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Surviving Boyhood 

by Peter J. Ayers & r & I am a Stanford-educated patent attorney currently practicing law as a partner in a Dallas-based law firm. Some 25 years ago, however, I was a "ranch hand" at Morning Star Boys' Ranch. I was there when some of the alleged abuse took place.


After being contacted by a local reporter about these allegations, I felt compelled to come forward and tell my story. Unlike most of the stories, though, mine is one of redemption and hope. For that I have Morning Star, in general, and Father Joe Weitensteiner, in particular, to thank.


To understand the impact that Morning Star had on my life, I must go back to my childhood. I was the second of six children in my family -- four boys and two girls. My father was a proud, hard-working man who spent 20 years in the Navy as an enlisted man. My mother was a dutiful, yet harried, wife. We moved often, about every two years, as many military families did.


As with most young boys, I desperately sought the affection and approval of my father. He was often gone at sea, sometimes for up to six months at a time, leaving my mother the daunting task of raising a house full of rambunctious and, in my case, strong-willed children. When he would return, I was often on the losing end of a battle to gain his attention.


I did learn one sure-fire way of getting his full attention -- misbehaving. If I misbehaved, particularly in a way that violated the unwritten code of honor and respect that all military children were expected to follow, I could be assured of receiving his undivided attention. Unfortunately, in those cases, his steely gaze was typically focused on my backside while he reacquainted his belt with my gluteus maximus. Negative attention, however, was better than no attention.


We moved to Spokane shortly after my father retired from the Navy. I don't know if it was the lack of structure of civilian life or the challenges of raising six children, but tensions in the Ayers household quickly rose to a boiling point. I was getting into more and more trouble at school and at home. I remember more than once being "hacked" at Mead Middle School for various infractions. My mother knew she had to do something when one day she found me holding my younger brother off the ground by his neck. I was out of control, and there was nothing they could do to stop me. They decided to send me to Morning Star. I was only too glad to leave.


I arrived at the ranch in July 1978 -- an angry 13-year-old boy. I lived in the Murphy House with about 25 other "older" boys, i.e., ages 13-18. (The "young" ones lived in another house up the hill.)


I quickly realized that my family life, while difficult, was a fairy tale in comparison to many of these boys. One boy was already an alcoholic at 17; another had been routinely tortured by his older sibling. Some had simply been abandoned to raise themselves. My problems paled in comparison.


The ranch, run by Father Joe Weitensteiner, brought order to life. He ruled with a firm but loving hand. Order and discipline were an integral, if not an essential, part of the ranch. We had a daily schedule. We were each expected to work around the ranch, and there were consequences if those responsibilities were not fulfilled. The ultimate penalty was losing the privilege of going home every other weekend, at least for those of us who had a home.


Despite recent comments about his "physicality," Father Joe was (and is) a humble and gentle man. I have no recollection of any mistreatment, let alone any abuse, physical or otherwise. Standing less than 6 feet high and at most 170 pounds, Father Joe ruled by moral authority, not by intimidation. Even though I was not raised Catholic, I will always remember saying the rosary at night with Father Joe along with several other boys. There was comfort in those prayers, their repetition notwithstanding.


My life undoubtedly would have turned out much different had it not been for Father Joe. One incident stands out in particular. I was home one weekend when I broke into my father's stash of pharmaceutical drugs and took a bunch of these drugs over the weekend. I ran into my nemesis from Sacagawea Junior High, where we were bused to school, and I pulled a knife on this kid. While I don't believe I intended to harm him, the police took a much different view. I was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a controlled substance -- both felonies. I was faced with spending the next few years in a maximum-security juvenile institution in Tacoma called Cascadia. I had heard stories about this place while at the ranch. Boys don't come out of Cascadia unscathed, the stories went. They either turn into hardened criminals or emasculated toys. I was scared.


My fate lay in Father Joe's hands. He could either accept me back into the ranch, this time as a ward of the court, or turn me over to the juvenile justice system. He showed me grace -- God's unmerited favor -- and welcomed me with open arms. For that, I will always be indebted to Father Joe.


After a year at the ranch, I went on to graduate with honors from Mead High School and was the starting quarterback my senior year. After a year at Whitworth, I transferred to WSU (go Cougs!), where I graduated cum laude with a degree in electrical engineering. After working several years as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard -- during which time I completed my master's at Stanford -- I went on to law school at Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & amp; Clark College in Portland. Following law school, I clerked for a federal judge in Washington, D.C., before moving to Austin, Texas, where I continue to practice to this day. My proudest accomplishment, however, is my family. I married my college sweetheart on January 1, 1988, and have two wonderful children.


As a father myself, I am appalled by the recent stories about the abuse that took place in Spokane (and apparently everywhere else) during the 1970s, and I am outraged by the complicity of some of our most revered institutions. In our quest to cleanse our communities from this evil, however, we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I, for one, thank God that Father Joe and Morning Star Boys' Ranch were there when I needed them.

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