Shelter Residents Defend Covenant House Priest
By Laurie Goodstein
The Washington Post
February 10, 1990
NEW YORK, FEB. 9 -- As new accusations about sexual misconduct by the Rev. Bruce Ritter were aired on the evening news, residents at one of the Covenant House shelters that he founded gathered around the TV in the lounge this week to watch the scandal unfold.
To many of the cynical, street-hardened youths at the shelter near Times Square, Ritter's accusers -- who themselves once sought shelter at Covenant House -- are "con men" in search of publicity and money.
In interviews, the residents expressed a fierce protectiveness for the priest whom most have never met but who they believe cares for them like a loving parent.
"I feel like my own brother was stabbed in the back," said Christopher Kelly, 19, a soft-spoken New Yorker who said Covenant House counselors helped him to find a drug rehabilitation program, a job and a high school equivalency course.
"Father Bruce could do no wrong in my eyes," Kelly said. Then he paused a moment and added, "him and Jerry Lewis. Nobody donates their time to kids who need help."
Since Ritter, 62, stepped aside Tuesday as director of the nation's largest youth shelter, residents at Covenant House facilities here and around the country have said they fear the upheaval will cause their haven to close.
"You wonder, are we going to be here tomorrow or be back on the streets? I don't want to sleep in no more trains," said Nina Spear, 19, who has had three extensive stays here in her effort to stop using drugs.
"If it wasn't for Father Bruce, half of us would be dead or locked up in jail," she said.
In the last two months, five young men have publicly accused Ritter of sexual affairs while residents at Covenant House. Investigations are being conducted by the Franciscan order, the state attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney.
Ritter has called the allegations "garbage," but he stepped aside at the request of his Franciscan superiors.
In December, Kevin Kite, 26, a self-described former male prostitute, alleged that Ritter spent several nights with him and used Covenant House funds for an apartment, a computer and spending money.
Covenant House officials responded with a public relations offensive, calling a news conference to explain that Kite was in a special "safe house" program for youths who fear for their lives and providing the media with audits, receipts and copies of Ritter's book on runaway teens.
The officials located Kite's father in Texas and brought him to New York for a videotaped interview in which he called his son a "pathological liar" who has "a pattern of intentionally hurting people who try to help him."
New York newspapers rested their cases against Ritter until Tuesday, when reports surfaced that the Franciscans were investigating sexual-abuse charges by Darryl Bassile, a resident 17 years ago, when Covenant House was based in Greenwich Village. Since then, three more accusers have stepped forward.
Although Covenant House officials had undermined Kite's credibility by charging that he used a "string of aliases," the organization has since admitted that it helped Kite to arrange his most recent alias by obtaining a birth certificate for Timothy Warner, who died at age 10 in Buffalo.
The prosecutor is investigating the false identification and alleged misuse of funds involving Kite.
Covenant House's board members in New York, who took out full-page ads in newspapers Thursday, are concerned about a decrease in donations, which comprise 94 percent of the organization's $87 million budget.
At Covenant House shelters nationwide, newcomers are indoctrinated with what one staffer called "the legend" of how Ritter started the shelter in 1968 by bringing a handful of street kids into his apartment. Now, a few residents say Ritter's saintly image is tarnished.
"The girls are ready to come to his defense, but the guys think he's done it," said Ivy Warrick, 19, on her way to a job interview to earn money for a return trip to her home in California. "They say he's a perverted old man."
Covenant House serves 25,000 youths at shelters in New York, Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, Anchorage, Toronto, Mexico City, Antigua, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama.
In Washington, a planned Covenant House shelter is "on hold," said Jim Kelly, its director. However, an official in Los Angeles said donations are steady, and Fort Lauderdale officials reported an increase over a year.
"If it's true," said SiFrederick Rivers, 20, "I won't be angry or curse Father Ritter. I'll just be disappointed. I will feel that he broke the covenant he wanted us to acknowledge.
"I'll believe it when the proof is there," he said. "He is a role model, and role models don't do these things. But . . . nobody's perfect."