March 12, 2010 in City

Spokane diocese paid boys ranch accusers

Morning Star residents got $3 million to settle abuse claims
John Stucke And Kevin Graman Staff writers
 
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Although a jury last month rejected Kenneth Putnam’s sex abuse allegations against Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, the Catholic Diocese of Spokane had already paid Putnam a settlement worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The award to Putman is among 10 such settlements totaling more than $3 million – ranging from $100,000 to $750,000 – that have been paid through the diocese bankruptcy to men who continue to press lawsuits against Morning Star, its former director the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, and other priests and employees associated with the home for troubled boys.

At least six others are hoping to net both jury awards and payouts from the diocese, where their claims are pending.

Although the diocese settled claims against Morning Star priests, Catholic leaders have not added Weitensteiner to a list of sexually abusive clergy. Nor has the diocese included the late Rev. Martin Lavoy, who directed the ranch from its founding in 1956 until 1966 and has been accused of abuse by some of those receiving diocese settlements.

The fact that the priests are not listed has angered victims who consider the roster – available on the diocese Web site – a measure of accountability, said Tim Kosnoff, an attorney representing dozens of victims.

The diocese appointed its own review panel to determine which priests to add to the 27-name list of “credibly accused.”

But the payment of a claim by the diocese to a man who was turned away by a jury underscores the concerns expressed by many Catholics throughout the diocese bankruptcy – that many of the claims are untrue, cannot survive the scrutiny of a jury trial, and should not be paid.

The diocese bankruptcy, filed on the eve of what would have been its first sex abuse trial in late 2004, was settled in 2007. The diocese eventually committed $48 million to settle 180 victim claims and pay lawyers, a fund made up of parishioners’ donations, insurance policies and the sale of assets.

In contrast, Morning Star chose to fight the allegations against it. Spokane attorney Jim King, who is defending both Morning Star and Weitensteiner in 19 lawsuits filed by former ranch residents, said the diocese settlements have no bearing on his defense of Morning Star.

“The only decision that matters to me is the decision made in front of a Spokane County jury,” King said. “We firmly believe Father Weitensteiner never did the things he was accused of doing.”

King’s approach so far has been to attempt to discredit the Morning Star accusers, many of whom have criminal records, histories of drug abuse and changing stories.

Kosnoff said Putnam’s case for the jury was thwarted by a ruling in which Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor allowed only four of the other Morning Star plaintiffs to testify on Putnam’s behalf.

“We weren’t allowed to put on our case and that’s not fair,” Kosnoff said.

That’s unlike the process used in the diocese bankruptcy case to determine the veracity of claims, he said.

In those cases, victims and the diocese agreed to an unusual process to weigh the merit of claims and determine settlement amounts. They hired a former U.S. attorney from Seattle, Kate Pflaumer, as a tort claims reviewer, giving her wide latitude to consider the evidence behind each claim. She brought a background in both prosecution and defense work and was regarded as person who could sympathize while pursuing the truth of the claims.

The diocese has since challenged some of her findings, complaining that she has been too liberal in allowing some claims. Those efforts have been rejected, however, and in a related matter the diocese and one of its law firms were found in contempt of court last month by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams for using intimidation tactics against a bankruptcy trustee.

The diocese may appeal the contempt ruling, said attorney John Munding.

Among the former Morning Star residents who received settlements from the diocese are eight whose abuse claims name Weitensteiner or Lavoy.

Weitensteiner did not appear in front of Pflaumer to rebut allegations, King said. Morning Star’s problems erupted in 2005 after The Spokesman-Review began detailing abuse allegations. Lawsuits followed months later.

Every alleged victim who filed suit against Morning Star before March 2006 also received a settlement payout from the diocese.

The amounts listed below were awarded by Pflaumer, according to multiple sources close to the case, but the victims received less than the amounts listed.

On some claims where Pflaumer determined abuse had occurred, she assigned the diocese a percentage of the blame. That left some victims, such as the men with Morning Star claims, to pursue separate legal action against other individuals and institutions.

What’s more, each of the diocese awards was reduced 18 percent by the bankruptcy trustee who had to split the limited proceeds, and the amounts do not include deductions for lawyer fees, typically about 40 percent.

The official settlements with Morning Star plaintiffs are:

•Putnam, who names Weitensteiner, received $750,000.

•Ethan Braman, who names Lavoy, received $350,000.

•Joseph Matherly, who names Lavoy, received $132,000.

•William Call, who names Weitensteiner and Lavoy, received $750,000.

•John Houser, who names Weitensteiner, received $325,000.

•William Knapton, who names Weitensteiner, received $175,000.

•Ray Nelson, who names Weitensteiner, received $125,000.

Jerome Rosenthal, who names Lavoy, and Robert Gariepy, who names Weitensteiner, are awaiting settlement of “future claims” against the diocese. These are claims that came after the diocese concluded its bankruptcy. Anticipating such claims, the diocese set aside $1 million to pay them, but if that doesn’t prove to be enough, the diocese may have to go back to parishioners to replenish that fund.

Three former ranch residents name defrocked priest Patrick O’Donnell, who once frequented the ranch, as their abuser.

They include Paul Baggett, who received a $750,000 settlement from the diocese; Steven Kinard, $100,000; and Ben Mowrey, who has a future claim against the diocese.

Three others name former Morning Star counselor James Clarke as their abuser. They are Michael Gray, who has received $300,000 from the diocese, as well as Curtis Stump and Glen Anderson, who are future claimants.


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