Woman arrested over Oprah school abuse

Last updated 00:00 03/11/2007

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South African police have arrested a former dormitory employee at television talk show star Oprah Winfrey's leadership academy for girls on charges of abuse, including indecent acts.

At least seven alleged victims have submitted statements about the woman, police said.

"A former dormitory employee (27 years old) has been arrested yesterday by the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit on several charges of abuse," a statement from police spokesman Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini read.

"Several charges including alleged assault, indecent assault, crimen injuria and soliciting girls under age to perform indecent acts are being investigated against her. At least seven victims have already submitted statements."

Crimen injuria refers in South Africa to the crime of injuring another person's dignity. This can cover racial abuse and sexual offences against children.

The suspect, who was not identified, is being held by police and is expected to appear before a magistrate on Monday, said the statement.

Winfrey praised police's swift action after local media reports of abuse allegations at the school surfaced late last month.

"I am grateful for their compassion and sensitivity to the girls during this difficult time. It means the world to me," she said in a statement.

"It is my deepest hope that the accused is brought to justice and that this serves as a reminder that any time a child has the courage to step forward, it is our duty as adults to listen and take immediate action."

The $40 million academy has been dogged by controversy since it opened in January with a launch attended by singers Mariah Carey and Tina Turner, actor Sydney Poitier and film-maker Spike Lee.

Winfrey selected the first class of 152 poor, mostly black pupils to attend the school that boasts state-of-the-art facilities including laboratories, a yoga studio and beauty salon. Tuition and board is free. The academy provides its 450 students with textbooks, uniforms and meals.

NO JUNK FOOD

In March, some parents said the school was too strict and its restrictions on visits, telephone calls and email contact were comparable to rules in prisons.

In May, some parents complained their children were not allowed junk food and, when they visited the school, they had to go through a security gate.

"We would like to thank a team of experts appointed by the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls who compiled a misconduct report which was later handed to the police," said the police statement.

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"The report assisted members of the police to speed up investigations, that is, victims as well as the suspect were already identified."

South Africa's Rapport newspaper had reported that Winfrey had flown to meet parents and school officials, and asked for forgiveness for letting them down.

The residential academy is situated on 52 acres at Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg.

Reporters who visited the school after reports of abuse were published were denied access to children and administrators.

- Reuters

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