August 25, 2005 in City

Former boys’ ranch residents allege sex abuse

Staff writer
 
Holly Pickett photo

Michael Gray is comforted by his wife, Stephanie, while talking Wednesday afternoon about his allegations of being physically and sexually abused at Morning Star Boys’ Ranch.
(Full-size photo)

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Two former residents of Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, including one who served as its ‘poster boy,’ sued the Spokane boys’ home on Wednesday, alleging that they were sexually abused by counselors in separate incidents in the 1960s and 1980s.

The lawsuit filed in Spokane County Superior Court details a bizarre punishment in the ‘60s in which two counselors forced several Morning Star residents to pose for photographs with flowers protruding from their rectums.

According to the lawsuit, those photographs were circulated among the staff and residents at Morning Star, and were kept in the desk of Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, the ranch’s revered director.

“It was a joke to them,” the former resident, identified in court documents as W.K., said in an interview last month.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Morning Star said, “The Ranch has never knowingly allowed or condoned abuse of any kind. Our mission has always been to serve boys in need and we have done everything in our power to fulfill that mission.”

The lawsuit alleges the photos “served to stigmatize, control and silence W.K. and other boys regarding the abusive conduct they were made to endure.”

“Why does a middle-aged priest keep photos in his desk of boys with flowers sticking out of their ass?” said Timothy Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney representing the two men. “I don’t know. I don’t see the humor in it.”

The allegations are the most recent in a string of physical and sexual accusations from former residents and their families that have surfaced in the past several months.

Weitensteiner, who has been accused of physical abuse by some former residents and counselors, went on medical leave last month.

The Spokesman-Review in June reported the allegations of physical and sexual abuse at the ranch, including accusations of physical abuse against Weitensteiner, a 73-year-old Catholic priest.

In its statement, Morning Star said the newspaper’s reporting “has largely been biased” and said it “has let down its readers and our community through its one-sided coverage.”

In the 12-page court complaint, a second former resident, Michael Gray, alleged that a counselor at Morning Star repeatedly molested and sodomized him at the ranch in 1981.

In an interview on Wednesday, Gray, a 37-year-old Spokane graphic designer, said counselor James Clarke assaulted him between 10 and 15 times – both in the counselor’s apartment and in a laundry room at the boys’ home.

“Blind eyes were turned to it,” Gray said. “I want to see (Morning Star) shut down.”

Clarke could not be reached for comment.

Gray, who served three years in a federal prison for manufacturing marijuana, said he turned to drugs to ease the pain of the abuse, but said he is now sober. In 1995, federal authorities identified Gray as the focus of an investigation into an alleged plot to blow up a federal building, but he was never charged in the case.

The court documents filed on Wednesday allege he was also physically assaulted by counselors at the ranch.

“There were guys you looked up to who beat the hell out of you, and then there were guys just standing around watching,” Gray said.

Since it opened in 1956, the group home south of Spokane has cared for nearly 1,300 boys, including both private-pay residents and state-placed boys whose care was subsidized by taxpayer dollars. Last year, the state’s Department of Social and Health Services paid the ranch more than $500,000 to care for residents. In May, The Spokesman-Review requested DSHS investigative files on Morning Star, but the agency has yet to produce them.

In its statement, Morning Star said its license is in “good standing” with the agency, and that the license has never been suspended. Morning Star has “rigorous safety policies … to keep kids safe.” Those include background checks on employees and volunteers, and increased staffing to work with “boys with special needs,” the statement said.

“We take allegations of abuse seriously and immediately take action to follow proper reporting procedures whenever a Ranch resident is hurt, or alleges he is hurt, in any way,” the statement read.

The court filing lists a series of alleged sexual and physical assaults dating back to the 1950s. Included is the allegation that the Rev. Marvin LaVoy, who served as the founding director of Morning Star, repeatedly sodomized and molested a young boy at the ranch in the 1950s. LaVoy died in 1994.

In addition to the sexual allegations, the lawsuit details several occasions where Weitensteiner allegedly beat the boys at Morning Star – breaking a dinner plate over the head of one boy and beating W.K. “over the head and face” and grabbing him by his hair.

“You don’t have to brutalize kids to turn them around,” Kosnoff said. “There were a lot of kids who have been helped with kindness and gentleness.”

According to court documents, the Social Security Administration determined in 1995 that W.K. was “fully, mentally disabled” as a result of his time at the boys’ ranch.

Now 50 years old, W.K. suffers from “anxiety and affective” disorders, according to the court filing.

In the 1960s, W.K. starred in a promotional video titled, “Billy of Morning Star.” The grainy black-and-white film tells the story of “Billy,” a 12-year-old resident who benefits from the structure and discipline at one of the oldest boys’ homes in Washington state. The court documents say “the reality of daily life for boys at Morningstar (sic) was very different than what was depicted in the film.”

“It does bother me to be the poster boy and have this happen,” W.K. said. “I’m a Christian person and I feel bad. But they chose me, I didn’t go to them.”

W.K., whose parents were deaf and mute, arrived at Morning Star at age 9. He was the youngest boy at the ranch, he said, and Morning Star officials tried to return him to his parents because of his age.

But W.K.’s parents said they were unable to care for him and entrusted him to the care of the boys’ ranch. Though he is unclear about exact dates, he believes he lived at Morning Star from 1964 to ‘68.

According to the court document, at age 12, W.K. and several other boys were sick and confined to their beds. After the boys were warned several times not to leave their beds, counselor William Condon and another counselor entered the room with a handful of irises and a jar of Vaseline, the documents said.

“They told us to drop our drawers and lay down on the bed and spread open, greased our butt and stuck the flower in us, and stuck them straight up,” W.K. said in an interview. “And then they said the first boy that … the first flower that falls over gets hacked. That’s what happened.”

Condon died last month, but in an interview this spring denied he ever sexually abused a child.

W.K. alleged that one of the counselors recorded the scene with a camera.

“I have no doubt that (Weitensteiner) saw (the photos). They were in his desk,” he said.

W.K. said he feared Weitensteiner and other counselors. According to the court filing, W.K. once “watched in horror as Father Weitensteiner attacked a boy so savagely that Weitensteiner and the boy crashed through the door of his office, ripping the door off its hinges.” The documents say staff members “had to wrestle Weitensteiner off the boy.”

W.K. said he left the boys’ ranch in 1968. He raised a family in Spokane, and worked as a landscaper but said he did not report the alleged abuse.

“We didn’t dare say anything,” W.K. said. “My goodness, who would believe us? Who would believe us at that time? Nobody.”

Forty years after the alleged abuse, W.K. said he is terrified of Weitensteiner.

W.K. said that he had struggled to discuss the events but gained courage after reading reports of other incidents involving Weitensteiner.

In an interview last month, the priest widely known as “Father Joe,” acknowledged striking a boy in the face with an open hand, and hitting boys with a paddle hard enough to leave bruises. But he denied several other, more serious allegations from former counselors and residents.

W.K. said he had not previously come forward because he “didn’t want to be the only one standing there, saying, ‘You’re a liar.’ ”

In a separate interview, Gray said he too struggled to confront the alleged abuse.

Gray said the former counselor Clarke lived in an apartment at Morning Star in the early ‘80s and had a stash of Star Wars toys. He said the counselor also showed him adult magazines.

He said he submitted to the abuse out of loneliness.

“I just wanted someone to be my friend so I was willing to sacrifice myself,” he said.

Another former counselor who worked at Morning Star in the ‘80s said the ranch was warned about Clarke and his inappropriate behavior.

“Morning Star had a way of turning a deaf ear to those types of issues,” the former counselor said.

He asked not to be identified, saying he feared Weitensteiner.

The former counselor said that after Clarke left Morning Star, another boy told him that Clarke would invite boys into his room and show them adult magazines. The resident said Clarke would also wrestle with the boys in their underwear, the former counselor said.

In an interview, Gray said he has never received counseling for the alleged abuse at Morning Star. He said he has struggled with anger and depression for years.

“I couldn’t trust anyone,” Gray said. “I think about it now and it makes me sick.”


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