Don Norby remembers arriving late for a meal during a Priest Lake camping trip with other boys from Morning Star Boys Ranch in the early 1970s.
As the 12-year-old went to sit down for lunch, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner grabbed him and dragged him outside, Norby told The Spokesman-Review on Monday.
Norby, now 47, said Weitensteiner struck him hard enough to break a wooden paddle on his buttocks. After the paddle broke, Weitensteiner picked up a small log and continued to hit the boy, chasing him along the beach, Norby said in an interview.
Norby said Weitensteiner, Morning Star’s director since 1966, beat him numerous times during the year he spent at Morning Star, a renowned boys home south of Spokane.
“I don’t want nothing other than justice,” Norby said. “He should not still be in there. I think it’s time that something be done.”
Ranch spokeswoman P.J. Watters said she could neither confirm nor deny that Norby was a resident at Morning Star. She denied that Weitensteiner ever abused a ranch resident. Watters said the ranch is considering an internal investigation into several allegations of physical abuse.
Watters said Weitensteiner was “surprised” by the allegations. The ranch said Monday that the 73-year-old Catholic priest was not available for comment.
“He’s trying to recall things,” Watters said. “He recalls that boys used to go after each other, and when they did, staff had to intervene for the safety of the boys. When staff had to intervene, sometimes it wasn’t pretty.”
Watters said the boys – including both private-pay and state-placed residents – were at Morning Star “to be protected and that was the mission of Father Joe and the staff.”
The Spokesman-Review reported on Sunday that Weitensteiner leveled a strict discipline that injured several boys, according to former residents and counselors and a 1978 state report. In a news release issued Sunday, Morning Star said statements in the article were “incomplete or misleading” but did not elaborate.
In a 1978 state report into allegations of physical abuse, Weitensteiner admitted to striking a boy in the face and pulling out a 4-inch clump of hair, according to documents released this spring by the Department of Social and Health Services. The agency, which oversees licensing for the home for 18 boys, took no action against Weitensteiner.
After Sunday’s article was published, two more former residents contacted The Spokesman-Review alleging that staff at Morning Star beat them. Both men requested anonymity but agreed to come forward if necessary.
One man, a 41-year-old owner of an automotive shop, visited Morning Star on Monday to request his records. He alleges he was repeatedly beaten and that Weitensteiner struck him in the face with a wooden paddle for giggling during Mass.
“I’ve been in tears half the day,” the man said. “It was hard to talk about that stuff. I never thought I’d deal with it again in my life.”
A 56-year-old dental technician said he spent only a few days at Morning Star in the late 1950s but was beaten so severely by a ranch employee that he vomited. At the time, the ranch’s director was the Rev. Marvin F. Lavoy.
The man said he was 9 years old when his father sent him to Morning Star to improve his social skills.
“He was kind of a loner, and we figured it could help him,” said the man’s 76-year-old father. “It wasn’t what we expected. It ended up like a torture factory.”
The former resident said that two older boys convinced him to try to run away from the ranch with them. When he followed the older residents to the end of the road, lights suddenly flashed on, and he found Morning Star employees waiting for him.
“I got beaten severely, to the point I wasn’t even really able to stand up very well,” said the man. “I was given a spoon and told, ‘If you’re going to vomit, you’re going to eat your vomit.’ “
Al Turbin, a 40-year-old truck driver from Usk, Wash., defended Weitensteiner on Monday.
“Father Joe was like a father figure to me,” Turbin said.
“I’ve been in and out of jail in my younger years, but I couldn’t imagine where I’d be without Morning Star,” Turbin said.
Norby, who admitted serving more than a year on felony drug charges a decade ago, said the beatings began shortly after he arrived at the ranch in about 1970, when he objected to having his hair cut.
Weitensteiner allegedly took him into an office at Morning Star and administered 15 blows with a “hack paddle” – a 2- to 3-foot wooden board.
“I wasn’t aware of the rules that when you got hacked you were supposed to say, ‘Thank you, Father Joe’ – I didn’t,” Norby said. “I got another five hacks. I still didn’t say it because then I was hurting so bad.”
Norby said Weitensteiner struck him 25 times.
“I couldn’t sit down for a couple days,” he said.
Norby alleged that Weitensteiner also punched a teenage boy who refused to eat liver. He said Weitensteiner grabbed the boy by his hair and dragged him into a utility closet.
“When he came back out the door, that kid’s nose was busted,” he said.
On another occasion, Norby said, Morning Star staffers forced him to fight an older boy who had one arm tied behind his back. The older boy, an experienced boxer, beat him up.
“They got a kick out of it,” Norby said of the Morning Star staffers. He left the ranch in 1971.
“Nobody needed what they gave us,” he said. “I could never look (Weitensteiner) in the eye as a priest. I believe in the Lord, but I don’t have any faith in the priesthood.”
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