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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Former ranch director denies abuse allegations

The Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner waits in the fourth-floor hallway of the Spokane County Courthouse to testify in the Morning Star Boys’ Ranch trial on Wednesday. (Dan Pelle)

The Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner said Thursday that he would sometimes get angry during his 52-year career at Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, but that he “never, never” sexually abused the boys in his care.

“I was a parent, and I did things that parents do,” said Morning Star’s former director, adding that included losing his temper at times.

Weitensteiner testified as a defense witness in the case of Kenneth Putnam, a former ranch resident who claims to have been molested by the Catholic priest and a now-deceased Morning Star counselor named Doyle Gillum.

Putnam’s is the first of 19 lawsuits scheduled to be tried in Spokane County Superior Court.

Although Weitensteiner never had children of his own, he considers himself the surrogate parent of 1,300 boys who passed through Morning Star since it opened in 1957 as a home for troubled boys.

He remembered Putnam as an angry boy who had “trouble with rules and regulations and difficulty working with others.”

Weitensteiner recalled taking Putnam and another boy named Jeff Benz on an overnight trip on his boat on Lake Coeur d’Alene, but he denied molesting Putnam there.

“Never, never,” Weitensteiner said, responding to his attorney, Jim King, who asked whether he had committed the abuse Putnam says occurred on the priest’s boat, in his car and at his home at St. Patrick’s Parish in northeast Spokane.

Weitensteiner said there was never inappropriate sexual behavior by Gillum, whom the priest called “a very honorable person.”

Weitensteiner also denied allegations made by Putnam’s key witnesses, five other former Morning Star residents, four of whom have lawsuits pending against the ranch.

“This priest never molested, in any way, Michael Call,” Weitensteiner said of allegations that he sexually abused a former resident on a camping trip in the 1960s. Call has since changed his name to William Call.

Did he know about the alleged incident William Knapton claims occurred in the 1960s in which boys were photographed after counselors inserted flowers in their rectums?

“Never, never,” Weitensteiner said.

He could not remember Paul Baggett telling him he was being sexually abused by Patrick O’Donnell, a now-defrocked priest, in the early 1970s.

“All hell would have risen,” Weitensteiner said.

He could not remember an African-American child named Carl Smith, who has changed her gender and her name to Stephanie Miller. Miller claims Weitensteiner sent her away from the ranch when she reported the sexual advances of a counselor in the late 1970s.

“We would have gotten to the bottom of it,” Weitensteiner said.

He acknowledged officiating at the wedding of former Morning Star resident Michael Clarke, but denied paying Clarke $2,000 for his silence.

And he emphatically denied allegations he repeatedly abused Clarke in the late 1970s.

“Never, never,” Weitensteiner said. “I would remember.”

During a brief cross-examination, Putnam’s attorney seized on this last statement by Weitensteiner.

“Is it possible you could have forgotten?” attorney Tim Kosnoff asked.

“I never molested Michael Clarke,” Weitensteiner repeated, insisting that he was not confusing him with anyone else.

“Because you never molested any boy, is that right?” Kosnoff asked.

“That’s right,” Weitensteiner said.

Later Thursday, defense witness Dr. Russell Vandenbelt, a Bellevue psychiatrist, rebutted a psychologist’s earlier testimony that Putnam suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Vandenbelt, who reviewed Putnam’s records and interviewed him twice since 2007, diagnosed the plaintiff with depression, attention-deficit disorder and dependence on marijuana and prescribed painkillers.

Regardless of whether Putnam had been abused at Morning Star, Vandenbelt said, he would expect “no different outcome” for Putnam because of earlier abuse and neglect by his parents.

During cross-examination, Vandenbelt acknowledged receiving $350,000, half his income in 2008, for consulting on child sex abuse cases, the bulk of which were allegations involving Catholic entities.

In most of the 40 or 50 cases he has reviewed in the past two years, Vandenbelt said, he found that child sex abuse had caused claimants only minimal or temporary psychological damage.

Trial resumes on Monday with Putnam’s testimony.