving school. Drum participates in traditional ceremonies but has not entirely rejected Christianity. “I still walk with the Lord,” she said, “but I cannot even shake hands with a priest.”
Photograph by Stephanie Woodard. Upcoming posts in this series will relate survivors’ stories.
South Dakota Church-Abuse Chronicles, ‘I Want Everyone To Know What Happened To Us’
by Stephanie Woodard Writer, Human Rights Posted: 04/27/11
Catholic Church , Human Rights , Native Americans , Roman Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal , South Dakota , Native American Boarding Schools , Nuns , Pedophile Priest , Priest Sex Abuse , Religion News , Sioux , Sioux Reservations , Religion News
From the late 1800s until well into the 20th century, the federal government compelled Native parents nationwide to send their children to boarding schools designed to assimilate them. Many of the institutions were run by the Catholic Church, which the government paid to “kill the Indian, save the man,” in the parlance of the day. To date, more than 100 ex-students of the half-dozen boarding schools in South Dakota have sued the Catholic Dioceses of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, as well as the religious orders that ran the institutions, charging that priests, nuns, and lay employees raped, sodomized, molested, and brutalized them. For more on the lawsuits, see this post.
Here is one woman’s story; her case is still pending:
A 64-year-old member of the Dakota tribe Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, she was taken from her family as an infant and placed in Tekakwitha Orphanage, a Catholic-run institution established in Sisseton, South Dakota, for the children of her people. Few youngsters there were orphans but had been, like her, removed from their families.
“All I remember about life in the first building I was in at Tekakwitha – the Papoose House for babies — was being hungry and a punishment that consisted of being placed in a dark crawl space of some sort. Other than that, I was generally alone in my crib or bed.
“When I was 6, they moved me to the main building to start school. The nuns there would take us to their private quarters and do things to our bodies that even at that young age I knew were not right. The next year, a boy who was 17 or 18 raped me. He said if I told, he’d bring other boys and they’d all rape me. I was so frightened, I never said anything to anyone.
“When I was 8 or 9, Father Pohlen, the priest in charge, placed me with a family in Michigan. I understood it was a tryout for being adopted by them. There were boys in the family, and they and the men would partake of sex with me. I have a memory of being told to go get Vaseline, then returning to the room to find them waiting for me. This lasted for a summer.
“I didn’t know where to turn or who to tell. Father Pohlen had placed me there, so I couldn’t say anything to him, and the nuns were so cold. They didn’t care about our feelings or our mental state and showed us no affection. They wanted our souls and to teach us to fear God. Sometimes they’d whip us — holding us with the left hand while using the right to beat us with a rubber hose.
“None of the adults in my life ever noticed anything about me — whether I’d sustained injuries and bruises because of the rapes or mistreatment or if I was afraid. I did have siblings at the school, but because I’d been taken so young and because the school had changed both my given and my family name, we never knew each other then.
“When I was about 10, Father Pohlen placed me with a dentist from Puerto Rico, who wanted to teach me Spanish so I could speak it once he and his wife adopted me and took me to live there. He raped me and said he wanted to continue his ‘affair’ with me — though I mustn’t tell his wife. After several weeks, I was returned to the orphanage. Again, I never said anything to Father Pohlen or the nuns other than that I didn’t want to learn Spanish or live with that man. I’d learned by then that to protect myself I shouldn’t say much.
“We did have good times. At Christmas, we each received a shoebox full of nuts and candy and oranges and another box with trinkets and a doll. Most of us girls immediately traded the dolls for food. We did that because the mother superior used to force us to simulate sex with a large doll before abusing us herself, so we were frightened of dolls. Can you imagine putting the fear of dolls into a child’s mind?
“Tekakwitha went just through junior high, and I was later sent to a boarding school in Nebraska. It had the same physical violence, though no sexual abuse. I was always trying to escape. We all did. We weren’t trying to get home because we didn’t know where that was. We were completely disoriented. We just took off and took our chances in the world, hitchhiking down the road. Then they’d find us and bring us back.
“As an adult, I’ve been a traveler. I’ve lived in 14 states, mostly waitressing because it’s a job you can get quickly. I’d always move on, though. I think I was searching for family. I eventually had three children, who were taken from me or I gave up. I don’t know where my boys are, though I keep in touch with my girl. Now, I’m back living on my reservation, which sometimes feels like a foreign country, though I’m related to half the people here.
“What I want is to talk about Tekakwitha. They took away our sense of belonging to anyone, our opportunities to develop relationships. They kept us constantly off balance by sending us here and there without warning.
“But they could never take away the truth — that what they were doing was wrong. I want everyone to know what happened to us there.”
‘From Day One It Was a Holocaust’: South Dakota Church-Abuse Memories
by Stephanie Woodard Writer, Human Rights Posted: 05/23/11
From the late 1800s until well into the 20th century, the federal government compelled Native parents nationwide to send their children to boarding schools designed to assimilate them. Many of the institutions were run by the Catholic Church, which the government paid to “kill the Indian, save the man,” in the parlance of the day. To date, more than 100 ex-students of the half-dozen boarding schools in South Dakota have sued the Catholic Dioceses of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, as well as the religious orders that ran the institutions, charging that priests, nuns, and lay employees raped, sodomized, molested, and brutalized them. For more on the lawsuits, click here.
Here is one plaintiff’s story; her case has been dismissed, and she is seeking to have it reinstated:
An Ihanktonwan Dakota, she attended St. Paul’s Indian Mission, in Marty, South Dakota, during the 1960s. Though the school (shuttered buildings, shown below) was in her community, the Yankton Sioux Reservation, the tribe’s children were required to board there during the school year. The institution was renamed Marty Indian School when it came under tribal control in 1975.
“I’m 56, and I remember the first day of first grade as if it were yesterday. The nun told us children they’d teach us to read and write and that they’d civilize us because we were heathens, pagans, savages, and the devil’s spawn. They’d teach us that God is love.
“From day one, it was a holocaust. They took our identity away. They cut our hair and took our clothes and mixed them all up in big bureaus, so kids right away started fighting over clothes as they hurried to get dressed in the morning. They also kept a daily list of those who’d spoken even a few words of our language, and every night they lined them up, pulled down their panties, and whipped them. We were not fluent in English, so most of us were whipped nightly. I often had two whippings because I would volunteer to take my sister’s. “When I was in first grade, I came upon a kind of museum in the basement of the building, where they kept lots of our people’s things — pipe bags, war bonnets and a pile of buffalo robes, like a bed. I’d sneak in to look at the things, until one day I discovered that the pile of robes was where they brought boys to rape them. I was so shocked by what I saw and still am to this day.
“In my early years, the priest, Father Francis, would come to the little girls’ dorm with candy in his pockets. He’d sit in a chair, and girls would run to him and ask for sweets. They’d climb on his lap, and he’d tickle them and make them laugh. I’d known great kindness and affection from my father, but this seemed different, so I watched. Finally, in third grade, I decided I wanted to play, too, and found out he was fondling the girls under their skirts. After that, I stayed away from him.
“Breakfast was oatmeal, and other meals were bean soup and a slice of bread. One day, a friend and I discovered that one window’s chain-link covering [shown left] was loose, so we snuck out and went into the nuns’ and priests’ dining room. There were tablecloths and flowers and fresh fruit. We looked in their fridge and saw pies and cakes. We saw pans of rolls and stole some and ran into a field, where we ate three. We couldn’t eat any more, so we hid the rest in the dorm. But you could smell them, so we were caught and whipped.
“When we went home for summer vacation, we never talked about the abuse. I once asked my father, ‘Why do I have to go?’ And he said, ‘Because they’ll put us in jail if you don’t.’ He told me to do what they said, but that I didn’t have to believe them. He also advised me to befriend any child who looked scared or alone, so I helped a Cree friend from a Montana reservation meet her brother secretly. I’d watch out while they cried and hugged and spoke their language.
“My father also told me that my grandfather had helped arrange for a priest to come to our reservation and open that school so that none of the children here would suffer the fate of his generation: to be stolen when as young as two-years-old and shipped in cattle trucks to boarding schools on the East and West coasts. They thought having a school here would be better. Their intentions were good.
“My family went to our ceremonies during the summer, though we had to be very careful because they were outlawed until 1978. The fear was so strong. My mother’s grandfather, a medicine man who’d refused to give up our ways, had been committed to an asylum in Canton, South Dakota, where they castrated him, among other horrible things. My dad’s dad was one of the few committed there who was ever released. He came home to die.
“Recently, I’ve looked for classmates. A lot have died, some through suicide; others became alcoholics. Many have not had happy lives. Every story I heard reinforced the last one.
“As for me, I have children and grandchildren, and I sew and bead and go to ceremonies. I don’t pay attention to anything else. I like it when I’m called a heathen. I can laugh at it now. The Church is all an ugly joke.”
Photographs by Roderica J. Rouse; used with permission. For another survivor’s story, click here.
Native American Sex-Abuse Lawsuits Head for a Higher Court
by Stephanie Woodard Writer, Human Rights Posted: 06/09/11
The South Dakota Supreme Court will hear childhood-sexual-abuse lawsuits brought by 18 former students of St. Paul’s Indian Mission, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, in Marty, South Dakota. St. Paul’s (in photos on this page) was one of a half-dozen Catholic boarding schools statewide for Native children, and the alleged crimes, including rape, sodomy, and molestation, occurred there before 1975, when the institution was transferred to the tribe and renamed Marty Indian School.
In March, Circuit Court Judge Bradley Zell dismissed the cases, kicking off the appeal. In throwing out the suits, Zell decided a 2010 amendment to South Dakota childhood-sexual-abuse law — HB 1104 — should be applied to lawsuits that were filed before its existence, as these were.
Under HB 1104, plaintiffs over age 40 may collect damages only from individual perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse; they may not collect damages from entities such as the Catholic Church or the religious orders that hired and/or supervised the alleged perpetrators. (Younger plaintiffs may continue to sue and obtain damages from both organizations and individuals.)
Since the Native plaintiffs in these cases — and additional ones against other Church boarding schools — are over 40, and many of the individual perpetrators are dead, some say the legislature’s action and Zell’s decision targeted them. “In conversations I’ve had, people feel the 2010 amendment was designed both to make things difficult for Native plaintiffs and to help the Church,” said Robert Brancato, a certified fraud examiner who heads the Rapid City chapter of the national support group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Brancato also criticized the judge’s decision to project the law backward in time, calling it a violation of due process: “I’m looking at the bill right now, and I don’t see anything about it being retroactive.”
Zell disagreed, saying the situation was “convoluted” and that his decision was based on a 1997 South Dakota Supreme Court ruling that made retroactive a 1991 expansion of opportunities to bring sexual-abuse claims in the state. Following that logic, Zell said, the latest change to the law would be retroactive, too.
On the other hand, said plaintiff’s attorney Rebecca Rhoades, of Manly & Stewart, in Newport Beach California, South Dakota’s legal code says that no law “shall be construed as retroactive unless such intention plainly appears.”
“It’s a quandary,” said Zell. “The Supreme Court will decide, and if they send the cases back, hopefully they’ll provide guidance.” He didn’t expect a decision for at least six months.
Rhoades said she is hopeful about the Supreme Court’s decision, but that if it doesn’t go her clients’ way, this is not the end of the line: “There are other options. They will get their day in court.”
How the statute came to be
Brancato noted that HB 1104 “flew through the legislature” — quickly and quietly. Steven Smith of Chamberlain, a lawyer for Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart, wrote it and submitted it as a “constituent bill.” Representative Thomas Deadrick (R.-Platte) sponsored it, and Smith was the only witness. In supporting it, one lawmaker announced that it “gets Mr. Smith where he wants to be.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney John Manly, of Manly & Stewart, was blunt in his assessment: “The South Dakota legislators are on record as passing this bill to get rid of hard-to-defend Native cases.”
For his part, Brancato denounced the lack of testimony from victims, victims’ advocates, or experts on childhood sexual abuse.
Senator Nancy Turbak Berry (D.-Watertown), who opposed the 2010 amendment, explained how that happens in the South Dakota legislature. The group considers hundreds of bills during its annual 38-day session, she said, and lawmakers commonly see them for the first time shortly before they’re introduced. Indeed, a note on the legislature’s 2011 calendar announces: “Bills must be turned in at the front desk at least two hours prior to the start of the daily session.”
“It’s a citizen legislature,” said Turbak Berry, “and we don’t have offices, much less staffs — just a desk on the floor. If a bill hasn’t had much attention, you’re not aware of it until it appears on your desk, and at that point it’s nearly impossible to marshall more witnesses.”
Smith, who told the Argus Leader in March 2010, “nobody knew I was doing this,” appears to have had good reason to write the statute. His client Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart, which runs St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, is the defendant in numerous sex-abuse cases. Though Smith has claimed that the suits are difficult to defend because most of the perpetrators are dead, his cases involve accusations against former St. Joseph’s staffers, who are very much alive.
One alleged abuser is John Donadio, who court documents show lied about his identity multiple times to avoid providing a deposition in November 2008. Another is Brother Matthew Miles, who testified in March 2008 that he was convicted of sodomizing young boys in Washington, D.C., and spent nearly 20 years in a 12-step program, Sex Addicts Anonymous. Court documents include a letter Brother Miles sent to a St. Joseph’s student as part of the SAA process, apologizing for abusing him.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has just been cited in Amnesty International’s 2011 annual report on human rights violations for continuing worldwide failure to protect children from abuse. This hurts the Church as well as the victims, said the Rev. Dr. Robert Hoatson, a Catholic priest who co-founded Road to Recovery and the National Survivor Advocates Coalition: “The Church says it’s trying to clean up this mess. No, it’s not, and the Catholic Church will not survive unless it has the moral fortitude to say it did something wrong.”
The Church should take a cue from Jesus, according to Hoatson: “Jesus said [in the Parable of the Lost Sheep] that if you have 100 sheep and lose one, leave the 99, and go after the one. I say that if the Church has to close down as a result of taking care of every last survivor of priest abuse, so be it.”
Izzy Zephier, a Yankton plaintiff whose case is headed for the Supreme Court, recalled another of Jesus’ teachings, found in several gospels, about anyone who harms a child: “He deserves a yoke to be tied about his neck and to be cast into the sea.” Zephier asked the judges to remember that we all someday face judgment: “If you believe in God, you know He is watching. Each of us eventually stands before Him and answers for what we have done.”
Presumed Guilty: Group Seeks to Exonerate Four Yankton Sioux Men
Stephanie Woodard Writer, Human Rights Posted: 06/28/11 09:00 AM ET
The National Center for Reason and Justice, which has mounted successful campaigns to exonerate those falsely accused of sex crimes against children, has taken on the cases of four Yankton Sioux men. Brothers Jesse and Desmond Rouse and their cousins Garfield Feather and Russell Hubbeling were convicted in federal court in 1994 of abusing five nieces who were aged 20 months to 7 years at the time. A fifth co-defendant was acquitted.
“The four men were each sentenced to as many as 33 years in prison on the basis of coerced testimony of young children,” said NCRJ executive director Robert Chatelle. He also pointed to evidence crucial to the defense that the judge did not allow the jury to hear, defense lawyers’ errors, and the alleged victims’ repeated recantations, beginning shortly after the trial.
Roderica Rouse, mother of an alleged victim and sister of Jesse (right) and Desmond Rouse said she was thrilled NCRJ had gotten involved. “After all these years!” she exclaimed. “It’s just great. I know my brothers and cousins are innocent, and my mother went to her grave believing that.”
NCRJ’s next steps, said Chatelle, include fundraising, assembling a legal team, and possibly creating a website to inform the public of the men’s situation. NCRJ is working with advocate Anna James to coordinate legal efforts and has applied for support from the Yankton Sioux Tribe, in South Dakota, and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, in Minnesota.
Allegations of bias
Chatelle also described the trial as tainted by racism. After reports of jurors mocking Native Americans, the trial judge held a hearing on the issue. During it, one juror admitted to laughing at another’s comments about Native people and relating to co-workers that she’d heard Native American men had sex with young girls as part of their culture — the type of statements that had previously been enough to reverse a conviction.
When the defendants appealed their convictions on that and other grounds, one of three federal judges hearing the matter called the evidence of bias “a matter of grave concern.” The court granted the four a retrial, with two judges voting for a new trial and one against.
“Here four Native Americans placed their liberties in the hands of all whites: prosecutors, defense counsel, judge and jury,” wrote Judge Myron H. Bright in his 1996 majority opinion. “The law requires that they receive a fair trial without the impact of racial bias.”
In the 1996 minority opinion, Judge James B. Loken called the trial careful, fair, and impartial and took exception to Bright’s criticism of government officials, particularly the trial judge, Lawrence L. Piersol. “That I cannot abide,” Loken wrote. Subsequently, the U.S. Attorney’s Office appealed the decision to grant a retrial, and the court reversed itself in 1997.
Said Garfield Feather (above): “To this day, I wake up and can’t believe I’m still sitting in prison for a crime that never happened. I actually believed that the courtroom was a true and just system. What a joke that turned out to be.”
Desmond Rouse (right) said, “We went to trial because we believed in the system….We trusted our lives to these people.” Now he said, he and his relatives want “a real trial. We want a real jury of our peers, just like the Constitution says.”
The men’s travails began in January 1994, when squad cars arrived at the home of Jesse and Desmond’s mother, Rosemary Rouse, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. In a chaotic roundup, officers removed more than a dozen young children.
Bright’s opinion described the raid as apparently occurring “without any additional evidence or investigation” beyond a first-grader’s assertion to a counselor on the day before that she’d been abused. According to Bright, “squad cars pulled up and the children were physically removed while they cried and clung to their uncles’ and other adults’ legs.”
Bright’s description squares with Desmond Rouse’s: “The children were screaming and crying and hollering and grabbing onto us grown-ups and saying, ‘Don’t let them take us, Uncle,’ ‘Don’t let them take us, Auntie.’”
Some children tried to run away. As they were chased down, officers threatened adult relatives with arrest if they interfered. That night, no officials clarified the reason for their actions, according to Feather. He and the other men were arrested and charged in the succeeding days and weeks — “a total shock,” said Feather.
In the following months, according to Bright, the youngsters’ parents were told “their children would be taken away again if they talked to or cooperated with defense counsel.” After the trial, the parents were warned again.
“The defense attorneys told us that if we ever talked to our kids about what had happened, someone would take them so far away we’d never see them again,” said Roderica Rouse. “We were terrified.”
In taking the cases, NCRJ relied on the work of prominent investigator Martin Yant, author of Presumed Guilty: When Innocent People Are Wrongly Convicted. Yant called the trial “a judicial atrocity” and said aggressive questioning by frightening authority figures contaminated the Rouse youngsters’ memories before they got to the trial and made it impossible to ascertain the accuracy of their testimony.
The interrogators involved teams of adults, including BIA investigator Dan Hudspeth and FBI agent William Van Roe, who, according to Bright’s opinion, immediately identified themselves to the children as “like a policeman.”
In what Bright called “countless” sessions, as many as four adults at a time repeatedly showed the kids anatomical drawings of a penis, described specifically what “bad things” their uncles had done, “helped” them remember, gave them group “therapy” sessions in which they were encouraged to speak about sexual activity, offered picnics and vacations in return for “the truth”, and coached them so when they got to court they would answer “yes” to the prosecutor’s yes-no questions.
They also promised the kids what they wanted desperately — to go home to their mothers — if they testified as directed. Alleged victims claimed at the time (according to court documents) and recently (in videotapes they recorded) that at various points food, water, and bathroom breaks were withheld; they were given medication that put them to sleep and caused them to vomit; and they were held in frightening, isolated situations.
None of the sessions were audio- or video-taped, which was unusual, said defense consultant Hollida Wakefield, a forensic psychologist who specializes in interviews of children and observed the trial. “The scientific literature has established that interviews of children must be taped to determine whether leading questions were asked,” she said. “Studies also show that using anatomical drawings makes children’s testimony less accurate. That’s because the pictures and the interviewers’ questions all focus on the genitals and lead kids to believe that what they see in the picture actually happened.”
The U.S. Attorneys’ Office and Department of Social Services did not allow the defense to interview the child witnesses before the trial in order to prepare questions for them, according to the 1996 appeal. “When a child witness is in the legal custody of a social services agency, that agency as custodian may refuse requests for pretrial interviews,” opined Judge Loken in the 1997 decision not to have a retrial after all. Allowing such sessions could traumatize the children and “raise a barrier” for the prosecution, Loken wrote.
Feather disputed any potential hobbling of the prosecution, noting the “vast resources” at their disposal, in contrast to him and his indigent co-defendants. “What chance did we have at proving our innocence?” he asked.
Nine children who adamantly refused to say their uncles had abused them were sent home. Among the five who remained, Bright wrote, the descriptions of the purported abuse became increasingly bizarre, involving, for example, groups of youngsters tied up with ropes in a pantry that the evidence showed couldn’t accommodate one child, as well as “the tying up of practically every member of the household.” The five did not see their parents until just before the August 1994 trial, despite requests by the youngsters and their families, as well as a tribal court order. Some did not return home permanently for years.
According to Yant, the proliferation of ever-stranger allegations by aggressively questioned children — and the tendency of adults to believe them — is common in these situations, which he termed “sex-abuse hysteria.” In one well-known case, said Wakefield, child witnesses claimed abusers transported them via hot-air balloon to places where abuse took place, and the court believed them.
Said Chatelle: “It’s certainly natural to want to protect children, but anyone with any common sense would know such assertions are suspect.”
Burden of proof
According to Chatelle, the cases of Feather, Hubbeling, and the Rouse brothers display patterns NCRJ has seen before, including the burden of proof shifting — improperly — to the defendants. “They should be presumed innocent unless they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Chatelle said. “Instead, they are presumed guilty and must prove themselves innocent, which is far more difficult.”
As a result of his investigation, Yant concluded that all the mistakes, ambiguities, discrepancies, corrupted testimony, and biases that figured into the process add up to one thing — doubt. “And in our system, when you have doubt, you don’t have a conviction,” he said. “Bottom line? The whole thing was an abomination.”
Photographs courtesy of Anna James.