Navajo Tribal Courts Should Hear Navajo Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

By Patrick Noaker

Today, we filed legal briefs in Navajo Nation Tribal Court relating to two childhood sexual abuse lawsuits. Since we filed the lawsuits in the Navajo Court, the Defendants desperately have attempted to get the cases removed from the Navajo Court and instead handled in state or federal court. Our clients are Navajo Nation Members and the lawsuit involves sexual abuse by Fr. Chuck Cichanowicz, a priest who worked on the Navajo Nation reservation for a number of years. The case was filed in Navajo Nation Tribal Court because the clients believe that it should be the Navajo people who determine what should happen to Fr. Cichanowicz and his employers. The core issue here is whether the Navajo Nation Tribal Court has the power to remedy and ultimately prevent injurious behavior by outsiders who come to the reservation.

See attached briefs: Plaintiff John Doe GC?s Opposition to Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction and Memorandum in Support; and Defendant Diocese of Gallup?s Memorandum in Support of Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction.

This ability to remedy and prevent injuries to their children is especially important for Native Americans because Native Americans have historically been victimized at a much higher rate than other populations. See Take for example the tragedy of the mission boarding schools, where Native American children were systematically sexually and physically abused for decades. Or, another example where predator Roman Catholic priests were assigned to reservation parishes because those parishes and their children apparently considered expendable. The sad truth is that outsiders have done much more harm than good. In addition, there is some scientific research that shows that Native American children experience a greater cumulative negative impact from sexual abuse as compared with the general population.

See attached article: Irwin et al., ?The Psychological Impact of Sexual Abuse of Native American Boarding School Children,? The Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 23:461-473 (1995). Consequently, Native Americans who were sexually abused as children are more likely to experience more problems and a more difficult time coping with the injuries related to the sexual abuse.

It seems to make sense that Native American tribes want to handle the issue of child sexual abuse within its tribal court systems. Those who are the most impacted should be the ones to decide what should happen to those who are responsible for the injury. Thus, child sexual abuse cases involving Native American children should be heard by a tribal court.