Oprah Winfrey, the US daytime television queen, spoke publicly for the first time yesterday about the child sexual abuse scandal at a school she founded in South Africa, calling the episode "one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating experience of my life".
Winfrey, appearing via satellite from her home in Chicago, told a news conference the problem had been "identified and rooted out". She reminded South Africans that she had personal experience of sexual abuse and was committed to eradicating any trace of it at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for poor black girls south of Johannesburg.
Last month, a dormitory matron at the academy was suspended following allegations that she had performed acts of indecent assault and encouraged girls, most of them teenagers, to perform indecent acts on each other. The matron, Tiny Virginia Makopo, claimed innocence when the 13 charges against her were read out at a bail hearing in Johannesburg yesterday. She was released on £900 bail and will appear in court again in December.
Winfrey opened her academy to great fanfare in January this year but has received multiple complaints since about conditions at the school, said by many to be prison-like, with limited access to the outside world.
She said she first heard about the abuse allegations a month ago and immediately ordered an independent investigation in conjunction with the South African police. Among the investigators was a child-abuse expert from Chicago.
"I was, needless to say, devastated and really shaken to my core when I first heard the news," she said. "I spent about a half-hour going around my house crying." She kept quiet about the affair at the request of the South African police, she said, and only now felt able to speak out because the case has come to court.
She wanted an independent investigation, she said, "because my experience with child predators is that no one ever, ever abuses just one child... "