October 27, 2005 in City

1960s records show Weitensteiner worked wonders

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The Catholic priest who was founding director of Morning Star Boys’ Ranch apparently was forced out of his position in the 1960s after Spokane County’s health department objected to conditions at the facility.

Thousands of pages of records released by the state’s Department of Social and Health Services this week document that parts of the boys’ ranch were in “disarray” in 1966, with broken windows, torn screens and “badly soiled” bedding. A state official complained that the ranch had not filed a monthly report in more than a year.Of particular concern to one state investigator was the Rev. Marvin Lavoy’s “very casual and almost irresponsible attitude.” at the ranch.But when the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner replaced Lavoy in 1966, state officials quickly noticed a change. The energetic young priest immediately acted to improve conditions that had lingered for years and gradually built the ranch’s reputation.

“Obviously, he wants to make a big name for Morning Star Ranch as he feels (its) reputation as an agency has become rather bad,” a 1967 state report said.

Details of the ranch’s condition under Lavoy’s leadership in the 1960s are included in 2,700 pages documenting the ranch’s history. The records were released by the state in response to a public records request from The Spokesman-Review, and many of the records contain information previously reported by the newspaper. The records affirm the state agency’s position that Morning Star currently operates a disciplined and well-run program.

But some of the documents had never been released for public scrutiny, particularly those describing the home’s condition in its first decade of operation when Lavoy served as director. Nearly 40 years after Lavoy’s reassignment – and more than a decade after his death – the priest’s legacy may still threaten the ranch.

In a Spokane County Superior Court law suit filed this summer, a Seattle law firm alleged that Lavoy repeatedly molested and sodomized a young boy at the ranch in the 1950s.

It was the first public accusation against Lavoy, who was the ranch’s director from its opening until 1966. He later worked as a psychiatric social worker for Morning Star into the 1980s, according to the documents.

A Morning Star spokeswoman said she could not comment on the allegation against Lavoy.

“What we can say is that the ranch promptly and thoroughly investigates any reported allegations,” P.J. Watters said in a written statement. “The ranch has never condoned any form of abuse or neglect.”

At the direction of the Catholic Diocese, Lavoy also counseled another Spokane priest, Patrick O’Donnell, after sexual abuse complaints surfaced about O’Donnell.

In June, The Spokesman-Review reported that a 15-year-old former Morning Star resident named Timothy D. Everts killed himself in 1978 after allegedly confiding to a friend that O’Donnell forced him to perform oral sex at the ranch. O’Donnell has admitted molesting more than a dozen boys. Due to confidentiality issues, it is unclear if any of the boys were Morning Star residents.

The ranch said it can find no record that O’Donnell ever worked at Morning Star, though it acknowledged he was a visitor in the 1970s. In a 2004 deposition, O’Donnell said he conducted “evaluations” at the ranch over the course of several months in the 1980s. He also said he took boys from the Spokane Diocese to Morning Star to play basketball.

O’Donnell has never been prosecuted. Lavoy died in 1994.

The ranch, which has served nearly 1,300 boys since it opened in 1956, has had a turbulent year. In addition to the accusations against O’Donnell and Lavoy, two former residents alleged in a civil lawsuit that they were sexually abused by counselors in separate incidents in the 1960s and 1980s.

And last fall, the ranch settled a lawsuit with a former resident who alleged that counselor Dale Stearns repeatedly molested him in the 1990s.

In July, Weitensteiner took a leave of absence amid allegations of past physical abuse. The priest acknowledged the accuracy of a 1978 Child Protective Services’ report in which he admitted striking a boy in the face and pulling a 4-inch clump of hair from the back of his head. Weitensteiner said he apologized to the boy.

State officials refused to make the report public in 1978 but released it this spring in response to a request from The Spokesman-Review.

The records released this week indicate that Weitensteiner quickly worked to improve the ranch’s reputation after taking control in 1966. At that point, state investigators appeared to be frustrated with Lavoy’s failure to file reports or make repairs.

One investigator wrote that “Father Lavoy said he had been away skiing for a few days and isn’t really interested in attending meetings.”

According to the reports, health experts in the 1960s noted incomplete and outdated medical records, garbage on the grounds, and “badly soiled” floors and walls. The home’s maintenance had been “seriously neglected,” according to a 1964 report. One investigator wrote, “I almost got the feeling he rather prided himself on his casual approach to things.”

After Weitensteiner took control in 1966, the young priest said “he hadn’t realized the health program had gotten so bad. However he feels the total program is good.”

In 1967, Weitensteiner, who has since been accused by some former residents and counselors of physically abusing boys, pointed to a wooden paddle “covered with dust” and said he could not remember the last time it was used.

Morning Star officials concede that hacking was an accepted form of corporal punishment at the ranch in the 1960s and ‘70s. In its statement issued Wednesday, Morning Star said it has “extensive policies and procedures in place to protect the health and safety of every resident.”

According to the documents, Weitensteiner quickly made strides. In 1969, an investigator said, “the facility has improved with each visit.” Four years later, an investigator said Morning Star kept the “most efficient records of any agency I visit.”

In 1975 another state worker rated the program “above-average.”

In 1999 a state investigator deemed the home a “pleasant well-run facility,” and the following year an investigator again congratulated the staff for its performance.

Along the way, Weitensteiner’s reputation grew, as well. In the ranch’s 2005 application for a license, the priest listed his references as Morning Star’s board president, Jesus Christ, and Mayor Jim West.


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