Rev. Bruce Ritter (February 25, 1927 – October 7, 1999) was a Catholic priest and one-time Franciscan friar who founded the charity Covenant House in 1972 for homeless teenagers. By the 1980s, it had grown to an $87 million agency, operating numerous large centers in New York and six other major United States cities, as well as locations in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and Latin America.
In 1990 Ritter was forced to resign from Covenant House after widespread reports that he had engaged in sexual relations with several young boys in the care of the charity, and had financial improprieties in the operations of the organization. It was one of the most widely publicized cases of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, which was revealed to be widespread over the next two decades. He also left the Franciscans, but retained his priestly faculties. He retired to a small town in upstate New York.
Early life and education
John Ritter was born in Trenton, New Jersey and grew up in nearby Hamilton Township. His father died in 1931 when he was four, and his mother struggled financially during the Great Depression of the 1930s, raising five children on a widow's pension and a series of odd jobs. Ritter graduated from Hamilton High School in 1945, worked briefly in a local industry, and joined the United States Navy near the end of World War II.
In 1947 following the war, he took the name Bruce when he entered the Order of Friars Minor Conventuals. He transferred for a time to explore monastic life as a Trappist, but returned. Ritter was ordained as a Franciscan in 1956. He completed his doctoral thesis on The Primacy and the Council of Florence at the Conventual seminary in Rome in 1959, but never revised or published it in an academic journal. After a series of short-term teaching assignments at a variety of Franciscan institutions, Ritter arrived at Manhattan College in the Bronx to teach theology in 1963.
Lower East Side ministry
In 1968, Ritter decided to leave the College and to begin a new ministry on the Lower East Side of New York City. He recruited a fellow Franciscan friar, Father James Fitzgibbon, to move to this troubled neighborhood and initiate what he described as a "ministry of availability" to the poor. The Archdiocese of New York assigned Ritter and Fitzgibbon to the local parish, St. Brigid's Church. It had been designated as an experimental parish, in that it was structured around a team ministry. The Franciscans lived in a tenement building on East 7th Street, in what was a high-crime neighborhood, riddled by drug use. The friars were not immune to this situation, and their apartment was frequently broken into and robbed. One time, Father Bruce's religious habit was taken by the thieves. Gradually they accumulated a following of young volunteers who moved to the East Village, Manhattan and surrounding apartments in an effort to live in community, and to effect social and political change. Fitzgibbon left the ministry. Several other individuals, including Adrian Gately, Patricia Kennedy, and Paul Frazier, proved instrumental in defining the early years.
By the early 1970s, Ritter decided to concentrate on sheltering homeless youths. The issue of "runaways" was receiving considerable national media attention; Greenwich Village appeared to be a magnet that attracted many homeless youths. He formally incorporated his ministry as Covenant House in 1972 and received his first grant from the New York City Addiction Services Agency to support his work. Ritter soon began acquiring other properties and opened a series of boys' and girls' group homes, primarily in the Greenwich Village and East Village neighborhoods. In 1976, he announced plans to open a multi-service center for youths near the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square. He began to gain considerable publicity by claiming that he was rescuing youths who had arrived in New York City and had been lured into the child pornography and prostitution trades.
By the late 1980s, Covenant House had moved away from the small group home approach and opened large shelters with training programs in seven United States cities, as well as in Canada (e.g. Toronto) and Latin America. Its budget approached US$90,000,000, and it spent three times what the federal government did on runaways. He called the teenagers in the Covenant House “my kids”, “nice kids”, and “gorgeous kids”. Ritter wrote two books, Covenant House: Lifeline to the Street (New York: Doubleday, 1987) and Sometimes God Has a Kid's Face, which detailed his experience in starting up Covenant House and provided his perspective on homeless teenagers.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan praised Covenant House in his State of the Union address for their efforts in aiding homeless and runaway youth. In 1985, Ritter served on US Attorney General Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography.
Sexual abuse and financial improprieties
In December 1989, Kevin Kite accused Ritter of having sexual relations with him after meeting him in New Orleans and flying him to New York to live at Ritter's expense. Kite claimed that he had an eight-month-long sexual relationship with Ritter. He also alleged that Ritter diverted up to $25,000 in Covenant House money to finance the affair. Ritter denied Kite's story, although he said he helped get Kite a scholarship at Manhattan College. In December 1989, the New York Times reported the father of Kevin Kite said his son was "a chronic liar and thief with a 'personality disorder' and a history of "hurting those who try to help him."  Covenant House officials said they paid Kite's board at Manhattan College, gave him pocket money, and bought him a computer. They also said a Covenant House contact in upstate New York provided Kite with papers that allowed him to take the identity of Tim Warner, a young boy who died of leukemia in 1980.
On January 24, 1990, the Village Voice reported that John Melican, 34, of Seattle, had recounted that from the time he was 16, he had an intermittent 13-year sexual relationship with Ritter. Melican repeated his claims to the New York Times and the Seattle Times, which published them in early 1990.
The New York Times reported that a third man, Darryl Bassile, 31, had approached the paper in mid-January to say he too had had sexual relations with Ritter when a youth. He had complained earlier to the Franciscan friary in Union City, New Jersey, after he heard of Kite's charges, and it started an investigation.
A fourth accusation was made by Paul Johnson, 33, an admitted felon who claimed that he was involved with Ritter for six years. Ritter denied that he had a sexual relationship with any of these men. These allegations were not brought to court, and no charges were filed by the district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau or state attorney general Robert Abrams.
A report prepared for Covenant House by Kroll and Associates and the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore cited fifteen cases of reported sexual contacts between Ritter and youths sheltered at Covenant House or young adults working there as volunteer counselors in what was called the Faith Community. The report did not specifically say all were men, but those who have come forward publicly with allegations about sexual activities have all been men. The report said, "The cumulative evidence discovered by Kroll in the course of its investigation that Father Ritter engaged in sexual activities with certain residents and made sexual advances toward certain members of the Faith Community is extensive." Its preparation was supervised by Robert J. McGuire, a former New York City Police Commissioner and then senior managing director of Kroll.
Additional allegations surfaced concerning financial improprieties and administrative irregularities at Covenant House. Charles Sennott, a reporter for the New York Post, broke the story, and it became a tabloid sensation into the early months of 1990. Despite mounting a vigorous public relations defense and denying any wrongdoing, Ritter was forced to resign from Covenant House in February 1990.
Ritter left the Franciscan order, but retained his priestly faculties by being incardinated into a diocese in India. Eventually he retired to the small town of Decatur, New York. From 1990 until the end of his life in 1999, he celebrated Mass privately in his home and attended retreats. He died of cancer at the age of 72.
- Peter J. Wosh, Covenant House: Journey of a Faith-Based Charity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), pp. 13-35.
- Wosh, Covenant House, pp. 37-111
- Cronin, Mary (1990-02-19). "Bleak Days for Covenant House". Time.
- Farber, M. A. (1989-12-21). "Priest's Accuser Is Called a Liar By His Father". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-27.
- Philip Nobile, "Body and Soul: New Allegations About the Secret Life of Father Ritter," Village Voice, 24 January 1990
- Rick Anderson, "A Life In Ruins And Molestation Allegations Against A Priest", Seattle Times, 10 February 1990, accessed 19 September 2013
- Cronin, Mary (1990-02-19). "Bleak Days for Covenant House". Time.
- Blumenthal, Ralph (August 4, 1990). "Ritter Inquiry Cites Reports From the 70's". The New York Times.
- Charles Sennott, Broken Covenant (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992) is Sennott's full account of the controversy.
- Wosh, Covenant House, constitutes the most complete account of the scandal.
- Wosh, Covenant House
- The New York Times (October 22, 1999). "In Quiet Fields, Father Ritter Found His Exile; After Scandal, Covenant House Founder Had a Simple, Solitary Life Upstate".
- Sennott, Charles M. (1992). Broken Covenant. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-76715-1.
- Steinfels, Margaret O'Brien (December 13, 1992). "The Priest and the Runaways", The New York Times book review.
- Wosh, Peter J. (2005). Covenant House: Journey of a Faith-Based Charity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-3831-1.
- "Obituary for Father Bruce Ritter", New York Times, 13 October 1999