Lawsuit claims priest sexually abused Navajo boy in 1980s

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 11-07

A Navajo man who claims a Catholic priest gave him alcohol and sexually abused him as a teenager in the mid-1980s is suing the priest and the Diocese of Gallup.

The civil lawsuit, filed during November in Navajo Nation District Court in Shiprock, names the Rev. Charles “Chuck” Cichanowicz and the diocese in northwestern New Mexico as defendants.

The plaintiff, who is not named in the lawsuit, claims he was sexually abused on two separate occasions in 1984 and 1985 by Cichanowicz, who was then a priest at Christ the King parish in Shiprock on the Navajo Nation.

Cichanowicz now resides in West Lafayette, Ind., and works as a counselor at Alpine Clinic in Lafayette, the Journal and Courier reported.

The lawsuit contends that the diocese failed to supervise Cichanowicz and did not implement reasonable safeguards to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct.

“Defendants’ conduct was extreme and outrageous and was intentional or done recklessly,” the lawsuit states. “As a result of defendants’ conduct, plaintiff has experienced and continues to experience severe emotional distress.”

Matt Doyle, a spokesman for the diocese, said Wednesday that diocesan lawyers have not seen the complaint and therefore could not comment.

“I’m assuming the paperwork is going to go through attorneys and they’re going to tell us what it means,” Doyle said. “We have to get our direction from the attorneys.”

Doyle confirmed that Cichanowicz had been assigned to the Shiprock parish in the years in which the abuse is alleged to have taken place.

Reached by telephone in West Lafayette, Cichanowicz said he had no comment.

The lawsuit seeks damages, costs, interest, statutory and civil penalties and other relief the tribal court deems appropriate.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff had stopped by the Shiprock church in 1984 to use the phone to call his girlfriend. Cichanowicz overheard the conversation and invited the plaintiff to discuss his relationship with his girlfriend, the lawsuit states.

The priest then offered the Navajo teen a beer and whiskey and sexually abused him, said Pat Noaker, a Minnesota lawyer representing the 38-year-old plaintiff.

“It’s a sad, but true fact that that’s almost the way it always works,” Noaker said.

The priest threatened the boy after the second alleged incident in 1985, telling him he would expose him if anyone found out, Noaker said.

“Father Chuck knew he had power over the kid,” Noaker said.

The lawsuit contends that the plaintiff, who now lives in Oregon, suffered from years of physical and psychological injuries and that he didn’t realize those problems were connected to the alleged abuse until earlier this year.

Under Navajo Nation law, a person has three years from the date in which he or she made the connection to file a lawsuit.

Doyle said the diocese has a program available to victims of sexual abuse.

“The diocese has expressed concern for the victim of the alleged abuse and is willing to assist him,” he said.

The Diocese of Gallup encompasses all of San Juan and McKinley counties in New Mexico and most of northeastern Arizona.