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Oprah Winfrey finds herself amid sex scandal at her South African school

U.S. TV host, the richest woman in showbiz Oprah Winfrey said she burst into tears and cried for about 30 minutes when she heard a dormitory matron was accused of abusing students at her school for disadvantaged children in South Africa. Winfrey said she would clean the house starting with the head mistress.

The star talk show host said Monday that officials at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls hid facts from her and told students to "put on happy faces" and not complain to her.

Winfrey spoke to reporters in South Africa by satellite from the United States hours after the accused dormitory matron appeared in court near Johannesburg and was granted bail.

Tiny Virginia Makopo, 27, said she was "not guilty" of 13 charges of indecent assault, assault and criminal injury committed against six students aged 13-15 and a 23-year-old fellow dormitory matron.

"When I first heard about it I spent about a half hour going around my house crying," Winfrey told the news conference, calling it "one of most devastating experiences of my life."

Before the allegations, she said she had told the pupils she was the "momma bear" who would protect them.

Winfrey said the school head mistress's contract would not be renewed and indicated others also would be dismissed.

Winfrey, who was abused as a child and campaigned for laws in the United States to protect children from abusers, said that because of the high rates of rape and sexual abuse in South Africa, she had worked to ensure outsiders would not be able to reach students at the school.

But "as often is the case, child abuse, sexual abuse, happens right within the family, right within the confines of people you know," she said. Winfrey has spoken in the past of being raped by a distant cousin at age 9 and then abused by three other men who were trusted family friends. Winfrey said she had been informed by the school's chief executive John Samuel in early October that 15 girls had produced a list of complaints including the sexual assault of a classmate.

She organized an independent investigation headed by Richard Farley, a Chicago detective who specializes in child abuse. "My experience with child predators is that no one ever abuses just one child," Winfrey said.

Superintendent Andre Neethling, from the police's sexual offenses and child protection unit, told reporters later that there had been at least three serious cases of indecent assault and that the abuse had taken place over four months.

He said the accused dormitory matron faces an assault charge in connection with the 23-year-old matron. Winfrey said she was not responsible for hiring at the school but that the screening process was inadequate and "the buck always stops with me." She said she flew to South Africa to speak with the pupils and encourage them to come forward with their complaints.

"It was a chance to break the silence," she said. On Oct. 20, she flew to South Africa again to meet with parents and "apologized for the unfortunate circumstance and promised changes."

The US$40 million school opened with much fanfare in January with a ceremony attended by a cast of celebrities including former President Nelson Mandela, movie maker Spike Lee, film star Sidney Poitier and pop stars Mariah Carey and Tina Turner.

At the news conference, Winfrey was adamant that the scandal had not affected her desire to help the girls in her school achieve a better future. "No one - not the accused or anyone else - can destroy the dream I have held or that the girls hold. Their light will not be diminished by this," she said.

Samuel, the chief executive, said there was now a sense of relief at the school and that life was beginning to return to normal. "We are beginning to heal. The spirit of the girls remains strong," he said Monday.

At the magistrate's court near Johannesburg, Makopo was freed on a bond of 3,000 rands (US$450; EUR 311) until her next court date on Dec. 13. Makopo, who was arrested Thursday, was not asked to plead formally. Prosecutor Alta Nieuwoudt asked for bail to be set at 5,000 rands (US$750, EUR 530), noting the "position of trust and responsibility" she held.

But Magistrate Thelma Simpson said the court also had to consider what was affordable for Makopo, who said she earned R4,972 (nearly US$750, EUR 530) after deductions and that family members depended on her income. Makopo said she was unmarried and had no children.

Simpson also noted that Makopo had no previous convictions or other pending allegations against her. She said Makopo was to report to police four times a week and have nothing to do with the school or the complainants. "The allegations and charges against you are very serious," Simpson said. "These kind of offenses are very prevalent in this court."

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