Street Priest Falls From Grace
By Chauncey Mabe, Books Editor
February 28, 1993
Throughout the 1980s, along with thousands of other Americans, I sent donations to Father Bruce Ritter. He effectively conveyed the urgency of his mission in gritty fund-raising newsletters about the tragedies of teen-agers. Covenant House, the shelter he established to help homeless and exploited street kids, seemed the most worthy among the charities clamoring for my dollars.
It was irresistible. It was also largely bogus.
Yes, Covenant House was -- is -- a genuine charity that helps young people and attracts the loyalty of dedicated workers and volunteers. Indeed, at its height, it was a $90 million-a-year empire with shelters in the United States (including Fort Lauderdale), Canada and Latin America. But in 1989, shortly after Ritter was named a Point of Light by President Bush, a former male prostitute named Kevin Kite came forward with the story that the charismatic priest had given him money , a private apartment, a college scholarship and even a new identity in exchange for sex.
Ritter denied the allegations; his followers and allies defended him ferociously. However, investigative reporters, foremost among them Charles Sennott of The New York Post, not only confirmed the charges, but uncovered much, much more. The legend of Bruce Ritter, saintly street priest, quickly unraveled. Within three weeks he had resigned.
Now, Sennott, now with the New York Daily News, tells the whole sordid story in Broken Covenant (Simon & Schuster, 373 pp., $23), a compelling, saddening account of how Ritter`s will to do good became corrupted by sex, power and outsized ambition.
COMPROMISED FROM THE START
As Sennott makes painfully clear, Ritter`s good works were compromised from the beginning. Supposedly, in 1968 Ritter took in six homeless teen-agers who had been forced to appear in porno films . He was the only adult they met in New York who did not try to exploit them. From this accidental seeding grew Covenant House.
Sennott tracked down some of these people years later and got a different story . There was no exploitation by pornographers, and while Ritter did allow the kids to sleep on his floor, he was difficult to get along with, especially for the girls in the group. And, worse, he made passes at the boys.
Ritter, it turns out, is precisely what he most condemned, a chickenhawk -- a man who preys sexually on male teen-agers.
A genius for administration, fund-raising and his apparently genuine desire to help people enabled Ritter to develop a perpetually growing New York shelter during the 1970s. His emphasis on a centralized facility with a policy of open-intake -- no one would be turned away -- did not make him popular with other religious and secular social service organizations. The others followed a policy toward small group homes, believed to be more effective.
As a result, while Covenant House gained a reputation as a leader in the rescue of street children, word on the street was that it offered little more than an handy place to crash. Ritter may not have known it, but Covenant House was frequented by dealers, pimps and prostitutes; kids were no safer there than on the street, according to Sennott.
VOW OF POVERTY
Ritter could not be bothered with such details. With the 1980s, Covenant House was adopted -- and co-opted -- by wealthy Republican businessmen. ``Ritter was not naive about his `covenant` with these conservative tycoons and the new right,`` Sennott writes. Each side received favorable publicity, while Ritter gained access to undreamed political influence and money. Although a Franciscan monk who had taken a vow of poverty, Ritter took home a salary of $90,000 a year plus expenses, not to mention a secret $1 million trust fund.
Throughout his career as head of Covenant House, Ritter engaged in a pattern of seduction of teen-age boys who came to the shelter for help. For example, Darryl Bassile, who came to Ritter at 15 after a childhood of sexual abuse, had sex with the priest in his private apartments about six times. In exchange, he received special privileges and money -- until Ritter abandoned him.
Bassile went on to an adult life of drug addiction, dead-end jobs and two broken marriages. By 1989, when he came forward to add his story to that of Kevin Kite, Bassile had kicked drugs and started to rebuild his life with the help of a therapist.
Ironically, aside from losing Covenant House, which still struggles to serve its mission, Ritter received no punishment, certainly nothing like what befell televangelist Jim Bakker, who went to prison for bilking his followers. Charges against Ritter were dropped with the stipulation that he never work with young people again.
The saddest aspect of this book is the suggestion that Ritter has learned nothing from his ordeal; his ego seems intact.
``To this day ,`` Sennott writes, ``Ritter maintains his innocence.``