Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Former Morning Star staff: ‘All I saw was caring’
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the July 28, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Allegations of abuse at Morning Star Boys Ranch in the mid-1970s, particularly against the Ranch’s longtime director, Father Joseph Weitensteiner, were published recently in Spokane’s daily newspaper. Among former Morning Star counselors and other employees, however, there is virtually universal agreement that the charges are unfair and largely unfounded.
Louise Finch was a counselor at Morning Star from 1972 to 1975. “All I saw was caring from Father Joe toward the boys,” Finch said. “He punished them in appropriate ways for the time when they were wrong, which was right. I have lots of respect for Father Joe. The boys would come to me when they had problems, but nothing bad about Father Joe ever came to my attention. If I had seen anything wrong I would have done something, because I’m a mother of three sons myself.”
In charge of maintenance at Morning Star from 1990 until 2000, Don Grippen recalled that “the boys were all treated very well, and Father Joe was very good to all of them. The boys had a real good life. Father Joe took the boys out to the lake during the summer. He was excellent with all the boys.”
From 1975-1978, Mike Dun-ford was a counselor at Morning Star, and he recalled that Morning Star “was very well run.” It was, he said, “a pretty tightly run ship, very well organized and operated. Quite frankly, I’m upset over the Spokesman-Review’s handling of the story because they’re putting today’s philosophical outlook on events of some 30 years ago. I did witness kids being ‘hacked’ sporadically with a wooden paddle, if one of them was really acting out. But was there hard ‘hacking’ and bruising? No.”
Dunford remembers that the strongest disciplinary actions came only from Father Joe, never from any of the counselors. “It was very well understood that not just any counselor could dole out punishment. The buck stopped with Father Joe. As far as any physical treatment of the kids by counselors, I never witnessed that. And I never, ever witnessed Father Joe hitting kids in the face or pulling hair out. Father Joe could get pretty intense with a kid, but only when (the boy) was acting out so drastically that it was ruining the morale of the rest of the ranch, and (Father Weitensteiner) was trying to have a team approach.”
The Spokesman-Review said that Father Joe and/or the Ranch “allowed” physical and sexual abuse to occur, Dunford continued. “But that’s just a flat misstatement. If something occurred, and nobody knew about it, I will say that in the three years I worked there I certainly never heard about any adult making sexual advances toward the kids, and I never heard about anything like that from the kids. But you’re talking about kids from really bad situations, and I’ve seen a lot of good come from Morning Star.”
Dan Morris was editor of the Inland Register from 1974 to 1980, and he worked as a residential, in-house counselor at Morning Star during his last year at Gonzaga University (1969-70).
“The population and staff at that time were smaller and more intimate than it became in later years,” Morris said. “We all knew one another well. It truly was a familial situation, and Father Joe was very clearly in charge and the father figure. As in any family, there were occasional tensions between the kids themselves and, at times, between staff persons and a particular boy. But I can honestly say I never saw a boy abused. Tough discipline? At times, yes. Appropriate? I would say yes. But there was a real stress on addressing the behavior, not the boy’s dignity.”
It’s important to keep in mind, Morris said, that “most of the boys were not sent to the Ranch by the courts because they were happy-go-lucky kids.” Rather, in most cases the boys came from “very distressed, even abusive households, and their behavior, especially at first, would reflect this.”
Morris said it was amazing – how so many of the boys would settle down and calm down from nothing more than the introduction into their lives of a regular, predictable life – “getting up at a fixed time; eating regular, nutritious meals; being required to do their homework; being required to shower and stay clean; being supplied clean, neat clothing; being tutored and supported; being encouraged to take part in sports, or the arts, or a hobby.”
From 1968-1973, Darlene Smith was secretary and bookkeeper at Morning Star. “What Father Joe did was absolutely amazing,” she said. “I never saw any black eyes or scratches on any boys. I saw him hire two new social workers, and he seemed to know what the boys needed. He hired female cooks. He started a newsletter, and he would put pictures and articles about the boys in the newsletter. He got families to take boys home for dinner and weekends.”
Smith remembers clearly that the relationship between Morning Star and the public schools was quite good. “Also, the boys were fed well; I know because the staff got leftovers for lunch everyday. Also, Father Joe encouraged sports, but kids who were interested in other things were encouraged, too, such as music. Father Joe had an awards banquet every spring, and he gave the boys awards for all kinds of things.
“Father Joe is kind-hearted,” she said. “When I first worked there, for the first few years my office was right there where the boys were, so I would see them every day, and I knew what was going on. I cannot praise Father Joe enough.”
Another former employee, Anthony Cannon, was first a summer volunteer at Morning Star for a few years beginning in 1957. Then in 1991 Father Joe hired him as youth minister, responsible for the spiritual life program. “In all my time at Morning Star I never saw Father Joe use any corporal punishment. He had many provocations. One time, three different boys were told no, they couldn’t do something they wanted to do, so they went back to their rooms and kicked holes in the drywall. All Father Joe did was reprimand them, and he gave them extra chores to do.”
Cannon said that over the years Morning Star has taken in “some very disturbed kids. I myself was hit twice by two very aggressive kids, even though I wasn’t in a disciplinary position. I’ve seen Father Joe lose his temper a couple of times, but under the same circumstances I don’t know who wouldn’t.”
A social worker at Morning Star from 1982 until 2003, Mary Jentges provided individual and family counseling, and later became program director. “My own experience was a very positive one,” she said. “Working with the other employees, they were always concerned about the boys who were there. If we couldn’t provide the kind of help a particular boy needed, we got it for him elsewhere. For instance, kids who where drug or alcohol addicted, we got help for them where it was available.
“I never witnessed Father Joe administering corporal punishment to any boy. I never witnessed kids being abused or mistreated. Any time a kid felt like he was mistreated by a counselor or another kid, we always reported that to Child Protective Services, and they would come out and talk with the kid to see if his complaint was valid or not. Kids who had parents could always call their parents, and kids who didn’t have parents could always call their case worker.”
At Morning Star, from the mid-1960s through the early ’70s, Ron and Marsha Feller taught music, art, and photography, and supervised the boys. Marsha was in charge of summer school for a number of summers and supervised study halls.
“The kids were learning how to study,” said Ron Feller. “I taught a lot of the kids how to play guitar, and my recollections are of sitting around the living room, playing music and learning to sing. The boys gave a lot of performances, at the Civic Theater, for church groups, and that kind of thing. They really enjoyed it.”
Ron Feller remembers Morning Star as “a place of activity. Kids were always doing things. I remember the Golden Gloves boxing team. In those days, they had a hack paddle, like every other principal and every other school in Spokane. But there were other more creative things done, like a kid would have to run down the hill to the mail box and run back again. Discipline wasn’t just the hacks paddle; it was 20 pushups. What you read in the Spokesman-Review, I think they’ve been very unfair. Individually, each issue that has been raised can be explained. (The paper has been) way too harsh.”
Feller said that he and Marsha receive calls on a fairly regular basis from adult men who were at Morning Star, giving the Ranch “a lot of credit for their success in later life. Everyone really did the best they could at the time, and I never saw any abuse of children. I saw nothing but caring, very sincerely. Discipline is handled differently these days than it was 30 or 40 years ago.”