Hundreds of pages of state documents detail multiple allegations of sexual abuse of boys at Morning Star Boys’ Ranch in the past quarter-century and indicate that the assaults have continued to haunt the revered boys’ home in recent years.
In the past decade, Morning Star has reported five allegations of sexually inappropriate interactions between boys and adults associated with the ranch, according to documents released by the state’s Department of Social and Health Services.
The reports, which were released in response to a public records request by The Spokesman-Review, include allegations of sexual encounters between staff and residents, as well as several accounts of molestation and rape among the residents from 1978 to 2005.
Although the 871 pages were edited by the state to protect the names of the boys and some adults, the reports still provide the most comprehensive documented account of life inside Morning Star, which has been shaken in recent months by allegations of physical and sexual assaults that date back decades.
In addition to the allegations against adults, the documents include several accounts of violent or coerced sexual encounters among the boys, including documents regarding a younger boy who said he learned to “just endure” the sexual attacks of an 18-year-old resident with a prior rape conviction.
Morning Star officials said they would not comment on individual cases in the file, which they received after asking the state agency for all documents requested by the newspaper. Ranch officials emphasized that the ranch has continually updated its policies to better protect the boys, offering residents locked single rooms and barring group showers.
Dan Kuhlmann, assistant director of the Catholic boys home, said Morning Star has “always taken a strong position that when we become aware of a problem or situation, we report it.”
In a statement released Friday, Morning Star said, “All social service organizations have some type of incident report – they are NOT unique to Morning Star. Reports are used to identify and solve problems and improve practices over time.”
State licensers occasionally questioned Morning Star’s practices – at one point, a social worker found the home failed to properly report a boy’s allegation that an adult molested him – but the group home’s license remained in good standing from 1978 to 2005, the years covered by the records.
A state official refused to comment on whether Morning Star had an unusual number of complaints.
“To look at something from the ‘70s or ‘80s and compare them to how we do things now is difficult,” said Mike Tornquist, administrator of the state’s Division of Licensed Resources. “We are comfortable with what they are doing now. We feel like the kids there are safe.”
Asked whether some of the boys were unsafe in the past, Tornquist said, “I don’t know how you can read this and not conclude that.”
Included in the documents are allegations that:
“ In 1983, one resident held down a boy while another raped him, according to a sheriff’s report. A Morning Star official told the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office that the boys had been involved in several other sexual assaults. (See document)
“ In 1992, an 18-year-old resident whose psychological evaluation indicated he was “predatory” repeatedly raped a younger boy, according to the state documents. The alleged perpetrator had a previous rape conviction and threatened the 15-year-old resident, who initially fought the older boy during the first three sexual encounters, but later “just endured it,” according to state documents. The 15-year-old resident then began “victimizing younger children,” the documents say. (See document)
“ In 1996, Morning Star failed to properly report a resident’s complaint that he had been fondled by a man during an overnight stay at the man’s home, according to a Child Protective Services’ report. The boy’s social worker and probation officer did not approve the visit, and Morning Star had not conducted a background check on the man. The boy’s therapist expressed concerns that a Morning Star official, Lyle O’Neel, “may have attempted to discourage (the resident) from prosecuting” the alleged perpetrator, according to state documents. O’Neel and the resident denied the charge. (See document)
“ In 2000, a 17-year-old resident reported that a Morning Star leader sexually assaulted him on a camping trip in Idaho. The group leader, whose name was redacted from the records, resigned but apparently was not prosecuted. (See document)
“ In 2005, when a 13-year-old boy told a staff member that the home’s bike room was “creepy,” the employee responded, “If you think this is creepy, come inside, close the doors, and take off your pants,” according to a state complaint report. The agency found that the staff member did make an inappropriate sexual remark to the child, and the employee resigned. (See document)
But the file does not include all reported complaints, an agency official said last week. In a review of additional documents, state workers found other complaints that were not in the licensing file, including correspondence on a former Morning Star counselor named Lynn Burgess, who pleaded guilty in 1982 to communicating with a minor for immoral purposes. According to District Court documents, Burgess told a detective he committed indecent liberties with three girls under the age of 14.
According to a July 19, 1984, letter to the state agency, Morning Star officials – aware of Burgess’ misdemeanor conviction – hired him while he was on probation. The boys ranch fired him seven months later after state investigators received a complaint that Burgess had molested a girl – an incident that had not been previously reported to the state.
The documents indicate Morning Star began to tighten its reporting standards in the 1990s after incidents of sexual activity among the boys and allegations of rape against a counselor.
In the past decade, the ranch has reported five allegations of inappropriate sexual interactions between residents and adults associated with Morning Star. But in the preceding 17 years, the state’s licensing agency received no such reports, according to a review of the state file.
A state official, who reviewed the file but asked not to be identified because top DSHS officials had not approved the conversation, said investigators were more concerned about the dearth of reports from the late 1970s to the early 1990s than about the increase in reports in the past decade.
The state documents do not include any reference to the sexual abuse alleged by two former residents in a civil lawsuit filed this summer. In the Spokane County Superior Court lawsuit, the men alleged they were sexually assaulted by counselors in separate incidents in the 1960s and ‘80s.
The state agency continues to prepare other earlier Morning Star documents and plans to release those records once they are edited.
Timothy Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney representing the men, said he was not surprised to learn the file contained no information on the alleged sexual assaults in the early 1980s.
“I don’t believe for a minute that nothing happened from 1978 to 1995,” said Kosnoff, who had not yet reviewed the file. “If the anecdotal evidence is any indication, there’s been a serious problem of abuse of kids by staff members and by other residents dating back to the very beginning.”
Morning Star officials said they will consult with an independent group of child welfare experts to review the ranch’s current policies and past incidents. Since its opening in 1956, the ranch has cared for nearly 1,300 boys, including both private clients and state-placed children.
The documents also shed light on the difficulties in prosecuting child sexual abuse cases – even in an instance in which more than one victim came forward.
Though law enforcement investigated several of the incidents, it does not appear that any Morning Star staff members were ever criminally prosecuted. Morning Star officials declined to comment, citing confidentiality issues.
In a 1995 sex abuse investigation of Morning Star counselor Dale Stearns, a state social worker reported “credible statements” from two alleged victims. According to the state records, a Spokane police detective investigated the allegations but Stearns was never charged. (See document)
Stearns, who was licensed as a foster parent in an agreement between the state and Morning Star, was later accused of repeatedly molesting his foster son, whom he met at the boys ranch. The resident, who reached a settlement with the ranch last fall for an undisclosed sum of money, testified in a sworn deposition that Stearns molested him “every single day” during the year they spent together.
The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation this spring after The Spokesman-Review reported on other alleged victims of Stearns. That investigation remains active.
Difficult to prove
Sgt. Jeff Tower said child molestation can be difficult to prove because of the lack of witnesses and physical evidence.
“It’s usually done in secret,” Tower said, “and there are usually only two people there.”
That was the challenge facing investigators in 1996, when a boy reported he had been fondled by a man he was visiting overnight. According to the agency’s records, a therapist alleged that Lyle O’Neel, the ranch’s assistant director, may have pressured the boy not to pursue the case criminally, and told the teenager he “would have to be in court and talk about a lot of things he wouldn’t want to talk about.”
O’Neel, who left the ranch in 1997, denied he pressured the boy. The resident said O’Neel did not discourage him, according to the documents.
“If something happened, I would never try to talk someone out of reporting it,” O’Neel said. “I was always an aggressive protector of children.”
A Spokane police detective investigated, but closed the case after he was unable to contact the suspect because the man’s wife “always says he’s gone,” according to the state records.
A Child Protective Services employee found Morning Star failed to immediately report the allegations, and, according to a caseworker’s notes from a telephone call, O’Neel was reminded that “failure to report is a felony for which persons have been prosecuted,” DSHS records say.
In September 2000, a teenage resident reported that a Morning Star leader molested him in a tent on a camping trip in Idaho. The employee, who later resigned, denied the allegations.
A state investigator said that “without clear corroboration … or a first-hand witness,” it was not possible to determine whether the allegations were true.
In the past several months, former residents have alleged that they were injured by counselors who “hacked” them with a wooden paddle, a practice that Morning Star phased out in the 1980s.
Included in the agency’s files is a 1978 Child Protective Services report in which Morning Star’s director, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, admitted striking a boy in the face and pulling a 4-inch clump of hair from the back of his head. In an interview in July, the 73-year-old priest confirmed the report’s accuracy. He said he apologized to the boy.
Although Morning Star ended corporal punishment, physical confrontations between residents and staff continued in the 1980s and ‘90s. In several instances, Morning Star workers injured boys while attempting to restrain them.
In 1992, a 15-year-old resident broke his collarbone during a “scuffle” with a Morning Star employee, who allegedly flipped the boy over his shoulder. A state investigation determined the injury was accidental but found that the employee “failed to use good judgment.”
Two years later, in an attempt to restrain a resident, a Morning Star counselor allegedly placed the boy in a chokehold, obstructing his breathing and preventing him from speaking. A state social worker found the restraint was “clearly unacceptable” and that the employee’s behavior was “explosive and could possibly be interpreted as abusive,” according to the state reports.
Another Morning Star employee told an investigator she believed the counselor was drunk.
According to the state documents, a Morning Star official said the counselor had been warned about his drinking and that he was “a heavy drinker but I wouldn’t call him an alcoholic.”
The documents do not say whether the counselor was reprimanded, though it does say Morning Star officials met with him to discuss the allegations.
In 2004, a resident broke his leg when Morning Star staff attempted to restrain him. The state determined the injury to be accidental, and that the staff had acted to protect other children.
Tornquist said that in order to protect other residents and staff, it is sometimes necessary for Morning Star workers to restrain the boys.
“Our expectation is that they manage those types of situations in a way that is consistent with our rules and regulations,” he said. “We’re comfortable with the existing processes that are in place. We feel like now they are doing a really good job out there.”
Kuhlmann, who joined the staff in 1971, said he believes the ranch has acted appropriately in caring for the boys.
“I’ve been a believer in the program since the day I came here,” he said.