August 26, 2005 in City

Closure of boys’ ranch urged

Former resident alleges sexual abuse
Benjamin Shors The Spokesman-Review
 
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A former Morning Star Boys’ Ranch resident who alleges he was sexually abused there called for its closure at a news conference Thursday.

Michael Gray, a 37-year-old Spokane graphic designer, said he lived in fear of the ranch’s counselors in the early 1980s. In a lawsuit filed by two former residents this week, Gray alleged that a Morning Star counselor named James Clarke repeatedly molested and sodomized him at the ranch in 1981.

“At the time, I just wanted someone to be my friend,” Gray said at the news conference near the entrance to the 225-acre Catholic boys’ ranch south of Spokane. “I did whatever he wanted me to.”

Spokeswoman P.J. Watters said Morning Star was “shocked” and “deeply saddened” by the accusations, and said the ranch remains dedicated to serving boys in need.

“None of the allegations in the lawsuit have been proven,” Watters said. “Anyone can say anything.”

Watters said ranch policy prohibited her from disclosing whether Clarke worked at the ranch.

The 12-page court file details allegations of physical and sexual assault stretching back to the 1950s. It accuses Morning Star officials of permitting the abuse and concealing it from state investigators at the Department of Social and Health Services.

Seattle attorney Timothy Kosnoff, who represents 150 victims of clergy sexual abuse, said the two former residents, who came from troubled homes, were “perhaps the most vulnerable of any of the sex abuse victims I’ve represented in the past 10 years.”

“When men come forward and report similar kinds of acts, one has to ask what is Morning Star Boys’ Ranch really about? What really went on here?” asked Kosnoff, who is representing the men along with Seattle attorney Michael Pfau.

A second former resident, identified in court documents as W.K., alleges that in the 1960s two counselors forced several Morning Star boys to pose for photographs with flowers protruding from their rectums.

Late Thursday, another former resident of Morning Star agreed to talk to the newspaper and corroborated W.K.’s account that the counselors penetrated them with the flowers as a punishment when the boys were ill.

“I don’t know why they did it,” he said. “Because they could. They were adults and we were kids.”

The Spokane man provided his name to The Spokesman-Review but asked not to be identified because he does not want to be involved in the pending lawsuit.

Founded by the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, the boys’ ranch gained renown for caring for nearly 1,300 troubled boys, ages 10 to 18, since it opened in 1956. Several former residents have contacted The Spokesman-Review to report that Morning Star and the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner turned around their lives.

Weitensteiner, a 73-year-old Catholic priest, went on temporary leave last month because of stress-related health problems.

Mike Tornquist, administrator of the state’s Division of Licensed Resources, said his staff has made several visits to Morning Star in recent months.

“We have focused our efforts on doing health and safety inspections on the kids who are currently there,” Tornquist said. “We’re not finding any reason to be concerned about the current situation.”

Tornquist said it is “very unlikely we’d be able to do anything with something that far back unless it involves current staff.”

In May, The Spokesman-Review requested the agency’s investigative files on Morning Star, but the agency has not yet produced the records. It is not clear whether DSHS previously received reports on the alleged abuse referenced in the lawsuit.

“Billy,” identified in court documents as W.K., said he was unable to attend Thursday’s news conference because of anxiety.

“I’m broke down,” he said. “I just couldn’t stand in front of those cameras.”

W.K., now 50, said Morning Star used him in a promotional video for the ranch. He said his photograph was also used in promotional mailings. Written underneath the photo, he said, were the words, “Who can he turn to?”

The Spokesman-Review obtained a copy of the eight-minute video “Billy of Morning Star Boys Ranch.” It can be viewed at www.spokesmanreview. com.

In the film, Billy and another boy start to fight during a football game. A staff member – apparently Weitensteiner – appears and grabs the boys by the arm. The boys are then taken into a boxing ring to fight as the narrator states, “In some cases, trial by fire can get more promising attention.”

The film later shows Billy with a black eye – he said it was makeup – as a man who appears to be Weitensteiner counsels him. The film ends with Billy underneath a tree, dreaming of his future.

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