Nineteen lawsuits against the Morning Star Boys’ Ranch have been settled, part of a larger settlement that’s expected to sew shut all of the outstanding legal issues surrounding the clergy sex abuse problems of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane.
The seven years of litigation damaged the reputation of Morning Star and its revered longtime director, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, who had been affectionately called Father Joe by legions of former ranch residents, Catholic parishioners and supporters.
Financial terms of the settlements have yet to be made public, however the ranch had multiple insurance policies and its foundation controlled about $10.6 million in assets, according to tax records.
Morning Star came under scrutiny in 2005 when The Spokesman-Review began reporting on sex abuse accusations made by former residents. Many said they were beaten, molested and raped by Weitensteiner, now-deceased counselor Doyle Gillum and notorious pedophile priest Patrick O’Donnell.
There were 19 lawsuits, and a half-dozen other former residents claimed abuse. The suits had been pending in Spokane Superior Court until being dismissed recently, according to court records.
Only one went to trial; plaintiff Kenneth Putnam lost that case against the Boys’ Ranch two years ago. The defeat helped set the stage for the successful mediation that led to settlements.
Weitensteiner vehemently denied the sexual abuse accusations leveled at him. He acknowledged using corporal punishment to keep boys in line at the ranch – a practice he said was within the realm of acceptable behavior during the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s.
The settlement reached recently did not require him to issue apologies to his accusers, nor did he admit wrongdoing.
Attorney Tim Kosnoff, who represented many of the men who claimed they were abused, said he has nonetheless been given assurance that Weitensteiner has no control over the continuing operations at Morning Star, nor does the retired priest have access to any of the boys currently living at the ranch.
“Everything has been resolved to the satisfaction of my clients,” Kosnoff said. “For that, I am grateful to (U.S. District) Judge Michael Hogan for his ability and skill at getting all the parties together.”
Attorney Jim King, who represented Morning Star and Weitensteiner, declined to comment.
O’Donnell’s admission in court depositions of molesting boys many years ago – so many that he couldn’t remember their names or even some of the circumstances – scandalized the Spokane Catholic Diocese.
The failure to report O’Donnell to police and the subsequent mishandling of his case and cover-up of the details triggered tumult in the local church.
The diocese filed for bankruptcy protection in 2004 as claims of abuse multiplied, becoming the third Catholic diocese nationwide to do so. A $48 million settlement was reached in 2007 to pay lawyers and as many as 180 people who claimed abuse.
More than $10 million came from parishioner donations.
As another condition of the settlement, the diocese keeps a list of 27 clergy on its website that it acknowledges have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children.
The case was reopened in 2009 because the initial settlement failed to account for the multitude of new claims that continued to accumulate – including many filed by alleged Morning Star victims.