The Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, the longtime director of Morning Star Boys’ Ranch who found himself the subject of allegations of physical and sexual abuse last year, announced his retirement from the boys’ home on Thursday.
The 73-year-old Catholic priest who began his work at the ranch nearly 50 years ago will retire effective May 1, according to a Morning Star press release.
In a letter to supporters, Weitensteiner wrote that his life had been “inexorably intertwined” with the boys’ home, which opened in 1956 and has served 1,300 boys.
“As the Ranch prepares to celebrate its golden jubilee, the boys we serve today are as much or more in need of your help and understanding as our boys were 50 years ago,” Weitensteiner wrote.
Spokane Bishop William Skylstad said he was “profoundly grateful” to Weitensteiner, according to the press release.
“Rather than walking away from difficult and challenging circumstances in people’s lives, Father Joe has addressed this need with compassion, dedication, and love of those who come, and a deep sense of hope in the goodness of every person,” Skylstad said.
Dan Kuhlmann, who became acting director when Weitensteiner left on medical leave last July, will continue in that position, the ranch said. Morning Star did not say when it will name Weitensteiner’s replacement.
A spokesman said Weitensteiner was not available to talk to the press on Thursday.
Eight former residents sued the ranch last year, alleging they were the victims of sexual abuse. Two men allege that Weitensteiner molested them in separate incidents in the 1970s and 1980s during boat trips on Lake Coeur d’Alene – a charge the priest vehemently denied.
The ranch said Weitensteiner passed a polygraph test.
“This intensive test clearly supports the fact Father Joe told the truth and is telling the truth,” said Robert Durgan, the president of the home’s board of directors. “What troubles me is that he felt he had to do this at all. His integrity is rock solid.”
Tim Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney representing the eight men, said the Spokane Diocese is “in denial” about the behavior of Weitensteiner and other priests.
“We look forward to the civil trials of these cases so that these abusers and the organizations that enabled them are finally held accountable under the law,” Kosnoff said in an e-mail.
Last year, The Spokesman-Review reported that Morning Star had repeatedly allowed the physical and sexual abuse of boys in its care, citing records from the Department of Social and Health Services, court documents and interviews with former counselors and residents.
A review of state records found reports of rapes by older residents, as well as several allegations of sexual encounters between staff and residents from 1978 to 2005.
Last summer, Weitensteiner acknowledged striking a boy in the face with an open hand and hitting boys with a paddle hard enough to leave bruises. But he denied several other, more serious allegations from former counselors and residents. He apologized to former residents who said his corporal punishment left them bruised and injured, but he said the ranch never allowed or condoned abuse.
Other former residents rushed to defend Weitensteiner and praised the staff of Morning Star.
“When I first got there, I thought I was a ghost and that no one really knew what I was doing or who I was,” said Rob Sargent, who lived at the ranch in the 1970s, according to the home’s press release. “But Father Joe was always 10 steps ahead of me. He was looking over you and keeping track of what was going on in my life when I didn’t even know it.”
Weitensteiner, a decorated Boy Scout leader, joined Morning Star as a counselor in 1957. He later left to join the priesthood and became Morning Star’s director in 1966.
When Weitensteiner took over, the ranch was in “disarray,” with broken windows, torn screens and soiled bedding, according to records from DSHS, which oversaw the home. The county’s health department had objected to conditions at the ranch, according to the records.
Weitensteiner quickly acted to improve conditions that had lingered for years and gradually built the ranch’s reputation.
The priest’s reputation grew as well: Gonzaga Prep inducted him into its Hall of Fame, and in 1978 he was appointed as the Northwest representative to a national accreditation board for group homes.
“For Father Joe, the boys always, always come first,” said Kuhlmann, who has worked at Morning Star since 1974. “Hundreds of boys’ lives have been changed for the positive because of Father Joe’s unwavering commitment to a ministry of service to a challenging population.”