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Wednesday, January 27 2010 @ 08:12 AM CST

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New Series Of Clergy Sex Abuse Cases Opens In Spokane

(Say 5 Hail Marys and bring me a child)

Doug Nadvornick

A new chapter is opening in Spokane's ongoing saga of sexual abuse cases involving Catholic priests.

A Spokane judge is presiding over the first of what could be a series of trials against a Catholic group home for boys. Many former residents now claim they were molested there as children. For Spokane's Catholics, the trial reopens old wounds. A warning: some details in this story might not be appropriate for children.

The plaintiff in this case is 34–year–old Kenny Putnam.

Putnam: "Kenneth William Putnam. P–U–T–N–A–M."

In 1988, when he was 13, Putnam was living in a broken home, headed by an alcoholic, often absent, mother. He was made a ward of the court and sent to the Morning Star Boys' Ranch. The ranch was established more than 50 years ago by Spokane's Catholic diocese to care for wayward boys. It wasn't a good match for Putnam. As he fiddles with his watch and metal bracelet, Putnam testifies that he was bullied by older boys. He remembers that, one night as he slept, an adult guardian snuck into his room.

Putnam: "All I remember is waking up with him touching me and kissing my genitals and acting all weird. I was freaking out, yelling and stuff. And he left."

Putnam says he reported what happened to the home's then director, Father Joseph Weitensteiner. But Putnam says no action was ever taken. In fact, he claims Weitensteiner himself molested him twice. Defense attorneys deny those claims. Weitensteiner says, at the time, the boys' home did have procedures for investigating complaints like Putnam's. He did admit though that because he was also a pastor at a Spokane parish, he didn't always know about those allegations.

Weitensteiner: "You know, qualified, licensed people, social workers, psychologists on our teams would take care of any complaints and make sure they were handled properly."

But in his opening statement, Putnam's attorney, Tim Kosnoff, says his client's case is not an isolated one.

Kosnoff: "The evidence will show that generations of boys before him were sexually abused at Morning Star Boys' Ranch. The evidence will show that ranch management knew or should have known about it. Ranch administrators covered up sexual abuse and silenced boys who complained about it."

Not so, says Morning Star Boys' Ranch attorney Jim King.

King: "It goes without saying that if we agreed with much of what Mr. Kosnoff said, if we agreed, in fact, with almost anything Mr. Kosnoff said, we wouldn't be here."

In his vigorous defense of the ranch, King says there has been no sexual or physical abuse in its more than 50 years. That's a different strategy than the one used by the Spokane diocese when it was the target of lawsuits against its priests, according to attorney Steve Eugster, who has been writing about the trial on his blog. Eugster says the diocese preferred to settle, rather than publicly fight, the allegations.

Eugster: "This is the first time that anybody's said, well, no, we didn't do anything wrong. We're just simply not going to cave."

Some of Morning Star's supporters, including many of its alumni, appreciate that. They admire the work of Father Weitensteiner and hope the trial will allow him to clear his name. But there are others, like Molly Harding, who believe Kenny Putnam's allegations. Harding is the head of the local chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Harding: "I know a lot of the public here in Spokane would like to hear this story be finished. They're sick of it. We just wish that they would open up their eyes and provide support to the people and families who have been so wounded."

It's not known yet how long the Morning Star Boys' Ranch chapter will run. Trials are scheduled well into next year. But this first jury case is seen as pivotal because it shows how people in Spokane judge this issue.

Doug Nadvornick, Northwest News Network.

© Copyright 2010, Northwest News Network

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