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Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

May 28, 2019

Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, May 25

Give sexual abuse victims a path to justice

Two months ago, the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls released the names of 11 priests who faced substantiated accusations of abusing minors between 1958 and 1992 while serving in eastern South Dakota.

The action came on the crest of a recent wave of such disclosures by Catholic leaders across the country. It began in Pennsylvania last year, when a grand jury in that state accused several dioceses of attempting to cover up abuse by 300 former priests.

As such, the public statement from Sioux Falls Bishop Paul Swain seemed a step in the right direction. Swain apologized to victims “as a sign of my and our faith community’s accepting responsibility for failings over the years.”

He urged those who had suffered abuse at the hands of any of the 11 priests named in the statement to come forward, so that “assistance might be offered and justice accomplished.” He acknowledged that many victims “remain silent for fear they will not be believed.”

But Swain’s statement fell short of the level of disclosure from the Rapid City Diocese several weeks earlier. The Rapid City statement listed the assignments, including dates, of the priests with credible claims of abuse against them.

Matt Althoff, chancellor of the Sioux Falls Diocese, defended the absence of that kind of information. Swain’s letter was addressed to victims who “know where the abuse happened,” Althoff said. “Really it is out of a profound sensitivity for the deserved confidentiality of a victim of clergy sexual abuse that all those details, the bishop chose not to include in his letter.”

Priests who had been permanently assigned to the Rapid City Diocese were not the only names disclosed in the Rapid City statement. Also included on their list were credibly-accused members of the Jesuit religious order who had been assigned to missions and mission schools on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.

Despite a 2003 revelation by former Bishop Robert Carlson (now archbishop of St. Louis) of diocese records showing that five religious order priests had been accused of abuse going back to 1950, the Sioux Falls statement explicitly omitted those names.

For some Native American victims of sexual abuse in East River reservation boarding schools operated by Catholic religious orders such as the Benedictines, the omission adds insult to injury. It is, however, in line with the Sioux Falls Diocese’s stance during the course of lawsuits filed between 2004 and 2010 that it is not responsible for what happened at those schools.

Among the defendants in those suits were authorities in the Sioux Falls Diocese.

A late-session legislative action in 2010 stopped the cases in their tracks. Attorney Steve Smith, who had represented St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain in abuse cases, crafted a bill ultimately signed by former Gov. Mike Rounds that prohibits abuse victims over age 40 from suing churches, schools or other institutions their abuser was associated with. The South Dakota Supreme Court found that the new law retroactively invalidated the plaintiffs’ right to sue anyone other than the individuals who abused them.

The Pennsylvania grand jury finding appears to have been the catalyst for renewed efforts in states all around the U.S. to expand statues of limitations that hinder abuse victims in their search for justice. That makes sense in light of a 2014 German study involving more than a thousand subjects that found men and women were on average 52 years old when they first reported sexual abuse. Those results suggest South Dakota’s 40-year-old age limit on the ability to seek damages from institutions is too low.

Smith succeeded in his efforts to quash what he characterized as “frivolous class-action lawsuits” involving claims of abuse in South Dakota nearly a decade ago. According to Argus Leader reporting at the time, he acknowledged that the bill could block victims from recovering civil damages. Nonetheless, he saw out-of-state “con men” lawyers working to build reservation school abuse class-action lawsuits as the greater threat.

That bill’s trip through the legislative process shares a commonality with the “riot-boosting” law passed this year at Gov. Kristi Noem’s urging. Both were brought with negligible efforts to include the voices of those from Indian Country who were most affected. Smith admitted in 2010 that those who opposed his proposal had scant opportunity to organize against it —“Nobody knew I was doing this.”

He also conceded that the bill could potentially block victims of abuse from recovering civil damages, but that concern was trumped by his desire to block unfounded claims.

“I hate con men,” said Smith at the time, showing little faith in our judicial system’s ability to separate credible accusations of abuse from those that lack legitimacy.

The Catholic Church-run reservation boarding school victims have returned to Pierre every year since Smith’s triumph to try to overturn the law he crafted. Every year their pleas have gone unheeded. Perhaps the tide is finally turning in their favor. Perhaps state lawmakers will finally take the time to hear their voices and set the law into alignment with what is right.


Madison Daily Leader, Madison, May 24

Will new law stop the robocalls?

We’re grateful for Sen. John Thune’s leadership in introducing and shepherding a bill (called the TRACED Act) through the U.S. Senate that addresses the problem of robocalls.

These are automated telephone calls intended to sell a product, change opinion or gather information for another purpose. They have become an extraordinary irritant to anyone with a phone, and are the number one complaint received by the Federal Trade Commission.

Thune’s position as chairman on the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet gives him a front row seat to the problem. One alleged abuser of the technology, Adrian Abramovich, is accused of sending 97 million fraudulent robocalls between 2015-2016.

The TRACED Act passed the Senate on a vote of 97-1, which almost never happens in this divided time. Thune is hopeful the House will consider it without delay.

The bill increases the financial penalty to $10,000 per call, works toward creating a credible threat of criminal prosecution and prison, and makes it easier for carriers to lawfully block calls from reaching us in the first place.

So the big question (if passed by the House and signed by the President) is “Will it work?”

No one knows. Criminal behavior and greed aren’t easily vexed. Some criminals may modify the technology to avoid detection. The details of enforcement and prosecution are yet to be tested.

We’ll need to wait and see. Assuming it is put into law, it will take time to see results. But we appreciate the effort of Congress and others to address this problem head-on.


Rapid City Journal, May 26

$250 million for schools necessary

Unfortunately, we must raise taxes and spend $180 million to replace five worn-out, 60- to 70-year-old schools, plus spend an additional $70 million to upgrade six more schools, consolidate two others, and accelerate overdue maintenance elsewhere.

We got here through decades of underinvestment. Rapid City Area School’s current $22 million per year capital outlay budget falls further behind the growing needs every day.

If you must blame someone, place fault on past leaders who quietly passed along these growing needs fearing local residents would organize to defeat any bond issue, as surely they will attempt this time.

Past politics put regular school upgrades out of reach in Rapid City, making today’s serious consequences inevitable. We’re stuck not only with a normal backlog of needs but conditions turning dire.

It would be easy for critics to attack one piece of the overall $250 million spending plan, but it’s the weight of total failings that tips the scale. Schools slated for closure are too small, too old, too hot, too cold, too crowded, too dilapidated, too unsafe, too inefficient, too costly to fix, and too unfair for students stuck inside them.

The requested $250 million won’t make Rapid City Area Schools the envy of anyone. It simply raises the district to an acceptable state. More elementary schools will likely be needed within a dozen years.

We’d like to think that what was good for older generations is good enough for today’s youth, but the Air Force doesn’t still fly prop planes, as it did when these five crumbling schools were built. Everybody walked home for lunch then, but today every parent works full time, so schools need cafeterias.

Schools that were secure when families strolled onto airport tarmacs fall way short when it takes two hours to transit preflight security. The jobs these aging schools prepared Rapid City children to fill have dwindled. Back then there were no computers, no internet, no 3D printers, no self-driving cars, no artificial intelligence, no smart-phone apps, and no gig economy.

These antiquated schools no longer serve for the same reasons that few 1949 to 1958 cars remain on the road: Parts are scarce, mileage stinks, they’re uncomfortable, unreliable, unsafe and falling apart.

Inside these older schools, floors are heaving, walls cracking, narrow hallways have become heaped with food storage and working students, closets serve as offices, pipes are rusting inside concrete, electricity runs behind asbestos, and doors stick.

Spending more money to nurse along these poorly organized and cramped facilities would be a waste. Populations have shifted since these schools were built, so some are in the wrong place.

Yes, $250 million is a lot, but you get there fast when three elementary schools cost $30 million apiece and two middle schools cost $45 million apiece. What does $30 million buy? Masonry walls rather than fragile drywall, geothermal heating for lower fuel costs, efficient and expandable buildings that last — hopefully for more than 60 to 70 years.

Yes, $250 million is a lot, and it is possible for individuals to say they can’t afford it. But it is not honestly possible to say the need doesn’t exist. And once you admit that, the realization hits that the needs and expenses will only grow.

Could adjustments to the overall spending plan be made to accommodate political reality? Sure. But where does that get us? Even if voters approve the full package, new schools will not appear for three to six years, coinciding with a time when more military families will arrive because of Ellsworth’s expansion.

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