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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ex-boys’ ranch staffers urged end to beatings

Staff writer

Two former counselors say they urged the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner to end physical discipline at Morning Star Boys’ Ranch in the 1970s.

“We made waves, but his word was the final word,” a 53-year-old former counselor said Wednesday. “They had this attitude that, ‘This is the way we have been doing it for years, and this is the way we’ll continue doing it.’ “

The counselor said Weitensteiner, now 73, and other Morning Star officials took the boys behind closed doors to administer the “hacks” – a form of corporal punishment administered with a 2- to 3-foot wooden paddle. The counselor, who now works at a Spokane middle school, remembered one boy who was so embarrassed by the bruises on his buttocks he refused to change clothes for gym class at school.

“I’m appalled that I ever let it happen,” the former counselor said.

Both former employees, who knew each other, provided The Spokesman-Review with their names but asked to remain anonymous, saying they did not want to challenge “Father Joe” publicly.

The employees were interviewed separately.

In the 1970s, Washington’s administrative code prohibited corporal punishment that bruised or harmed a child.

Morning Star spokeswoman P.J. Watters said Wednesday she had received numerous calls from media – as well as supportive calls from ranch alumni. She declined to say whether Weitensteiner would issue a statement or hold a news conference. Watters did not say when Morning Star ended corporal punishment, but a former counselor said it stopped in the early 1980s.

In a letter to supporters, Weitensteiner, Morning Star’s director since 1966, released a statement that said, “Despite recent stories in the media, we assure you that your trust and confidence in the staff here at Morning Star has never been more deserved.”

Watters declined to confirm the letter.

On Sunday, The Spokesman-Review reported that Morning Star, a renowned home for troubled boys, had repeatedly allowed the physical and sexual abuse of boys in its care, according to records from the Department of Social and Health Services, court documents and interviews with former counselors and residents.

The state agency in charge of licensing Morning Star may open an investigation into the allegations of abuse, but that decision has not been made, said Mike Tornquist, administrator of the state’s Division of Licensed Resources in Olympia.

“We as a department need to make a decision as to whether we will formally open any investigations,” Tornquist said.

That decision is complicated by the fact that many of the allegations date to the 1970s, he said.

Tornquist said his agency recently conducted a health and safety review at Morning Star, and social workers held face-to-face meetings with Morning Star’s 18 boys.

“We’re fairly confident the kids who are residing there now are fine,” Tornquist said.

His agency, he said, continues to research a recent civil lawsuit in which a Morning Star resident alleged he was repeatedly molested by a counselor in the 1990s. The agency only became aware of the allegations earlier this spring after being contacted by a reporter.

In recent days, numerous former residents and counselors spoke with the newspaper. While several defended Morning Star, others raised new allegations of physical abuse.

One counselor, now 69, said she spoke with several other counselors in the late 1970s to urge them to end the practice of “hacking.”

“I didn’t like the physical discipline,” she said. “I didn’t think that it was working. I think I started to make headway with some of the guys, but Father Joe ran the place. When push came to shove, I think he thought the physical discipline helped.”

The counselor, now retired from social work, said she felt conflicted discussing the discipline because “Morning Star did lots of good things for lots of boys.”

One of those boys, now a 45-year-old businessman in Spokane, said he maintained close ties with Morning Star, which he said helped him turn his life around. The man, who lived at the ranch in the 1970s, said without the ranch, he believes he “would be in prison or dead.”

But he also said he was physically abused at the ranch on one occasion, when a counselor beat him so badly that bruises covered his buttocks. He asked not to be identified because he fears it would affect his business.

“Some of this stuff really did happen,” the man said. “The reality is there were things that happened up there that shouldn’t have happened. Times have changed. I’m not saying that makes it right.”

He said he remembers that a counselor once threw a boy against the wall, leaving a dent in the wallboard.

“As a kid, who are you going to tell? Who’s going to believe a juvenile delinquent kid?” he asked. “To be honest, I’m surprised that nothing has come to light before.”

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