As the woman at the center of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls' sexual abuse scandal appeared in a South African court Monday to face 13 charges brought against her, the talk-show maven pleaded her own case to the world's press, speaking out on the incident for the first time since the allegations came to light last month.
"This has been one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating, experiences of my life," Winfrey said in a press conference from Chicago. "A horrible situation has been uncovered and rooted out. This is what leadership is all about—so that abuse will end and truth will prevail."
Winfrey's remarks came just hours after 27-year-old dormitory matron Tiny Virginia Makopo informed a Johannesburg judge she would be pleading not guilty to 13 counts of indecent assault, common assault, soliciting or enticing a minor through the commission of an indecent or immoral act and verbal abuse against seven victims, six of which were students aged 13 and 14. The remaining alleged victim was a 23-year-old, also at the school.
At the hearing, prosecutors requested strong bail conditions, though Magistrate Thelma Simpson ended up releasing Makopo on the equivalent of $450.
Terms of her release require her to report weekly to a police station in Sebokeng, a township near Johannesburg, and avoid any contact whatsoever with staff or students at the Leadership Academy. She is also prohibited from applying for a passport.
Makopo is due to reappear in court Dec. 13.
"I am a mama bear when it comes to protecting my children," Winfrey said. "These girls are my children. That is not just rhetoric. I take their futures, and the possibility for what their futures hold, very personally."
"This has been a difficult time for the academy," said the school's chief executive officer, John Samuel. "We are beginning to heal. On campus, there is a sense of relief that the investigation has concluded, and we are returning to a normal way of life."
Samuel, who was the one who first informed Winfrey of the situation last month, introduced his boss via satellite link to the assembled South African reporters.
"I have wanted to speak since my first visit to South Africa," Winfrey said, explaining her silence on the matter. "[Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini] asked me to please not speak to the press until an arrest was made or risk jeopardizing the investigation."
Winfrey said she first learned of the abuse allegations on Oct. 6, when Samuel informed her that 15 girls had presented him with a list of grievances, including suspected sexual abuse—though they did not use that term—against one of their classmates at the hands of a particular dorm matron.
"I was, needless to say, devastated and shaken to the core," she said, adding that she immediately contacted Johannesburg police superintendent Dlamini to see if she could conduct an independent investigation of the matter.
"My experience with child predators is that no one ever, ever abuses just one child," she said of her desire to carry out her own inquiry alongside that of the local authorities. "My first priority was to determine how many girls had actually been affected and to what degree."
Winfrey subsequently flew down to the Henley-on-Klip facility with a three-person investigation team. She encouraged all the girls on campus to come forward with any information. Five did but said they feared retribution by the remaining dorm matrons. As a result, Winfrey said, the school staff immediately removed all remaining matrons from the premises.
When Winfrey announced she had barred the martrons from the grounds, she said the girls "cheered and wept."
The following week, Winfrey returned to South Africa to meet with school parents and offer her deepest apologies for the situation.
"We are moving to create a safe, open and receptive environment for the girls," she said. "What I know is no one, not the accused nor any persons, can destroy the dream I have held or that the girls have at this school.
"No matter what adversity these girls have endured in their short life—and let me assure you, they have endured a lot—their light and courage will not diminish."
Winfrey did not speak specifically to Makopo but acknowledged that the screening process for the position, despite requiring criminal and personal background checks, had clearly been "inadequate."
"We are going to redefine what that position should mean and what the qualifications should be for the future," she said, adding that right now, school teachers are rotating to cover the position.
"No one is ever happy when a scandal like this happens, but I am glad it happened now and not two years from now," Winfrey said. "It gives us the opportunity to completely course-correct."
As for the headmistress, who was immediately placed on a leave of absence following the allegations coming to light, she has since been informed that the school will not be renewing her contract, which is due to expire on Dec. 31.
"It has shaken me to my core," Winfrey said of the scandal, "but at the core of me is a spiritual foundation and a belief that all things happen for a reason, and no matter what the devastation, this, too, shall pass."