Oprah Winfrey admits that she was “devastated” by the allegations of physical and sexual abuse at her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. But looking back at the institution’s tumultuous first year, Winfrey says “I don’t regret” opening the school.
“From the very first half hour, after I was able to pull myself together, I knew that this too shall pass,” Winfrey told PEOPLE at the premiere of The Great Debaters, a film she produced starring Denzel Washington. “Just work on it, focus on the girls, focus on the girls, focus on the girls. And the girls are now fine.”
In September, a student went public with claims of abuse at the hands of school officials. In the subsequent investigation, a dorm matron was suspended and arrested. Winfrey, meanwhile, issued a public apology to the families of the students, saying, “I’ve disappointed you. I’m so sorry.”
“I think that all crisis is there to teach you about your life,” Winfrey said at the Tuesday night event in Los Angeles. The biggest lesson learned: “You have to be far more careful in choosing people to stand in the gap for you. You have to stay on it.”
‘I’m 53 … not 23’
Now the students are off on summer break, but the talk-show host is already looking forward to the start of another academic year. “The school is going to be better because that happened,” she said. “We’re going to come back and have best year ever!”
Still, in the wake of the controversy, some chose to question Winfrey’s credibility. Did the criticism sting? “Oh, my goodness. … I’m 53, years old, not 23,” she said. “By the time you’re 53 years old, if you don’t know who you are, if you’re not grounded in your own truth, if you’re not able to brush off what other people think or say about you, then you’ve had a pretty pathetic life.”