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Fighting for 'My Children'

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Oprah Winfrey’s voice cracked as she spoke. “This has shaken me to my core,” said the talk show queen, holding back tears a few hours after a former dorm matron appeared in court to face charges that she abused students at Winfrey’s prized Leadership Academy for Girls-South Africa. Addressing reporters in Johannesburg via satellite from Chicago on Nov. 5, Winfrey vowed to do everything in her power to help her school and students recover—and to seek justice. “I am a mama bear when it comes to protecting my children,” she said. “One of my goals in life is to put child abusers … where they belong, which is behind bars.”

Earlier, in a crowded courtroom 40 miles south of Johannesburg, the accused employee made her first public appearance. Tiny Virginia Makopo, 27, a former caretaker at the academy, was charged with 13 counts involving seven victims, including assault, soliciting a minor and verbal abuse. Prosecutors said at least six of the victims were students aged 13 to 15 years old. Makopo did not enter a formal plea but says she’s not guilty. She was released on about $450 bail and her next court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 13.

In her press conference, Winfrey talked of the “devastation” she felt when she learned of the alleged abuse and detailed how she took action. On Oct. 6, she said, the school’s CEO informed her that 15 students had a list of grievances, including suspecting one of their classmates had been sexually abused. Winfrey, herself a survivor of childhood abuse, immediately contacted South African police and hired an independent U.S. investigative team because, she said, “I know from my experience that no one ever abuses just one child.” After Winfrey visited the 10-month-old school the next weekend, five other girls came forward. Winfrey, who said she “is prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure the [academy] is the safe, nurturing setting I imagined,” dismissed all the dorm matrons, suspended the headmistress and met with students and parents.

Police say the abuse had been going on for about four months. Students had been “too scared to tell anyone,” says the father of a girl who recently dropped out. “It’s a good thing for this to come to light.” Masechaba Hiine, the mother of a current student, gave Winfrey high marks for handling the situation: “She’s doing everything for the children. We know Oprah will fix it.”