Navajo Nation Supreme Court: Tribal Court Must Hear Case of Priest Who Sexually Abused Navajo Child on Reservation

Ruling reverses lower court that dismissed case based on a 20-year delay of reporting

Allows lawsuit against Franciscan priest, his order, and the Diocese of Gallup to move forward

(St. Paul, MN) A prominent Minnesota law firm, known throughout the county for pioneering the use of civil litigation against clergy who sexually abuse children, achieved a major victory last week when the Navajo Nation Supreme court reversed a lower court and allowed a lawsuit against on non-member priest to move forward.

The case was originally filed in 2007on behalf of Oregon man (identified in the complaint as John Doe BF) who is a Navajo nation member and was sexually molested in 1984 and 1985 by a priest on the New Mexico Navajo Nation reservation when he was 14 and 15 years old. The priest, Charles Cichanowicz, is a member of the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist order.  Cichanowcz, his order, and the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico, are all named as defendants.

In January of 2010, the tribe’s Shiprock District Court found that the Navajo Nation courts had jurisdiction on the basis of inherent sovereignty as recognized by the Treaty of 1868 but then dismissed the case based on a twenty-year delay in the victim’s reporting of the case.

In reversing, the higher court said linking injury to an abuse that occurred so many years ago is a factual issue for a jury to consider, not for a judge to weigh in a preliminary motion. The court also stated that the courts have duty to protect the health and welfare of the people, and “to ensure allegations of harm to our children are fully heard and not dismissed on mere technicalities.”

Jeff Anderson, one of the attorneys for the plaintiff said this case “clearly demonstrates an understanding of how victims suffer in silence and the importance of giving them a day in court.”

Anderson, who has been representing survivors of clergy abuse in the United States for over 25 years, said, “This ruling is not only correct on the merits, but significant in the way the court clearly stood up for the rights of children who have been sexually abused—even if the trauma they experienced causes them to delay coming forward until well into their adulthood.”

Case Documents are available at

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