PHILADELPHIA – Oprah Winfrey and several schoolgirls allegedly abused at her academy in South Africa are expected to testify in a trial over a defamation lawsuit brought by the school’s former headmistress, whose performance Winfrey criticized.
When news of the scandal broke in 2007, Winfrey said she had “lost confidence” in headmistress Nomvuyo Mzamane and was “cleaning house from top to bottom.” Mzamane, who said she didn’t know about any sexual abuse, had trouble finding another job afterward.
The case is headed for a two-week jury trial in federal court in Philadelphia starting March 29.
At a final pretrial hearing Friday, Winfrey lawyer Chip Babcock said minors do not typically testify in open court in South Africa. The girls, now 14 and 15, may seek to testify through videotaped depositions, especially given the sensitive nature of their testimony, Babcock said.
“We're going to see how the kids get acclimated here, and how (their) parents feel about things,” Babcock told U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno.
A dorm matron at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls has been charged with abusing six students. Winfrey has called the allegations crushing given her own stated history of childhood sexual abuse.
Winfrey plans to defend her remarks about Mzamane on free speech and other grounds, arguing that she merely voiced her opinions. Mzamane’s lawyers, who note Winfrey’s huge media reach, contend listeners would think they were based on facts she gleaned from the school’s internal investigation.
“To this day, Ms. Winfrey admits that she has no evidence that Ms. Mzamane knew about any claims of sexual abuse at the academy while she was headmistress there, much less that she tolerated or covered up such abuse,” Mzamane’s lawyers wrote in their trial memorandum.
Winfrey was not in court Friday, but as the named defendant must attend the trial each day. She has rearranged the taping of her Chicago-based daily TV talk show, according to her lawyers, who asked the judge to try to keep the trial from dragging beyond two weeks.
Robreno agreed to hold court on Saturdays if necessary. Several witnesses are coming from South Africa on visas linked to the trial schedule.
Mzamane, born in Lesotho, formerly worked at the private Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, and was living in the city when she filed suit two years ago. She earned $150,000 a year as the head of Winfrey’s academy.
Winfrey hopes to show that the school leader failed to act on myriad complaints about dorm matron Tiny Virginia Makopo, who is accused of sexually and physically abusing students. Makopo has pleaded not guilty to 14 charges.
Winfrey, in court papers, said she had planned to hire nurses to serve as dorm matrons for the 150 seventh- and eighth-grade girls who were selected from impoverished backgrounds to attend her school.
Mzamane instead hired eight young women from a local company called Party Design, she said.
“These young women were later found to be totally unqualified to handle the position, something Ms. Mzamane had been warned about,” Winfrey’s lawyers wrote.
As the school’s inaugural year unfolded, Makopo attacked another dorm parent, injured three people while driving a golf cart after a champagne party at Mzamane’s home and retaliated rather than apologize to girls who complained of mistreatment, while Mzamane did little or nothing, Winfrey's lawyers allege in their trial memo.
Forbes last year listed Winfrey’s net worth at $2.7 billion. However, for trial purposes, lawyers have stipulated the amount at $1.2 billion.
The academy now serves about 330 girls.