Navajo Nation Supreme Court to Hear Clergy Abuse Legal Arguments—via Yale

By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
October 19, 2010

The first clergy sex abuse lawsuit filed in the Navajo Nation court system is headed to an unusual venue later this month.

The case of John Doe BF vs. Diocese of Gallop,, which was filed nearly three years ago in Shiprock District Court is now headed to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court by way of an Oct. 25 hearing at Yale Law School in New Haven, Cont. The Supreme Court justices will hear oral arguments regarding an appeal filed by the plaintiff’s attorneys.

The case was dismissed by Shiprock Judge Genevieve Woody on Jan 19, after Woody ruled that the plaintiff did not file within the required statute of limitations period.

Several organizations at Yale Law School are sponsoring the event which will likely be held in the Sterling Law Building from 4:30-6 pm. The Navajo Nation Supreme Court has previously been invited by other law schools to hear oral arguments concerning other Navajo court cases.

The lawsuit was originally filed on Nov. 6, 2007, by attorneys William R. Keeler of Gallup and Patrick Noaker of Jeff Anderson & Associates of St. Paul, Minn., a law firm that is nationally known for representing plaintiffs in clergy sexual abuse cases.

The plaintiff in this case, identified as John Doe BF, is a Navajo man who alleges when he was 14 or 15 years old in the mid-1980?s he was sexually abused twice by Charles “Chuck” Cichanowicz who was then a Franciscan priest at Christ the King parish in Shiprock. Cichanowicz eventually left the Catholic priesthood. When the lawsuit was filed Cichanowicz was working as a counselor for the Alpine Clinic in Lafayette, Ind.

In the spring of 2009, Keeler and Noaker subsequently filed two additional lawsuits in Window Rock District Court after two other Navajo men came forward with sexual abuse allegations against Cichanowicz. According to Noaker, those two cases are currently on hold while the appeal on this first case goes before the Navajo Nation Supreme Court.

In her order to dismiss, Woody agreed the Navajo courts have jurisdiction over the case, but she said the plaintiff did not file within the required statute of limitations period. Keeler and Noaker have argued that the plaintiff did not begin to understand that he was injured by the alleged sexual abuse until years later as an adult in 2007. As a result they have argued he did file the lawsuit within the allowed time limit.

Concerning the Sept. 22, 2009 court hearing, Woody wrote: “The Court specifically asked Plaintiff to bring other witnesses or psychological professionals to support his assertions concerning the time and significance of his insight of 2007. He did not present any testimony or evidence other than what he himself stated … he did not even appear himself to give the Court an explanation.”

In their appellant’s brief, Keeler and Noaker countered that Woody’s decision was a step made too soon. “It is not the trial judges’ function to weigh the evidence and to determine the truth of the material facts before the court, but to decide whether there is a genuine issue for trial,” they wrote.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Noaker said he has confidence that the Navajo Nation Supreme Court will rule for the plaintiff concerning the statute of limitation issue.

“I really believe they are going to interpret in our favor,” he said. If that hppens, he said, the case will be sent back to the Shiprock District Court. If the Supreme Court rules against the plaintiff, Woody’s order to dismiss the case will stand.

During the oral arguments at Yale Law School, Gallup attorney Thomas Lynn Isaacson will represent the Diocese of Gallup, Albuquerque attorneys Arthur O. Beach and David W. Peterson will represent the Franciscan Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Cincinnati attorney Clifford Craig will represent the Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, and Albuquerque attorney Brian K. Nichols will represent Cichanowicz.


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