Winfrey to 'Clean House' At Her School

Associated Press
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 5 -- Oprah Winfrey said Monday she wept for half an hour when she heard that a dorm matron was accused of abusing students at Winfrey's school for disadvantaged South African girls. She promised to "clean house," starting with the headmistress.

Winfrey said officials at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls hid facts and told students to "put on happy faces" and not complain to her. Though she said she was not responsible for hiring at the school, she said the screening process was inadequate and "the buck always stops with me."

She spoke to reporters in South Africa by satellite from the United States hours after the accused dormitory matron appeared in court near Johannesburg.

The defendant, Tiny Virginia Makopo, 27, was not asked to submit a formal plea. But she said she was "not guilty" of the 13 charges of indecent assault, assault and criminal injury against six students ages 13 to 15 and a 23-year-old fellow dormitory matron.

Makopo, who was arrested Thursday, was freed on $450 bail and ordered to return to court on Dec. 13.

Superintendent Andre Neethling, from the police department's sexual offenses and child protection unit, said the alleged abuse had taken place over four months.

The $40 million school opened with much fanfare in January with a ceremony attended by celebrities including Nelson Mandela, Spike Lee, Sidney Poitier, Mariah Carey and Tina Turner.

Winfrey said she had been informed by the school's chief executive, John Samuel, in early October that 15 girls had produced a list of complaints, including the sexual assault of a classmate.

The talk show host has spoken in the past of being raped by a distant cousin at age 9 and then abused by three other men, trusted family friends. She has campaigned for laws in the United States to protect children from abusers.

Winfrey said that because of the high rates of rape and sexual abuse in South Africa, she had worked to ensure outsiders would not be able to reach students at the school.

But "as often is the case, child abuse, sexual abuse, happens right within the family, right within the confines of people you know," she said.

She said Monday that the school headmistress's contract would not be renewed and indicated others also would be dismissed.

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