Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Nine Little Girls Point To 'Dangerous' Child Sex Crimes Statute Of Limitations


For nearly a decade, a group of nine native women—all sisters—has told their story of child sexual abuse to lawmakers in Pierre.

They want to overturn a statute of limitations on child sex crimes put in place at the beginning of the decade.

That legislation stalls year after year. But, the women say they’ll continue to lobby for changes to the state’s sex crimes laws.

A warning, this story includes sensitive material and content that might not be suitable for children.

Three women meet for breakfast at a Fargo restaurant. The Charbonneau sisters are members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

As girls in the 1950s and 60s, they attended St. Paul’s Catholic Church boarding school on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. The South Dakota school was 500 miles from their home in North Dakota.  They say they endured physical, psychological and sexual abuse as children.

In addition to the abuse, the sisters say they were deloused with the insecticide DDT. They say Nazi propaganda videos showed them what would happen if they told someone. And the Charbonneau sisters say those at the school said their parents would go to hell if the girls told anyone what happened.

Francine Charbonneau says one of her punishments was to eat lye soap. She wonders why there’s been no punishment for such treatment.

“Why did this happen?” Charbonneau says. “Because the priests allowed it to happen, the nuns allowed it to happen and now we don’t have a voice. Why?”

More than a decade ago, they joined a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese in Sioux Falls for alleged child sex abuse. The suit also names the Blue Cloud Abbey, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for alleged child sexual abuse. The lawsuit alleged the diocese was directly liable because it failed to properly hire, train and supervise those who worked at the school.

The Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls points to a state supreme court ruling in 2012 that upholds earlier court rulings in favor of the diocese.

In 2010, the state legislature placed a statute of limitations placed on child sex crimes.

Since then, the nine women who say they were abused as girls have tried to remove the statute of limitations, either permanently or temporarily. Louise Charbonneau recalls being hopeful when their bill to overturn the statute of limitations appeared before the House Judiciary Committee this year. But that hope quickly faded.

“When we took it to the house I really honest to god was confused,” Charbonneau says. “I had so hoped in my heart that now we’re going to have a chance because it’s a different group of people, they’re going to understand.”

The three sisters recall when the House Judiciary chair, Republican Jon Hansen, spoke on the merits of the bill. He said statutes of limitation are placed on crimes because the body of evidence shrinks over time.

Hansen said congregations should not have to defend a claim where the alleged perpetrator is dead, and church membership has turned over completely.

“One of the proponents of this measure not here today, but was quoted in the media,” Hansen says. “When she was asked what justice means she said, ‘Justice for me would look like the Catholic Church in Marty, South Dakota, crumbling to the ground.’ That’s not justice.”

Hansen was quoting one of the women behind the lawsuit, Gerri Charbonneau. She WAS at the hearing and at one point stood up to talk to lawmakers.

After Charbonneau’s account of her rape in the church, lawmakers tabled the bill.

The Charbonneau sisters say they keep returning session after session despite the rejection.

Barbara Dahlen is one of the sisters. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on childhood sexual abuse survivors. She says most survivors end up with interpersonal relationship struggles and PTSD.

“However, if a child is abused, you can look at all the data and it shows suppressed memories,” Dahlen says. “Trauma like that doesn’t surface for years. So, you could be abused—I was abused at 5 or 6. I didn’t remember it until I was in my 50’s.”

South Dakota law says a lawsuit seeking damages has to be filed within three years of the alleged act, or three years from the time a victim discovers a related injury or condition. The law also says victims of abuse over 40 can only recover damages from their abuser - not from any other person or entity.

Dahlen says there’s no way to back up what children or survivors claim.

“If a child is abused it may be years before those memories are recovered," Dahlen says. "So, you’re saying to that child it doesn’t matter anymore. You’re past the statute of limitations, you don’t matter. That’s the impact it has.”

Dahlen and her sisters say the statute of limitations law makes South Dakota a dangerous state for children.

Louise Charbonneau says the voices of sex abuse victims need to be heard.

“I want someone to say ‘Yes, this did happen,’” Charbonneau says. “This law needs to be changed because now it affects all of the children of South Dakota. Every one of them. Whether they’re reservation kids, whether they’re white kids, whether they’re Chinese, Mexican, anything. It’s going to affect them all, and if you think it isn’t going to happen in your family you’re badly mistaken. Because down the road your children, your grandchildren, there’s going to be somebody that has to face the same thing we have.”

The numbers confirm that.

The most recent federal numbers from 2017 report nearly 60,000 children were sexually abused.

That’s why the Charbonneau sisters say they will continue their fight. But they acknowledge they may need to change their message.

Since their allegations child sex abuse has not managed to sway lawmakers, they say the legislature needs to hear other people’s stories as well.

Related Content