Image of Covenant House Is Eroded by Sex Charges
The following article is based on reporting by Ralph Blumenthal, Suzanne Daley and M. A. Farber and was written by Mr. Blumenthal.
The New York Times
February 6, 1990
Two months after Covenant House was rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against its founder and guiding spirit, the Rev. Bruce Ritter, the nation's largest shelter program for runaway youngsters is struggling to stem an erosion of support amid widening inquiries by state and church authorities.
The allegations, by a former Covenant House resident who accused the 62-year-old priest of providing gifts in return for sexual favors, touched off an investigation, now being conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney, into whether Father Ritter spent Covenant House funds for his personal benefit and the obtaining of false documents for the former resident, including a fabricated baptismal certificate.
And now a new inquiry, previously undisclosed, is under way. Church officials are investigating allegations by a second man that, when he was in his mid-teens, he was drawn into a sexual relationship by Father Ritter.
Charges Called 'Garbage'
The charges by this man, Darryl J. Bassile of Ithaca, N.Y., are under review this week by a panel convened by the Franciscan order, to which Father Ritter belongs. A member of the panel who is a specialist in treating troubled priests interviewed Mr. Bassile at his home last week.
Father Ritter has characterized as ''garbage'' the allegations by Mr. Bassile, by his original accuser, Kevin Lee Kite, and by a third man, John P. Melican. While acknowledging that he knew all three and had gone out of his way to befriend two of them, Father Ritter said he had ''never, never'' had sexual relations with any youth in Covenant House.
''The greatest pain of all,'' he said, was the risk that public faith in him ''had been shattered.'' He said he had no intention of stepping aside.
All three of Father Ritter's accusers were once in the Covenant House program. Two say they were sexually involved with Father Ritter as minors, years ago. But the District Attorney's investigation does not concern possible sexual misconduct in those cases, because the statute of limitations has expired. Mr. Kite's allegations concern events just last year, when he was an adult.
The Franciscan panel is not bound by the statute of limitations in considering sexual misconduct allegations.
After the initial allegations by Mr. Kite became public, John Cardinal O'Connor, the Archbishop of New York, said he had spoken with Father Ritter and afterward expressed his full confidence in the priest. Yesterday the Cardinal's secretary, Msgr. James McCarthy, said nothing had altered the Cardinal's views.
But the storm engulfing Father Ritter and threatening the financial lifeblood of an international charity that budgets three times more on runaways than the entire Federal Government seems unlikely to dissipate soon.
An 'Unsung Hero' Trying to Save Young Runaways
What began late last year as a narrowly focused charge by Mr. Kite, a drifter and former prostitute whose own father described him as a chronic liar, has since broadened into a story of questionable expenditures, faked documents and missing records - all at an institution whose near-legendary founder won the hearts of Presidents, industrialists and ordinary contributors alike. Father Ritter was cited as an ''unsung hero'' by President Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union address and President Bush visited him at Covenant House in Manhattan last fall.
He has campaigned vigorously against the sexual exploitation of children. In 1985 and 1986 he served as a member of Attorney General Edwin Meese's National Commission on Pornography.
In the last four years, Covenant House has been, by all accounts, a wildly successful agency, tripling its budget, outbidding the New York City government for a West Side building and opening more than a dozen new centers.
Covenant House dominates the field of institutions helping teen-age runaways with its large shelters, and its small, highly specialized and praised programs: a unit for youths infected with the AIDS virus, one for drug addicts and a project, called Rights of Passage, which offers long-term housing and education for highly motivated youths.
Last year it had a budget of $87 million, almost all raised from private donations. The Federal Government spent about $29 million on similar programs, according to the National Network of Runaway and Youth Services.
Some who work in the field call Covenant House shelters the McDonald's of youth services because they are often large, with beds for more than 100, and some 70 percent of youngsters who go there return to the streets. Most stays average six days.
Others, like Joyce Hunter, the director of Social Services for the Hetrick-Martin Institute, an organization that does outreach work with gay and lesbian youths in New York, said gay youths - many of whom are in the streets because their families have thrown them out - have at times been harassed by Covenant House counselors and other youths.
But even the agency's harshest critics said they would not welcome its demise.
''We definitely have criticisms,'' Ms. Hunter said. ''But we don't want to see it fold. We need that place and there are a lot of good people working there.''
Even Father Ritter's accusers laud the pioneering work Covenant House has done to help more than 200,000 runaways since it was started in two abandoned tenements in the East Village of Manhattan in 1968. Many child welfare experts say it is virtually ''the only game in town'' for older teen-agers.
Doors Are Always Open
The success of Covenant House's fund raising is often attributed to Father Ritter's skill with troubled youths and his talent at letter writing. His newsletters, the bulk of the agency's fund-raising efforts, are usually tales of one youth or another. They go out once a month to about 800,000 people.
Covenant House workers still go nightly to the Hudson River piers with sandwiches and hot chocolate for the teen-agers who mingle in the shadows selling themselves to survive.
The doors of the Covenant House shelter on 41st Street near Times Square are still open 24 hours a day for those with bloodshot eyes and grimy clothes who stumble in desperate for a safe place to sleep and, sometimes, a way to rebuild their lives.
At the outreach center on West 44th Street the other day, one young man who had been in and out of Covenant House for a year and a half said he had become so addicted to crack that he had stolen from his parents and had finally sold his clothes to get high.
''This guy,'' the youth said, referring to Father Ritter, whom he had never met, ''takes kids who are dying. If it wasn't for Covenant House a lot of people would be dead on 42d Street.''
On a recent day, in a Covenant House lounge that was crowded with youngsters who had come for food, clean clothes or counseling, many said they had a hard time believing the accusations against Father Ritter.
But the furor has taken a toll on the organization. Television news crews have repeatedly shown up at Covenant House buildings. Donations have dropped off.
Within days of Mr. Kite's accusations, Covenant House found in an overnight telephone survey that as many as half its contributors were unsure whether they would continue their support. In December, the month when the agency usually receives up to 20 percent of its donations, Covenant House fell $3 million short of the $15 million it had expected to raise that month.
Facing the prospect of a continuing decline in contributions, the agency halted plans to develop programs for Phoenix, St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago and expand programs in New York, New Jersey and Washington. It has also delayed surveys to determine needs in five other nations.
''We're in the middle of a whirlwind,'' said Mark Stroock, a retired senior vice president of Young & Rubicam who has been on the Covenant House board of directors for 12 years. ''We have to wait and see.''
Another Accuser Charges Prompt Franciscan Inquiry
The charges against Father Ritter that are the subject of the Franciscan inquiry focus on Mr. Bassile, a 31-year-old worker at a center for the disabled in Ithaca.
After Mr. Kite's assertions were made public in The New York Post on Dec. 12, Mr. Bassile called Father Ritter's superiors in the Franciscan order to lodge his own complaint.
Father Ritter had warned that ''copycats'' might surface in the wake of Mr. Kite's allegations. But Mr. Bassile had mentioned his complaints against Father Ritter to an Ithaca psychotherapist beginning in April 1989, more than a half year before Mr. Kite came forward. Handwritten notes of the therapist, Daniel Matusiewicz, show this.
Mr. Bassile said he had telephoned the office of the Minister Provincial, the Rev. Conall McHugh in Union City, N. J., to file his complaint and when he had not heard back from anyone, contacted The New York Times. Father McHugh sits on the board of Covenant House.
Mr. Bassile was interviewed last week by the Rev. Canice Connors of Winston-Salem, N.C., who was sent to Ithaca by the Franciscan Friary. Father Connors was for eight years director of residential treatment at Southdown, a church program in Aurora, Ontario, for priests with addictions, or emotional or sexual problems.
Mr. Bassile's account, first given in mid-January to The Times, is as follows:
After a childhood of sexual abuse at home, he was placed in 1970 at Mount Loretto, an orphanage and foster home run by Catholic Charities on Staten Island. There, Mr. Bassile said, he was raped and nearly hanged from a tree by three other resident youths.
Living on Rooftops
Mr. Bassile said he ran away and lived for months on rooftops and under a railroad trestle in Queens. In April 1973, when he was 14, he said, he entered an intake center for Covenant House in Greenwich Village and met Father Ritter, who was then living across Washington Square Park at 40 West 12th Street.
He said he visited Father Ritter there on a half-dozen occasions to talk over his anguished past. He said Covenant House had provided a warm, sympathetic environment unlike any he had known.
But on his second visit, Mr. Bassile said, Father Ritter made sexual overtures. He said he did not protest because, with his background, he was used to submitting and ''I welcomed any attention I got.''
On the next visit, he said, Father Ritter began fondling him and they engaged in a sexual act. As on three or four subsequent occasions when they also had sex, he said, he spent the night there. He provided what he said were details of Father Ritter's room, including a desk from which, he said, he stole small amounts of Canadian money.
In May 1975, he said, he ran away from Covenant House and moved to Ithaca. He has been married and divorced twice, has two children, and in recent years sought psychological counseling.
Mr. Bassile said he bore no animosity toward Father Ritter or Covenant House, but wanted an admission and apology from the priest.
''The organization is genuine,'' he said. ''I don't want Bruce Ritter removed from Covenant House. All I want is for the man to get help with his problems.''
'A Sick Kid'
Father Ritter said in an interview last week that he remembered meeting Mr. Bassile only in passing. He said it was possible that Mr. Bassile was one of the many youths who dropped in to his apartment - the building also had a Covenant House office - and sometimes spent the night under his roof. He said that he might have had Canadian money in his desk because he gave talks in Canada, and that a youth might have taken some of it.
Father Ritter recalled only one conversation with Mr. Bassile when the youth was at Covenant House. He said Mr. Bassile was ''a sick kid'' who had asked the priest then to marry him to a man in a wheelchair. Father Ritter said he dismissed the plea as ''crazy'' and that Mr. Bassile, angered, threatened to accuse him of sexual abuse.
He said he had not spoken to Mr. Bassile since.
Mr. Bassile said the man in the wheelchair was a friend, and that he had sought only to have the man named his foster father as a way of leaving Covenant House.
James J. Harnett, the chief operating officer of Covenant House, said records of Mr. Bassile's stay there were missing, as were those of many other youths from the early days of the program, when the organization was more haphazard.
''We should have them but we don't,'' he said, adding that Franciscan investigators also wanted to see Mr. Bassile's records.
New Details False Records And Denials
Meanwhile, Mr. Kite, whose accusations set off the investigation by the District Attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, has furnished new details of what he says was his relationship to Father Ritter and Covenant House.
In interviews with The Times last week, he reiterated his claims that, after a brief meeting at Covenant House in New Orleans last February, Father Ritter had flown him to New York, immediately driven him to the country estate of a Covenant House board member, and initiated a sexual relationship that was to last eight months.
He said he was introduced to everyone as Father Ritter's nephew before being given another false identity. He was, he said, put up in a Times Square apartment, given thousands of dollars worth of clothes, paid a weekly stipend for virtually no work and enrolled on scholarship in Manhattan College -where Father Ritter had been chaplain - without any high school records. College records confirm that he attended, and files there contain no high school transcript.
Mr. Kite said that last fall he grew disgusted with what he viewed as Father Ritter's ''manipulation'' of him and took his story to a hospital sex-abuse unit, Mr. Morgenthau's office and The Post.
Father Ritter tells quite a different story.
He said, at a news conference on Dec. 14 and in interviews, that Mr. Kite, who is 26, had passed himself off as a 19-year-old hustler and led Covenant House officials to believe that he was in fear of his life from the underworld. The priest said he had given Mr. Kite the name of his nephew, Jim Wallace, to protect him and had paid for clothes and housing to help him get his life on course.
A False Identity
Father Ritter acknowledged taking overnight trips with Mr. Kite but only, he said, as his counselor and ''mentor.''
While prosecutors try to sort out the conflicting accounts - focusing primarily on whether Father Ritter spent Covenant House funds for his personal benefit - new questions have cropped up.
For example, Mr. Kite has denied that he ever feared for his life, maintaining that the story was concocted by Father Ritter to explain why he rushed Mr. Kite to New York within a day of meeting him in New Orleans.
Although Covenant House initially attacked Mr. Kite's credibility on the ground that he created a second false identity - Timothy Michael Warner -based on documents belonging to someone who had died, the organization now admits that it aided the subterfuge.
The real Timothy Warner was a 10-year-old boy from Jamestown, N.Y., who died of cancer at Children's Hospital in Buffalo on Nov. 13, 1980.
Without the parents' knowledge, a fake baptismal certificate in the boy's name from St. James Roman Catholic Church in Jamestown, and an official copy of Timothy Warner's birth certicificate were furnished to someone at Covenant House, who, Mr. Kite said, passed them on to him. The baptism certificate, listing a baptism date of Dec. 27, 1970, bore a signed name, the Rev. Patrick X. Crotty, investigators said.
But according to the family, Timothy was baptized at a different church, St. John's, on April 5, 1970, and the real certificate is signed by the pastor, the Rev. Ralph P. Federico.
Reached last week in Tonawanda, N.Y., where he now lives, Mr. Crotty, who has since left the priesthood, said that he was not at St. James in 1970 and knew nothing of the Warner boy.
Mr. Morgenthau's office is known to be examining a possible connection between the fake Warner document and a priest affiliated with Covenant House who, until last fall, was attached to St. James. Submitting false documents may be a crime under state and Federal statutes, officials said.
Mr. Kite said he used the Warner document to obtain the real Timothy Warner's Social Security number, which he then used for his college application and other purposes.
When Mr. Kite originally made his allegations against Father Ritter, Mr. Harnett, the Covenant House executive, said that Mr. Kite had himself found an obituary of Timothy Warner and ''sent away'' for supporting documents to assume his identity. Mr. Harnett said that Mr. Kite had told Covenant House employees that he learned this trick from organized-crime figures in Texas.
But Mr. Kite told The Times last week that he had not originated the scheme but had been handed the baptismal certificate and birth certificate by another Covenant House official, Gregory Loken. Mr. Loken, recahed last night, said that as a lawyer, he had a professional relationship with Mr. Kite and could not discuss the matter publicly.
Mr. Harnett conceded that ''we pointed him in the direction to acquire the name.''
Mr. Harnett said he was ''not at liberty'' to say who at Covenant House was involved because ''the matter is under investigation'' by the District Attorney.
He said no one at Covenant House had considered the impact of such a ruse on the Warner family but now wished they had. Timothy Warner's parents, Terry Jan and Betty Warner, said they were shocked at learning that their son's identity had been appropriated and have contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The Expenditures How Much? And for What?
Another discrepancy surrounds Covenant House expenditures on Mr. Kite.
Mr. Harnett said Covenant House spent $9,800 on Mr. Kite, all fully accounted for in organization records.
Mr. Kite said he has told prosecutors that he received cash and gifts of up to $25,000, much of it in undocumented funds, and some of it from donations mailed in to Covenant House.
Another unresolved question under official investigation concerns Father Ritter's relationship with another former Covenant House resident, John Melican.
On Jan. 24, The Village Voice published an article by Philip Nobile including what Mr. Nobile said were excerpts from a 1986 interview in which Mr. Melican, then 30, said he had carried on a 13-year, intermittent sexual relationship with Father Ritter. The article said that Mr. Melican had passed a lie detector test but had disappeared shortly after the interview, leaving a message for a friend that he was dying in a San Francisco hospital.
'He Drifted In and Out'
Father Ritter recalled having known Mr. Melican since the early 1970's at Covenant House. He said that the young man had had a serious drinking problem and that he had bailed Mr. Melican out of jail at least once.
''He drifted in and out of my life,'' Father Ritter said, denying any sexual relationship.
In 1983, Covenant House paid $2,600 to send Mr. Melican to an addiction treatment center in Detroit and it later placed him in two other treatment programs. Covenant House officials say the expenditure was appropriate.
In 1986, Father Ritter said, he was in New Orleans for the Meese Commission when Mr. Melican showed up unexpectedly and they had dinner. The priest said he later paid $500 for dental treatment for Mr. Melican but told him that he would get no further help unless he made a determined effort to reform.
The Times has traced Mr. Melican to Seattle, where he had recently been dismissed from a maintenance job in an apartment building.
In telephone interviews Friday and yesterday, Mr. Melican said that Father Ritter had had sex with him at Covenant House starting when he was 13 years old and that their last liaison was in a hotel during the 1986 New Orleans meeting.