In Quiet Fields, Father Ritter Found His Exile; After Scandal, Covenant House Found Had a Simple, Solitary Life Upstate
By Tina Kelley
The New York Times
October 22, 1999
The dying priest celebrated Mass every day alone in his chapel overlooking nothing but wooded hills and the clover field where he knew he would be buried. He worked in his garden, he wrote, and he visited with friends who had remained in touch despite his scandal-stained public life, 200 miles and one decade away.
The Rev. Bruce Ritter, 72, died of cancer on Oct. 7, in near seclusion in this Otsego County town, population 356. In 1969, the Roman Catholic priest founded Covenant House, a shelter for homeless teen-agers that grew from two cold-water flats on the Lower East Side to a $90 million corporation with sites in 15 cities, the largest shelter network for homeless children in the country.
Father Ritter resigned from the agency in 1990 amid allegations that he had sexual relationships with young men at the shelter and concerns about a secret trust fund, although after four investigations, he was never charged with a crime. In 1991, a lawsuit filed by one accuser was thrown out because the statute of limitations had expired.
For those who believed the allegations against him, the acts Father Ritter was accused of constituted a great betrayal: a crime against the most vulnerable children, an abuse of the power of the priesthood, an assault on a thriving charity and a slap in the face to the idealistic people he attracted into social work. For those who believe him to be innocent, he was exiled unjustly.
Whatever his guilt or innocence, his friends say he rediscovered his priesthood in his final years, living alone in a beneficent landscape, putting up bluebirds' houses behind his farmhouse overlooking the wooded hills 60 miles west of Albany.
''He lived very quietly up here,'' said Joseph J. Saccente, a former chief of staff at the Board of Education who retired to nearby Richmondville. Mr. Saccente knew Father Ritter because they were the only two who bought a New York City newspaper at Killenberger General Store, about four miles from the priest's white house on Penksa Road.
Shortly before Father Ritter died, Mr. Saccente took him vegetable soup that his wife, Dorothy, had made from locally grown tomatoes, zucchini and carrots. They had shared meals in each other's homes, though the priest told the couple that he had not visited with anyone else in town.
''He loved his house,'' Mr. Saccente said. ''He loved the serenity, and he appeared to be at peace with himself. It appears he was able to live without people.''
Neighbors knew the priest as John, the name he was given at birth, before taking the name Bruce when he joined the Franciscans. Those who were acquainted with him at his rural retreat saw him as intelligent and empathic, a neighbor who walked a German shepherd and waved from his car. They were aware of his past, because stories had run in the local papers. But they did not shun him.
''Maybe he did the things he's accused of,'' said Dori Perrucci, who before the scandal served as an editor to Father Ritter in New York City, working on a book of his legendary fund-raising letters. ''Thousands of kids are alive because of him. Many people's lives changed and went into a whole new direction.''
She wondered aloud if he was a saint or a sinner, then took comfort from something a friend of hers had suggested: ''Maybe he was both, like most of us.''
Covenant House, from its modest conception, served a population that had previously fallen between the cracks: homeless teen-agers who either had run away from home or been kicked out. Many turned to drugs and prostitution and met grisly fates.
After teaching in the theology department of Manhattan College in the Bronx, Father Ritter moved to the Lower East Side in 1968 to help homeless young people when six of them knocked on his door during a winter storm. At its height, Covenant House had grown to include a large shelter on West 41st Street, an outreach van with social workers who encouraged children to come in from the streets, and rooms for young people with AIDS, early in the epidemic. It spent three times more money on runaways than the Federal Government did.
And Bruce Ritter was the force behind it -- a charismatic, eloquent, persuasive, ambitious man who won the backing of the city's most powerful politicians and deep-pocketed corporations.
''Father Ritter just came forward and with courage and enormous energy and tremendous commitment reached out to these kids, raised the money, and built an effective program where there hadn't really been one before,'' said Robert Abrams, the State Attorney General at the time. ''Father Ritter was a genuine hero who had personal frailties which tragically took something away from his achievements.''
In December 1989, a former Covenant House resident accused him of offering financial benefits in return for sex. The priest had also created a trust fund of nearly $1 million, built mainly from his salary, which gave loans to several board members and the priest's sister. In February 1990, he resigned, saying it was in the best interests of the agency.
Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan District Attorney, did not charge him with any crime. Mr. Abrams brought no charges against Covenant House over its handling of charitable contributions. But an investigation commissioned by Covenant House found extensive evidence that he engaged in sexual activities with residents of the shelter. Even if he did not, the report concluded, he ''exercised unacceptably poor judgment in his relations with certain residents.'' If he had not resigned, it concluded, he would have been required to leave.
Though contributions plummeted after the scandal, Covenant House, which declined to comment on Father Ritter's death, continues to help homeless teen-agers in the United States, Canada and Central America.
A report from the Franciscans neither cleared nor condemned him, but the order demanded that he live in a friary and seek counseling. Father Ritter, who repeatedly denied the accusations against him, believed that seeking counseling would amount to an admission of guilt, said the priest's former assistant at Covenant House, John Spanier. He left the order in 1990.
So that he could continue working as a priest, Father Ritter aligned himself with a bishop in Alleppey, India. He had hoped to assist charities there, said Alan Ouimet, who had worked with Father Ritter in the Lower East Side and kept in close contact. But the priest dropped his plans to go to India after they became public.
Mr. Ouimet said Father Ritter regretted his estrangement from the Franciscans. ''Only two weeks before he died he was still saddened by the fact that they were absent in his life,'' Mr. Ouimet said.
About six years ago, Father Ritter moved into the farmhouse and began renovating it, after living in various places including Pound Ridge, N.Y. He supported himself with help from friends and with Mass stipends, money sent to a priest for saying Mass, acquaintances said.
At the house, an old grindstone and buckets of petunias decorated the front yard, near a stand of weeping birches. Several windows were decorated with maple leaves that had been pressed between sheets of wax paper. The chapel that the priest had added to the house had tall windows overlooking a broad valley and contained a plain altar with candles, a seat and a table with a book lying open. A large, modern crucifix hung on the back wall.
Father Ritter would visit St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass., each month and often went on a retreat for Holy Week, as he had done when he lived in the city. ''He had a very, very peaceful, beautiful spiritual life,'' Mr. Ouimet said.
Father Ritter's ashes were buried at a corner of the stone walls behind his house, under a statue of St. Francis. About 45 friends, from as far away as Kentucky, attended the funeral and shared remembrances at the service, which included a reading from Ezekiel about God's covenant with his people, and a procession to the grave site.
Mr. Spanier said two men were among those who spoke about Father Ritter at the funeral, one an attorney from Kentucky who had been helped through Covenant House when he was a teen-ager. The other was a marine who lived near the farmhouse and who said the priest had played an important role in his life, helping him make choices about school and joining the service.
''They were bookends to the type of people Father was able to help and connect with,'' Mr. Spanier said.