Catholic Church Officials Come to Agreement with 3 Navajo Men
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
July 14, 2012
GALLUP — Three Navajo men who filed the first clergy sex abuse lawsuits in the Navajo Nation court system have signed settlement agreements with Catholic Church officials.
"I just really had a courageous group of clients," Patrick Noaker, the Minnesota attorney who represented the Navajo plaintiffs, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Noaker, of Jeff Anderson & Associates, said all parties in the three different civil cases agreed to try mediation as an alternative to continuing litigation. Paul Bardacke, a former New Mexico attorney general, worked as the mediator throughout March and April, with all the settlement details being recently finalized, Noaker said.
Abuse allegations against Charles "Chuck" Cichanowicz, a former Franciscan priest who once worked on the Navajo Nation, were at the center of each lawsuit. In November 2007, Noaker and Gallup attorney William R. Keeler filed the first lawsuit in Shiprock District Court on behalf of "John Doe BF," a Navajo man who said he had been sexually abused by Cichanowicz when the priest was assigned to Shiprock's Christ the King parish. Two more Navajo men later came forward with allegations that Cichanowicz had abused them while he was assigned to St. Michael Mission in St. Michaels, Ariz. Noaker and Keeler filed those lawsuits in Window Rock District Court.
As part of the settlements, Cichanowicz has agreed not to apply for or accept any kind of work that involves contact with minors, Noaker said. This provision also includes volunteer positions.
"That was a big part of the settlement," Noaker said.
The provision is court-enforceable, he added, and Noaker believes advocacy groups for survivors of sex abuse will keep a close eye on the former priest's whereabouts. When the first lawsuit was filed, Cichanowicz was discovered working as a mental health counselor for adolescents and adults in Lafayette, Ind.
In addition, all three plaintiffs will receive monetary settlements from the four defendants in the cases: Cichanowicz, the Diocese of Gallup, the Franciscan Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Albuquerque, and the Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist in Cincinnati. Noaker said his clients have asked that the settlement amounts not be publicly disclosed.
Describing settlement agreements as sometimes being "a little bittersweet," Noaker said these clergy abuse settlement agreements offered some concessions to the defendants as well. Attorneys for the defendants, mindful of the possible threat of future litigation, offered no statements of apology to any of his clients and Cichanowicz made no admission of guilt, Noaker said.
Pursuing further litigation through the Navajo court system would have publicly exposed more details about the abuse his clients said they were subjected to by Cichanowicz, Noaker added, but it would have also been difficult on his clients.
"We've been at this a long time," he said. "Some of the guys were feeling a little run down."
During the nearly five years since John Doe BF v. the Diocese of Gallup, et al was filed, the first Navajo clergy abuse case has had its share of dramatic courtroom twists and turns. In January 2010, Shiprock District Court Judge Genevieve Woody ordered a controversial dismissal of the case, which Noaker and Keeler subsequently appealed. In September, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court weighed in and reversed Woody's dismissal and remanded the case back to district court.
By filing their lawsuits in the Navajo Nation's courts, Noaker said his clients feel like they have protected other children by raising public awareness of the sexual abuse of children on the reservation. Noaker said none of the men ever considered pursuing out-of-court confidential settlements with the Catholic Church.
"It was a real inspiration for me to watch all three of these guys grow," Noaker said of his clients. He said the men started the legal process ashamed and embarrassed by what had happened to them and grew into men willing to take on their accused abuser.
"I think they went from victim to survivor," Noaker said. "All three of these guys are better ... a weight has been lifted off them."
Noaker singled out his first Navajo client, the man known in court documents as "John Doe BF," for his courage in filing the first tribal lawsuit against a clergyman and church officials.
"He stood up to them," Noaker said. "He took them all to the Navajo Supreme Court. He stood up for himself and then he stood up for others. He has every right to be proud."
Joelle Casteix, the Western regional director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, accompanied Noaker to Shiprock and Gallup in 2007 after that first case was filed.
"These victims are pioneers in seeking rights for Native American victims of abuse," Casteix said in an email Friday. "Because of their tenacity and strength, other victims will be able to get help and healing through the Navajo courts."
"Even though church officials refused to warn the Navajo Nation of the threat that Cichanowicz posed, his victims are now hopefully empowered and can help ensure that what happened to them does not happen to another child," Casteix added. "I hope that other victims in the Navajo Nation come forward to seek the accountability and healing that they deserve."
Attorneys for the Diocese of Gallup and Cichanowicz did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Albuquerque's Franciscan Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Toni Cashnelli, the communications director for Cincinnati's Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, did not respond to questions but noted the province's child protection policy is posted on the religious order's website.