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.”