Father Bruce Ritter, who founded the Covenant House shelters for homeless teenagers but was forced to resign after several young men accused him of seducing them, has died at the age of 72.
The Roman Catholic priest, who left the Franciscan order under pressure in 1991, died Thursday at his farmhouse near Decatur, N.Y. Ritter, who was never charged and denied all accusations of sexual and financial misconduct, had suffered from Hodgkin’s disease, cancer of the lymph nodes.
At its peak, Covenant House was the largest private child care agency in the country. It operated shelters in 15 cities, including Los Angeles, where it opened a 20-bed facility in 1989. The Hollywood shelter also fielded vans to dispense sandwiches and hot chocolate to homeless teenagers.
Covenant House started in 1969, when six homeless teenagers asked if they could stay in Ritter’s shabby East Village apartment in Manhattan during a snowstorm. Word spread, and he was soon deluged with runaways. By 1972, hundreds of youngsters were seeking shelter in Ritter’s informal group homes, so he obtained a license to run a child care agency.
Ninety-five percent of Covenant House’s $92-million annual income came from private donations, primarily in response to mass mailings of Ritter letters graphically describing the runaways’ ordeals.
Ritter once explained his mission as helping children “find a way out of the gutters and brothels and strip joints where their young bodies are in demand as objects of pleasure for lustful adults.”
He developed a reputation for crusading against pornography, the sex industry and all who prey upon the young--earning himself an induction into Screw magazine’s “Hall of Hypocrisy” after the sex-and-financial scandal broke in December 1989.
Kevin Kite, a former prostitute, said he had had an affair with Ritter. The priest denied it, but several other young men came forward with similar stories, saying he seduced them after they sought his help.
In February 1990, the Franciscans ordered Ritter to take a leave of absence. Later that month, he resigned from Covenant House.
In a report that August, the Covenant House board said it found extensive evidence of sexual misconduct but no severe financial impropriety. The Manhattan district attorney decided not to prosecute Ritter.
Although he had been hailed as a hero by Mother Teresa and President Ronald Reagan, Ritter had always had detractors. One newspaper dubbed his program “McRunaway,” and critics said Ritter merely gave homeless kids the food and bed rest they needed to go on living their dangerous lives. Even Ritter conceded that two-thirds of “his kids” wound up back on the streets.
Another criticism was that Ritter had no background in social work, educated instead as a medieval theologian.
The scandals reversed the financial conditions and prospects for Covenant House, but the organization rebounded after it was placed under the leadership of Sister Mary Rose McGeady, a Catholic Charities official appointed to replace Ritter.
Born John Ritter in Trenton, N.J., on Feb. 25, 1927, the cleric took the name of Bruce when he entered religious life. Ritter joined the Navy during World War II and later trained for the priesthood at St. Francis Seminary on Staten Island. He was ordained in Rome in 1956.
Before founding Covenant House, Ritter taught theology at Manhattan College in the Bronx.