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Alumni step forward to defend boys’ ranch

Morning Star Boys' Ranch alumni from the 1960s through the 1980s gather at Riverfront Park on Tuesday to talk about their positive experiences while living at the Catholic boys' ranch south of Spokane. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Morning Star Boys' Ranch alumni from the 1960s through the 1980s gather at Riverfront Park on Tuesday to talk about their positive experiences while living at the Catholic boys' ranch south of Spokane. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

In the late 1960s, Morning Star Boys’ Ranch took in a young boy whose single mother was unable to care for him.

Nearly four decades later, Terry Neal sits on the board of directors for the Catholic-run boys’ home, which he said helped him in a desperate time of need.

“I think they did it right,” said Neal, a 47-year-old Spokane banker. “I know they are doing it right today. The institution today is so good.”

Neal was one of about 15 former residents of Morning Star who held a press conference at Riverfront Park on Tuesday to defend the boys’ home and its director, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner.

In recent months, allegations of sexual and physical abuse have roiled the ranch, which opened in 1956 and has cared for more than 1,200 boys.

“We’re here because we think we benefited greatly from Father Joe and from the ranch,” said Ray Clary, a 49-year-old Spokane attorney. “We hope the port in the storm we know as Morning Star will be there in the future.”

Clary released letters and comments from other former Morning Star boys. One credited the ranch with turning him into “a responsible member of society.” Another said that during meals, Morning Star staff waited to eat until the boys had enough food. A third remembered when a counselor drove more than 300 miles to “talk me through a really tough time.”

But other former residents and counselors have portrayed a different environment.

Last week, two men sued Morning Star in Spokane County Superior Court, alleging they were sexually abused in separate incidents in the 1960s and ‘80s.

The lawsuit accuses Morning Star officials of permitting the physical and sexual abuse of some boys in their care and concealing it from state investigators at the Department of Social and Health Services, which licensed the boys home.

The lawsuit alleges that in the 1960s, Morning Star counselors forced several residents to pose for photographs with flowers protruding from their rectums. A second man alleged a counselor in the 1980s repeatedly molested him at the ranch south of Spokane.

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review last week, a former resident who asked not to be identified corroborated the “flower incident” alleged in the lawsuit.

Another former resident, 56-year-old Mike Seraday of Spokane, told the newspaper he saw a photograph but insisted it was a “prank” in which the boys had agreed to participate. He said he did not believe the boys were penetrated but that the photo was staged to make it appear they had been.

“Everybody up there knew about it,” Seraday said. “Everybody was laughing about it.”

One of the counselors named in the lawsuit, Bill Condon, “did not have a cruel bone in his body,” Seraday said.

But Seraday said he remembers other counselors “slapping, punching and kicking” residents.

“I think it should have been different, but I guess it was the times,” Seraday said. “I would rather it hadn’t occurred.”

At Tuesday’s press conference, several former residents said they had never heard the account involving the flowers until last week’s story about the lawsuit in The Spokesman-Review.

“If that had happened to one kid, everyone would have known about it,” said Rik Neis, who lived at the ranch from 1967 to 1969 – the approximate time when the assault allegedly occurred. “Everything that was done at Morning Star was done to benefit the boys.”

Pete Whipple, a 47-year-old pastor from New Jersey, credited the boys ranch with turning around the lives of numerous boys.

“Most of us would be dead or in jail without Morning Star,” Whipple said.

Whipple, who spent a decade at the boys ranch, said the residents developed a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie.

“Not only were we nurtured by the adults, but in a real big sense, we were nurtured by one another,” he said.

But others – who did not attend the press conference – say the allegations of physical and sexual abuse have brought to light problems that were never adequately addressed.

Rick DeShazo, director of Rehabilitation Services at a Salvation Army center in Portland, said he watched Weitensteiner throw a boy into a window, shattering the glass.

“When (Weitensteiner) got angry, it was almost like flipping a switch,” said DeShazo, 50, who lived at Morning Star in the late 1960s. “He was just out of control.”

DeShazo said he served two prison terms for burglary, but eventually turned his life around and earned a master’s degree in counseling and drug treatment.

“I have always resented Father Joe,” DeShazo said in a letter to The Spokesman-Review last month. “He beat up a lot of kids back then, and the community and DSHS never blinked an eye.”

Bill Ellis, who lived at the ranch in the mid-1980s, said corporal punishment had been phased out by the time he arrived. He said that even when he became physically aggressive, ranch workers did not retaliate with violence.

“They held me down and let it pass,” Ellis said.

Neal said the ranch has evolved into an institution that provides a safe, structured environment for boys with nowhere else to turn.

Like others at Tuesday’s press conference, he emphasized he was only relaying his experience.

“These guys who have come forward,” he said, “I really hope this never happened to them.”