Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, a longtime group home for troubled boys in southeast Spokane, became the target of numerous lawsuits by former residents alleging physical and sexual abuse. Ranch supporters and its former director say the ranch has been sullied by the abuse allegations, which they vehemently deny. They say the Catholic-based nonprofit organization has provided a safe environment for more than 1,300 boys with behavioral problems for more than 50 years.
The first of 19 sex abuse lawsuits against the ranch went to trial early in 2010, and on Feb. 12 that year, a jury handed Morning Star a victory, ruling against plaintiff Kenneth Putnam, who claims he was molested while a resident in 1988 and ’89. Seattle attorney Tim Kosnoff’s law firm represents 14 other plaintiffs in suits against the boys’ ranch. Kosnoff said he intended to bring his strongest cases to trial first.
Defense attorney Jim King said he intends to defend Morning Star and its former director, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, in every case that goes to trial. Attorneys for the ranch have shown no signs that they would consider a settlement, in contrast to the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, which in 2007 settled with 180 plaintiffs claiming to have been sexually abused by priests.
Allegations of abuse at the ranch surfaced in 2005, beginning with two former residents who accused ranch employees of sexual and physical abuse. More former wards of the ranch came forward with abuse allegations in the following months. The suits named Weitensteiner, defrocked priest and admitted pedophile Patrick O’Donnell, and several counselors.
The state continues to place boys in the care of the ranch.
Jim King, an attorney with Spokane law firm Evans, Craven & Lackie, is the lead defense attorney for Morning Star Boys’ Ranch. He has litigated many medical malpractice, employment, professional negligence, worksite/premises liability and wrongful death cases in Eastern Washington and North Idaho in his career.
Timothy Kosnoff is a Seattle attorney who specializes in child sexual abuse cases. His firm represents Kenneth Putnam and 14 other plaintiffs in lawsuits against Morning Star Boys’ Ranch. He has prevailed in abuse cases involving the Boy Scouts of America, several Catholic dioceses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Salvation Army, the Jesuits and other religious orders.
Kenneth Putnam was sent to Morning Star Boys’ Ranch as a ward of the court in 1986. He has alleged that the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner molested him when he was 13 or 14 years old on the priest’s boat, in his car and at his home at St. Patrick’s Parish in northeast Spokane. Also, Putnam says counselor Doyle Gillum, now deceased, molested him in a boy’s bedroom at the ranch on two occasions. Putnam has a criminal history dating to 1988 that includes felony theft, burglary, assault and drug convictions.
The Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner retired as director of Morning Star Boys’ Ranch in 2006. He began as a ranch counselor in the 1960s and was promoted to director of Morning Star after he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1966. Weitensteiner had admitted to administering corporal punishment to ranch residents but has steadfastly denied more serious allegations of abuse of boys, including sexual abuse.