Winfrey speaks out as a former dorm matron is charged in court Monday

By Stephanie Hanes
November 05, 2007 07:30 AM

Good Morning America
A former dorm matron appeared in court Monday to face a series of charges that she mistreated girls at Oprah Winfrey‘s $47 million South African school – while Oprah herself held a press conference declaring it “the most devastating experience of my life.”

Tiny Makopo – a residential caregiver at Winfrey’s Leadership Academy – did not have to enter a plea at the hearing but indicated she would plead not guilty to the charges.

Mokopo, wearing a black Adidas shirt and long green corduroy skirt, said she understood the charges against her – 13 counts of indecent assault, common assault, soliciting or enticing a minor through the commission of an indecent or immoral act and crimen inuria, which means verbal abuse.

Prosecutors asked for stringent bail conditions, noting that Mokopo allegedly abused seven victims, at least six of whom were 13-14 years old. Magistrate Thelma Simpson released Mokopo on 3,000 rand bail (about the equivalent of $450).

The magistrate ordered Mokopo to report weekly to the police station in Sebokeng, a township south of Johannesburg. She also forbid Mokopo from having any contact with staff or students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy.

Mokopo left the courthouse in a car driven by one of her friends, avoiding a crowd of photographers waiting for her. Winfrey, who has called for justice in the case, said in a press conference Monday with South African police: “This has been one of the most devastating – if not the most devastating – experience of my entire life.”

But, Winfrey added, “like all such experiences, there’s always much to be gained, and I think there’s a lot to be learned. We are moving forward to create a safe and open and receptive environment for the girls. And I’m also very grateful to their parents and their guardians and their caretakers for their continued trust and their support in me and also in the school.

“What I know is, is that no one – not the accused nor any persons – can destroy the dream that I have held and the dream that each girl continues to hold for herself at this school,” she said.

According to a transcript of the press conference posted online, Winfrey said she was “cleaning house from top to bottom” at the school.

She said she had hired her own independent investigative team, headed by Robert Farley, a former detective and commander of the Child Exploitation Unit of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Chicago to investigate the original abuse claim. When Farley’s team interviewed the girls and the staff at the school, more girls came forward. Several said they were afraid of repercussions from the remaining dorm matrons – so all of the dorm matrons were then removed.

“I am glad that it happened now and not two years from now, because this gives us an opportunity to completely course correct, removing all the dorm parents,” Winfrey said.

Winfrey added that she is confident the school will “become a model for the world. With each girl who graduates, we will show that the resilience of the human spirit is actually stronger than poverty, it’s stronger than hatred, it’s stronger than violence, it’s stronger than trauma and loss, and it’s also stronger than any abuse.”

She added: “No matter what adversity these girls have endured in their short lives, and let me assure you, they have endured a lot, their lights will not be diminished by this experience.”