Talk show host Oprah Winfrey said today that the allegations of sexual and physical abuse by a matron at her all-girls South African leadership academy have "been one of the most, if not the most devastating experience of my life."
The allegations have "shaken me to my core," Winfrey said at a Chicago news conference this morning.
Winfrey promised, however, that the school will continue to fulfill its goal of becoming a "model for the world," and will show that "the resilience of the human spirit" is stronger than poverty, abuse and hatred. She also took care to praise the leadership and courage of 15 girls who came forward to report the alleged abuse.
When the allegations first became public Winfrey brought a trauma counselor in to help the 152 girls at the school. She planned to speak with the students via satellite after her news conference.
In addition, she has promised to give a cell phone to each student at the school, and she said the phones are in the process of being purchased.
"The buck always stops with me," said Winfrey as she explained that she is redefining staff hiring procedures at the academy. She added that the abuse allegation will allow her to "completely correct course" at her academy.
Appearing determined, Winfrey said she is glad that the abuse allegations have become public.
"It is my goal in life to put child abusers, whether they be in my home, or in my workplace, or in this case in the academy, to put them where they belong, which is behind bars," she said.
Since the allegations arose, Winfrey has offered a tear-filled apology to the students and their parents and said whenever a child has the courage to come forward, adults should listen.
The trouble began when seven students initially accused a 27-year-old dorm matron of abuse, and eight more students made allegations during the ensuing investigation.
The woman, who was dismissed from her job at the school, was later arrested and released on bail earlier this morning.
"She was arrested for several charges including assault, indecent assault," said Lungelo Dlamini, Gauteng Province police spokesman.
Parents Still Supportive
Even with all the negative publicity the allegations have drawn, some of the students' parents said the school remains a good place for their daughters.
However, parents and Winfrey have expressed frustration with the principal for letting the scandal go this far. Like Winfrey, the parents said they are hopeful things will return to normal and the girls will receive a good education.
The controversy around the school has tarnished the image of what Winfrey hoped would be a place for young girls to build a brighter future.
She built the academy as a promise to herself and former South African President Nelson Mandela. The $40 million school opened in January just outside Johannesburg.
"I have a lot of responsibility," Winfrey said in an interview with ABC News when she opened the school. "I feel it. I said to the mothers, the family members, the aunts, the grannies — because most of these girls have lost their families, their parents — I said to them, 'Your daughters are now my daughters.'"
At the press conference Winfrey repeated, "These girls are like my children, this is not rhetoric for me."