Spokane diocese reinstates priest; abuse claims rejected

SPOKANE — The former director of Morning Star Boys’ Ranch was reinstated as a Catholic priest last week after an internal review found sex abuse claims could not be substantiated.

The Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, now 82, was removed from the ministry in 2006 amid a growing number of reports from people who said they were abused sexually or physically by Weitensteiner or his staff at the ranch.

As part of a broader process by the Diocese of Spokane, retired federal judge Michael Hogan investigated or reviewed charges against Weitensteiner, The Spokesman-Review reported. Last month, Hogan rejected the last four claims of sex abuse.

“One by one each of those claims were denied or declared non-credible” by Hogan, according to the diocese.

A review of Hogan’s rulings by two diocesan advisory groups — the Diocesan Review Board, a group of mostly laypeople who are not employed by the church, and a panel of priests called the College of Consultors — led to the recommendation that Weitensteiner be reinstated.

An organization advocating for clergy sex abuse victims criticized the reinstatement and questioned whether the panels that reviewed the cases interviewed accusers and who else participated in the process.

“No details were given about the unusual and untested process,” David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, wrote in an email. “SNAP wants diocesan officials to be more forthcoming about the procedure he used in this case and others.”

The Morning Star allegations were made in 19 lawsuits that paralleled the bankruptcy of the Spokane Catholic Diocese.

While the diocese paid out claims in bankruptcy rather than fight the allegations at trial, Weitensteiner and Morning Star employed attorney Jim King to fight the sex abuse claims against them in court. Only one of the lawsuits went to trial, and Weitensteiner won. Some claims against Morning Star were settled out of court.

Others were reviewed by Hogan.

One of King’s legal assistants said the attorney was traveling and unavailable for comment.

The Rev. Michael Savelesky, who is leading the diocese until new Bishop Thomas Daly is installed May 20, announced the decision last week.

“There is no question that these past few years have burdened Father Weitensteiner with much anguish and personal suffering,” Savelesky wrote in a statement. “Father Weitensteiner has given amazing priestly witness to quiet suffering under duress.

“An individual’s good name, once besmirched, is hard to restore completely; the diocese stands at the ready to do what it can to that end for Father Weitensteiner,” the statement said.

Weitensteiner was hired as Morning Star’s first counselor in 1957 and was soon asked to run the ranch. He left in 1959 to study for the priesthood before returning in 1966 to run Morning Star for another 40 years.

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 Morning Star counselor Doyle Gillum and priest Patrick O’Donnell, who would visit boys at the ranch.

Weitensteiner has acknowledged that he used corporal punishment to keep order at the ranch. He has said those practices were within the accepted norms of the times — the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Upon his retirement from the ranch in 2006, Weitensteiner issued a statement offering “forgiveness and reconciliation to those who are making these false accusations.”

Talk to us

More in Local News

An example of the Malicious Women Co. products (left) vs. the Malicious Mermaid's products (right). (U.S. District Court in Florida)
Judge: Cheeky candle copycat must pay Snohomish company over $800K

The owner of the Malicious Women Co. doesn’t expect to receive any money from the Malicious Mermaid, a Florida-based copycat.

A grave marker for Blaze the horse. (Photo provided)
After Darrington woman’s horse died, she didn’t know what to do

Sidney Montooth boarded her horse Blaze. When he died, she was “a wreck” — and at a loss as to what to do with his remains.

A fatal accident the afternoon of Dec. 18 near Clinton ended with one of the cars involved bursting into flames. The driver of the fully engulfed car was outside of the vehicle by the time first responders arrived at the scene. (Whidbey News-Times/Submitted photo)
Driver sentenced in 2021 crash that killed Everett couple

Danielle Cruz, formerly of Lynnwood, gets 17½ years in prison. She was impaired by drugs when she caused the crash that killed Sharon Gamble and Kenneth Weikle.

A person walks out of the Everett Clinic on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The Everett Clinic changing name to parent company Optum in 2024

The parent company says the name change will not affect quality of care for patients in Snohomish County.

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe) 20210727
Lynnwood settles for $1.7 million after 2021 suicide at city jail

Jail staff reportedly committed 16 safety check violations before they found Tirhas Tesfatsion, 47, unresponsive in her cell.

A person walks in the rain at the Port of Everett in Everett, Washington on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
First heavy rain event predicted Sunday night for Snohomish County

Starting Sunday evening, 1 to 1½ inches of rain is expected in western Washington. It marks the end of fire season, meteorologists said.

Clinton man, 61, dies in motorcycle crash Friday

Washington State Patrol lists speed as the cause. No other people or vehicles were involved.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Separate road rage incident ends with fatal shooting in Lake Stevens

A man, 41, died at the scene in the 15300 block of 84th Street NE. No arrests have been made.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and law enforcement partners advise the public of of colorful fentanyl.  (Photo provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration)
After rainbow fentanyl pills found in Tulalip, police sound alarms

Investigators are concerned the pastel-colored pills may end up in the hands of children.

Most Read