An Alaska man is suing Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, claiming that he was sexually abused nearly 30 years ago by the ranch’s former director, as well as by other residents.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Spokane, names the ranch and its former director, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, as well as the Morning Star Boys’ Ranch Foundation, to which the ranch has transferred the bulk of its assets. It’s the first such case to be filed in federal court.
In the lawsuit, Jerrold Bell, 39, of Anchorage, says that while he was a resident of the south Spokane ranch in 1980 and 1981 he was repeatedly raped by older boys and that the administration did nothing to investigate or stop the abuse after he reported it.
Bell also says that he was repeatedly molested by Weitensteiner in the Roman Catholic priest’s home adjacent to the ranch.
The lawsuit claims the ranch knew or should have known that abuse was occurring and did nothing to stop it.
In 1982, a year after being discharged from Morning Star, Bell was taken by his family to Alaska, where he has lived ever since.
He did not know until he was approached by a private investigator in October 2008 that 19 former ranch residents were alleging in lawsuits filed in Spokane County Superior Court that they too had been abused at the ranch, said Martin Gales, Bell’s Spokane attorney.
The ranch and Weitensteiner have consistently denied the allegations, and in February a Superior Court jury unanimously found for Morning Star in the first lawsuit to go to trial.
Morning Star’s defense strategy has been to separate the trials and individually discredit the plaintiffs, many of whom have histories of crime or substance abuse.
Trials before Judge Kathleen O’Connor have been scheduled three a year until 2012, and several cases remain unscheduled.
But this month, the Court of Appeals for Division III stayed the case of George H. Minehart II while it hears a motion to review O’Connor’s decision to limit the number of former residents allowed to testify in court. An Appeals Court ruling is expected to have a significant impact on all the remaining cases.
Bell’s attorneys said they filed in federal court because their client resides in another state, but also because the backlog of cases in state court could prevent his from being heard for years.
In addition, unlike Washington state, federal rules in civil cases allow a plaintiff claiming to have been sexually abused as a child to bring evidence of similar cases of abuse by the accused.
“This is an extremely important distinction when you consider what it takes to prove a sex assault case,” said Glenn Phillips, a Woodinville, Wash., attorney representing both Minehart and Bell.
“Morning Star says it’s an honorable institution that only wants its day in court, but they have been successful in stringing out these trials and transferring all its assets,” Phillips said. “Why did they do that if they didn’t do anything wrong?”
Morning Star attorney Jim King said that it is Phillips who has delayed the Minehart trial by seeking the motion for evidentiary review in the Appeals Court.
“We have never asked for a continuance in the Minehart matter, ever,” King said.
He declined to comment on the Bell case, having not seen the lawsuit filed on Wednesday.