Navajo Clergy Abuse Survivor Speaks out
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
July 17, 2012
GALLUP — The Navajo man known in court documents as “John Doe BF” is finally getting a chance to have some peace in his life.
For about 20 years, he was at war with himself over memories of the sexual abuse he says he was subjected to by former Franciscan priest Charles “Chuck” Cichanowicz. That was a self-destructive war fueled by anger, alcohol, depression, drugs, violence, suicide attempts and self-mutilation, and it was a war marked by a life of survival on the streets and revolving stints in jail cells and detox centers.
For nearly five years, since he filed his clergy sex abuse lawsuit in the Navajo Nation Courts in 2007, he and his attorneys have been waging a legal battle with 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. It was a battle, he said, that the church’s attorneys fought every step of the way.
But that war is now over. Along with two other Navajo men who filed similar lawsuits against Cichanowicz, “John Doe BF” recently signed a settlement agreement with the four defendants. As part of the agreement, he and the other two plaintiffs are receiving monetary settlements of an undisclosed amount and Cichanowicz’s promise that he will never seek or accept any type of work that involves contact with minors. They did not, however, receive an admission of guilt from Cichanowicz or an apology from church officials.
In a telephone interview Thursday, the man talked about the impact the abuse has had on his life, but he asked that his identity continue to be protected. For the purpose of the interview, he agreed to be called “John Begay,” a pseudonym and not his real name.
Now residing in the Pacific Northwest, Begay said he’s never told his family about the abuse. They don’t know he filed the landmark lawsuit, and when he attended the court hearing before the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, they didn’t know he was back on the reservation.
“It’s something I don’t want them to deal with,” Begay said of the hurt he believes it will cause. “It’s not something I want to burden them with.”
According to Begay, the sexual abuse he suffered as a teenager was a painful secret that he tried to bury and not think about for two decades.
“I didn’t dare tell anybody else,” he said. “I kind of felt like it was my fault.”
Its impact on his life, however, was immediate. Begay said he started drinking heavily, dropped out of high school, began to isolate himself, and vented his anger in frequent fights. He eventually hitchhiked off the reservation and began wandering from town to town.
I just ran as far as I could, for as long as I could,”?he said. “It was a very bad time.”
Tale of self-destruction
He was in and out of jail during his 20s, Begay said, and twice he attempted suicide. His arms still bear the scars of where he used to cut himself, a practice that Begay said offered temporary relief from his emotional pain.
During his 30s, his life cycled from jail to detox centers and from long periods of time living on the streets to hard-fought efforts to become sober.
In 2002, news about the Catholic Church’s national sex abuse crisis hit Begay hard.
“It struck me on a very personal level and it got me all angry again,” he said.
But as much as his abuse haunted him, Begay said he never made the connection between the sexual abuse in his teen years and the subsequent way his life had spiraled out of control.
And then one day in 2007, Begay said, he began to understand that connection. He was watching a television news program when a woman was interviewed about her own childhood sexual abuse. Begay said he was stunned by the woman’s tale of self-destruction and saw his own life reflected in her words.
“That’s me, man. I know what she’s talking about,” Begay recalled thinking. “I know what this is all about now.”
Begay eventually sought help and contacted Patrick Noaker, an attorney with Jeff Anderson & Associates, a Minnesota law firm known for its work on behalf of clergy abuse victims. Noaker’s added co-counsel William R. Keeler, a Gallup attorney licensed to practice in Navajo courts.
Begay recalled the day Noaker called to tell him Cichanowicz had been located in Lafayette, Ind., working as a mental health counselor with adolescents and adults.
“I couldn’t believe it. I had to ask him again. I knew something was terribly wrong with that ... .” Begay said of the news. “It made me want to pursue this even more.”
Begay described his mixed emotions when two other Navajo men came forward with allegations that Cichanowicz had sexually abused them also. On the one hand, he said, he felt validation, yet he also felt sad and angry that there were more victims.
“I was glad that others had the courage to come forward and say, ‘This happened to me,’” Begay said. “It made me feel I wasn’t alone in this.”
Begay said the litigation proved to be a stressful ordeal, particularly the initial dismissal by the Shiprock District Court and what he viewed as constant legal haggling by the church’s attorneys.
During oral arguments before the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, Begay said he was angered when one of the church attorneys suggested that Begay was no longer really connected to the Navajo Nation and Navajo culture because he lived in a different region of the country. Begay said he was grateful when Chief Justice Herb Yazzie addressed the non-Indian attorney’s argument and picked it apart.
“I was very, very glad to hear that,” Begay said of Yazzie’s remarks. “That he stood up for me. That he stood up for what was right.”
Although the Navajo Nation Supreme Court ruled in Begay’s favor and remanded the case back to district court, Begay and the other two plaintiffs agreed to mediation this spring, which led to the recent settlement.
Advice to others
Begay said he has come to understand that the abuse wasn’t his fault advice he shares with other abuse survivors. He now encourages victims to tell someone who is trustworthy about the abuse.
“Don’t hide it. Don’t bury it. It’s not your fault,” he said. “There is help out there. They don’t have to feel alone and isolated.”
Begay said he has rediscovered his own Christian faith after years of alternately blaming God and questioning God’s existence. However, he said, his faith is more on a spiritual level, based on a relationship with God, and not just a religion.
In contrast, Begay calls Cichanowicz a con man and a liar who masqueraded as a man of faith in order to have access to children.
“I believe it was an opportunity to role play and do what he wanted to do with kids,” he said.
Begay said he believes the Diocese of Gallup and the Franciscans should come clean about what other clergy abusers have been assigned on the Navajo Nation.
“If they want to continue to be a presence on the reservation and continue to have a relationship with the Navajo Nation,” he said, “yes, I think they should.”
— Reporter Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola can be contacted at (505) 870-0745 or firstname.lastname@example.org