A 37-year-old Navajo from Shiprock this week did something no other Navajo has ever done – take a Catholic priest to tribal court on allegations of sexual abuse.
The defendant, who name is being kept private because of the nature of the allegations, has filed suit in Shiprock District Court against the Diocese of Gallup and Father Chuck Cichanowicz.
Cichanowicz is a Franciscan who was stationed in St. Michaels, Ariz., from 1981 to 1983 and Shiprock from 1984 to 1986. After that he was transferred to parishes in Indiana.
Cichanowicz stepped down from the priesthood in 1991 and is now working in an Alpine Clinic in Lafayette, Ind., where he specializes, according to his job description, “in working with adolescents aged 16 and up and adults, focusing primarily on those who have chemical dependency and addiction issues.” The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the victim by SNAP – Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests – a group that has filed hundreds of lawsuits against various Catholic dioceses over the past decade and forced settlements totaling more than a billion dollars.
SNAP held a series of press conferences on Tuesday in Shiprock, Gallup and Albuquerque to talk about the lawsuit and why the organization decided to file the case in tribal court instead of state court as has been the usual practice.
“This is not just about the money,” said Patrick W. Noaker, an attorney for SNAP out of St. Paul Minnesota.
He said he hopes that filing the lawsuit in Shiprock will bring awareness to the problem and possibly encourage others who may have been abused by Cichanowicz and other priests to come forward to file their own complaints.
Over the past decade about a dozen priests who have worked for the Gallup Diocese from the 1960s to 1990s have been named as sexual abusers.
The exact number of victims is unknown – one priest allegedly abused more than a dozen boys – and the diocese has admitted so far to only paying out several hundred thousand dollars to settle the suits.
Practically all of these complaints were brought by non-Natives.
But Joelle Casteix, Southwest regional director for SNAP, said the problem is that too many of the Navajo victims are still embarrassed and have refused to come forward because of their upbringing and the sensitivity this issue has in Navajo culture.
In the case of John Doe BF, the name given to the victim in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, the abuse began in 1984 when he was 14 years old, said Noaker.
Doe was not a Catholic, but because of the scarcity of phones on the reservation, he went to the Christ the King Church in Shiprock to call his girlfriend. The church allowed area residents to use the phone.
Onve there, he met Cichanowicz, who offered him a bottle of beer. A conversation then took place about his girlfriend and Noaker said Doe was offered another beer and then some whiskey as the conversation turned toward the sexual intimacies between the boy and his girlfriend.
In the end, Cichanowicz had sexual relations with the boy. This continued into 1985.
The victim now lives in Oregon and Noaker said he has had a life of alcohol dependency and criminal activity. It was only this past spring, however, that he realized a lot of the problems he had been having in his life were caused by the sexual abuse that occurred when he was living in Shiprock, said Noaker.
Noaker said Cichanowicz’s resume with the Catholic Church shows him being transferred from parish to parish and diocese to diocese – a sign that in other cases has revealed that the church was trying to cover up any abuse that may have occurred.
Casteix said it also wasn’t unusual for someone to repress their memories about the abuse for 15 or 20 years before coming forward.
Elsie Boudreau, an Alaskan Native who now works for SNAP, said at the press conference that she was abused by a priest in Alaska from the time she was 10 years old to 19 and didn’t come forward with her accusations until her daughter reached the age she was when she first started getting abused.
She then learned that the church had been receiving complaints about this priest for 20 years before she was born.
That’s part of the reason, said Noaker, that the Navajo victim has come forward – in the hopes that he can prevent Cichanowicz from molesting other youth.
Boudreau said it’s obvious that there are other Navajos out there who feel shame because of the abuse they have suffered and are still keeping quiet about it. She and other SNAP officials said it’s likely that Cichanowicz has had other victims while stationed in Shiprock or St. Michaels.
Cichanowicz issued a statement to the media late Tuesday saying he didn’t know anything about the allegations and had no comment to make at this time about the lawsuit.
Matt Doyle, a spokesman for the Gallup Diocese, said the church has no comments to make about the allegations at this time since it has not been served with the papers yet.
The diocese does have a committee that deals with sexual abuse allegations but Noaker said the Navajo victim has not filed any complaints with this committee.
One reason for this, said Casteix, is that the Catholic Church has not shown sympathy to victims in the past and has a history of trying to keep the allegations secret or ignoring complaints.
That’s why SNAP felt the best solution was to take the matter to civil court and ask a Navajo jury to address the allegations.
Almost all of the sexual abuse cases against the church in the past have been filed in state court and Noaker said this may be the first one to be filed in a tribal court anywhere in the country.
Very few of these suits have ever made it to trial. Usually the diocese meets with the victim’s attorney and a settlement is offered. That’s generally been the case with lawsuits filed against priests in this diocese.
Noaker said he expects that this case may go all the way to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court.
The local attorney handling the case is Bill Keeler of Gallup.
SNAP officials said that their organization is available 24/7 to help people who are still suffering because of abuse by a priest. Persons should go to snapnetwork.org and they will be able to find people in their area they can talk to.
Casteix is available at 949-322-7434 and she said that a Web site has been set up just for Native Americans survivors of sex abuse. That site is NativeAmericanAbuse.com.
By Bill Donovan Navajo Times