The Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, the revered director of Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, announced Thursday he will take a temporary leave of absence amid recently publicized allegations of past physical abuse.
Weitensteiner, a 73-year-old Catholic priest, said he would take the temporary leave because of stress-related health problems.
Last week, a Spokane support group for victims of clergy abuse called on Weitensteiner to resign, saying his physical discipline “went beyond what was reasonable.”
Asked whether he would resign, Weitensteiner said, “I’ve been planning for a long time to retire.”
During Weitensteiner’s leave, Morning Star’s board of directors will bring in an independent investigator to look into the state-licensed facility’s policies and procedures, said board president Bob Durgan. Ranch spokeswoman P.J. Watters later said the scope of the investigation hasn’t yet been determined, but that the results will be made public.
In his first interview since newspaper reports detailed allegations of physical abuse by Weitensteiner, the priest apologized to former residents who said that his corporal punishment left them bruised and injured. He acknowledged striking a boy in the face with an open hand, and to hitting boys with a paddle hard enough to leave bruises, but he denied several other, more serious allegations from former counselors and residents.
“At the time, we believed this to be a necessary and appropriate discipline practice, as did many institutions and families,” said Weitensteiner, the ranch’s director since 1966. “It was never the intent of the ranch to harm a boy. On the contrary, for most of us, our lives’ work has been to serve boys’ needs.”
Most of the allegations stem from the 1970s, when the state’s administrative rules allowed corporal punishment that did not “bruise or harm” the child. Morning Star ended corporal punishment in the early 1980s, Weitensteiner said.
“I think most people look back at those practices with regret,” he said. The discipline, he added, “would never happen in today’s world.”
He said the ranch “never allowed or condoned abuse.”
Weitensteiner confirmed the accuracy of a 1978 Child Protective Services report, which said he acknowledged repeatedly striking a boy in the face and pulling a 4-inch clump of his hair.
“He made a move to get away and I grabbed him,” Weitensteiner said. “Those were the days of long hair. I felt terrible about that, and apologized to the boy, and as the records indicate, went to the mother. It was not a good scene.”
Weitensteiner also conceded that Jim West and a fellow sheriff’s deputy who killed himself amid allegations of child molestation could have removed boys in the 1970s for outings without registering their names in ranch log books – as alleged by a relative of the deceased deputy.
In a press conference in May, Weitensteiner cited the log books when he vigorously denied that West and David Hahn, who were close friends, took boys from the ranch in the 1970s. West also cited the log books in denying he removed boys from Morning Star.
“We didn’t log the visitors,” Weitensteiner said.
On Thursday, Weitensteiner, flanked by current ranch employees and former residents, briefly read from a stack of supportive correspondence he said he received in recent weeks, saying they were “a great comfort.”
“Certainly my experience was a good one,” said Ray Clary, a 49-year-old lawyer and former resident. “It turned me around. I wouldn’t be here without it.”
Morning Star officials said they have made strides to improve the safety of boys at the ranch, including individual rooms with locked doors and separate showers. Weitensteiner said he had informed boys for years to immediately tell employees if they were touched “in their swimming suit zone.”
“I know how good the program is today,” said Brian Barbour, the ranch’s program director. “I know what’s in place today.”
Former ranch residents and counselors allege the Catholic priest’s strict discipline went beyond the corporal punishment that was allowed at the time. One counselor said Weitensteiner punched a boy in the face in the late 1970s. Another alleges the priest swung a 2-by-4 at a resident in the 1960s. Weitensteiner said he did not recall many of the specific incidents and believed they were false.
In June, The Spokesman-Review reported on the death of Timothy Donald Everts, a 15-year-old Spokane boy who killed himself in 1978 after telling friends and family he had been physically and sexually abused at Morning Star. Everts told a friend that a Catholic priest named Patrick O’Donnell sexually abused him at the ranch.
Morning Star officials released a brief statement on Thursday about O’Donnell, who has admitted to molesting more than a dozen boys.
Morning Star said O’Donnell did visit the ranch, but was never assigned any duties. In a 2004 deposition, O’Donnell said he did “evaluations” at the ranch in the early to mid-1980s. The ranch said in its statement that it was unaware of records that support O’Donnell’s testimony.
State investigators told The Spokesman-Review in June they can find no evidence that Everts’ claims were ever reported to Child Protective Services by Morning Star, which is mandated to report child abuse complaints. Failure to report is a misdemeanor.
Weitensteiner denied on Thursday that he knew of Everts’ allegations in 1978.
“To the best of my knowledge, Timmy Everts never told anybody about anyone touching him inappropriately,” Weitensteiner said.
However, according to a March 31, 1978, newspaper article after the boy’s death, Everts’ mother said he complained about “hacks” and a friend said the boy complained “the place was full of (gays).” The article quotes Weitensteiner as saying Everts was “a troubled young man.”
Weitensteiner said he did not recall whether he specifically instructed boys at the ranch not to talk about Everts’ allegations, as a former resident told The Spokesman-Review.
Watters, the Morning Star spokeswoman, also confirmed that a former resident recently reported that he had been repeatedly molested by an older boy at the ranch in the early 1980s, and that a staff counselor learned of the abuse and separated the boys. Morning Star officials said Thursday they could not determine whether it had been reported to state investigators.
Watters said the former resident remained supportive of the ranch.
A spokeswoman for Child Protective Services, which is responsible for children in state care, said the agency is conducting a search for old Morning Star records.
The state’s Department of Licensing, which oversees Morning Star’s license, continues to research a recent civil lawsuit in which a Morning Star resident alleged he was repeatedly molested by a counselor in the 1990s. The agency only became aware of the allegations earlier this spring after being contacted by The Spokesman-Review.
Weitensteiner said his staff had been careful to protect the confidentiality of the facility’s boys.
“The common practice for me was anything that happened at the ranch, we would not air our laundry on the outside,” he said. “There were kids who were bed-wetters, you know, and we’d caution the boys, ‘You don’t go to school and say oh, so and so wets the bed.’ “
“We wanted to protect the reputation of the ranch, yes, and protect the boys who were living here so they wouldn’t go to school and be embarrassed,” Weitensteiner said. “We would have those house meetings. What happens here stays here.”