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More file suit against Morning Star

Sat., Feb. 16, 2008

Three more men sued Morning Star Boys’ Ranch on Friday, including two men who say the ranch’s former director sexually abused them in the 1960s and 1980s.

The third man says he was sexually abused when he lived at the Catholic boys home south of Spokane in the 1970s by former priest Patrick O’Donnell, an admitted pedophile, and by an unnamed ranch volunteer, according to the lawsuit filed in Spokane County Superior Court.

This brings to eight the number of plaintiffs alleging abuse by the ranch’s former director, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, and to 16 the number alleging abuse at the ranch in legal filings that began in August 2005.

Seattle attorney Timothy Kosnoff said Friday’s lawsuit is noteworthy because Weitensteiner is singled out as a defendant for the first time.

“We’re seeking to amend previous filings to include him now as an individual defendant in addition to the ranch,” Kosnoff said. “He now has been credibly accused by so many people. The evidence is mounting, and it’s so overwhelming that we think it’s necessary.”

Jim King, an attorney for Morning Star, said Weitensteiner has voluntarily taken a polygraph test about the alleged sexual abuse and passed “with flying colors.” He said the priest’s 50-year record of service is impeccable, and he questioned the credibility of the plaintiffs.

“Did he (Kosnoff) tell you how many of his clients are felons?” King asked. “We intend to try the cases and let a jury decide on the credibility of Father Weitensteiner. These cases are going to involve the credibility of the accuser and the accused.”

In the latest filing, the three men, ages 39, 48 and 55, are identified only by their initials. One man, “M.G.,” alleges abuse when he lived at the ranch from 1983 to 1984; “B.M.,” when he lived at the ranch from 1973 to 1975 and “J.R.,” when he lived at the ranch from 1962 to 1966, the complaint says.

A Morning Star spokeswoman said most of the ranch’s residents have spent their “safest years” there. In its 50-year history, the ranch has served more than 1,300 boys with behavioral problems, many of whom had been involved with the state’s juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Private citizens and the state “continue to place boys in our care to this day,” spokeswoman Jenn Kantz said.

“The ranch is shocked, once again. It’s always a shock,” Kantz said. “We’re committed to setting the record straight. Today, Morning Star Boys’ Ranch is a safe and therapeutic place.”

Through Kantz, Weitensteiner declined a request for an interview. He has strenuously denied past allegations. Weitensteiner said in 2005 that he had “never been sexually inappropriate with any child at any time.”

O’Donnell, however, has admitted molesting dozens of boys. Confidentiality issues make it unclear whether any of them were Morning Star residents. He is named in 66 of the 176 claims filed alleging sexual abuse by priests in the Spokane Catholic Diocese, more than any other priest. The diocese names him on its Web site as one of the priests it considers “credibly accused.” O’Donnell said in a 2004 deposition that he conducted “evaluations” at the ranch and that he took boys from the Spokane Diocese to Morning Star to play basketball. He also said that in the early- to mid-1980s, Bishop Lawrence Welsh instructed him to stop consulting with Morning Star, past news reports said.

The lawsuit alleges that Morning Star permitted abusers to enter the ranch and “remove boys and sexually molest them.” It also alleges violations of state law that required the ranch and its staff to report all incidents of child abuse.

Kantz said Morning Star strictly enforces state licensing requirements that employees pass stringent background checks before they are able to supervise residents. Volunteers must also pass background checks, she said, adding that some of the background-check laws date to the 1970s.

Weitensteiner retired from the ranch in 2006, announcing it in a news release that included a statement from Spokane Bishop William Skylstad, who said he was “profoundly grateful” for the priest’s service.

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