Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Oprah 'devastated' by abuse claims at her SAfrican school

Oprah 'devastated' by abuse claims at her SAfrican school
JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - An emotional Oprah Winfrey said Monday she had been "shaken to the core" by sexual abuse claims at her elite girls' school in South Africa, calling the episode one of the most devastating of her lifeThis has been one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating experience of my life," the US talk show queen told journalists in Johannesburg via a live satellite link up to Chicago.

"When I heard the news I spent about a half hour crying, moving from room to room in my house. I was so stunned I couldn't wrap my mind around it."

Winfrey was speaking on the day that a dormitory patron appeared in court to face charges that she sexually assaulted several girls over a four-month period at the school in Henley-on-Klip outside Johannesburg.

Herself a victim of sexual abuse when she was a teenager, Winfrey said her main priority was the girls, whom she referred to as her children, and not "just a pet occupation for me".

Winfrey, who said police had instructed her not to say anything until an arrest had been made, told reporters that 15 girls had approached the school's chief executive John Samuels on October 6 with a "list of grievances" including the sexual abuse of one of their classmates.

She had then flown a team of three over to South Africa to start interviewing the girls, and spoke to each of the girls personally, encouraging another five to come forward.

"I told them that although they had apparently been living in an atmosphere that repressed their voices, that this was a chance for them to break the silence and take their voices back.

"As a result of that conversation, by the next day five other brave girls had come forward."

The suspect was immediately removed from her post, and after an independent internal investigation by social workers flown in from the US, and a subsequent investigation by local police, the 27-year-old woman was arrested on Friday.

Virginia Tiny Mokgobo appeared in the Sebokeng magistrates court earlier in the day and was granted bail of 3,000 rand (around 450 US dollars). Her case was postponed until December 13 when a trial date was expected to be set.

She faces charges including indecent assault and soliciting underage girls to perform indecent acts.

As the girls said they were afraid of repercussions from the other dorm matrons, the staff were all removed and replaced by teachers on rotation.

The school's headmistress, who was temporarily suspended, will also not have her contract renewed.

Superintendent Andre Neethling of the Johannesburg Police Child Protection Unit told reporters the investigation had included lengthy interviews with several of the girls at the multi-million dollar school -- founded with Winfrey's own money.

"Various children were interviewed during the process and we provided them with some emotional and psychological assistance," he said.

The girls at the school are aged between 11 and 13 were chosen after an initial 3,500 applications, with Winfrey choosing the final 152 for their academic and leadership qualities as well as their disadvantaged background.

Since the school opened in January in a ceremony attended by Nelson Mandela, complaints have surfaced from parents saying it was too strict while two Afrikaans-speaking girls left because of "cultural differences" and bullying.

Winfrey said she was not directly responsible for the hiring of the accused dormitory matron or other dorm "parents" but added that "the buck always stops with me."

Winfrey said while background checks had been carried out, the school's hiring practices would have to be improved.

Despite the negative headlines, she remained positive about its future.

"I know that no one, not the accused, nor any person can destroy the dream that I have held and the dream each girl continues to hold for herself at this school," she said.

Winfrey said she was in the process of buying all the girls cellphones so they could contact her whenever the need arose.

While Winfrey said the girls were nervous ahead of their end of year exams and this situation had "not helped", Samuels described a sense of relief on campus now that the investigations had been wrapped up.


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