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Rev. Bruce Ritter (February 25, 1927 – October 7, 1999) was a Roman Catholic priest and one-time Franciscan friar who founded the charity Covenant House in 1972 for homeless teenagers, from which he was forced to resign in 1990 after accusations that he had engaged in financial improprieties and had engaged in sexual relations with several youth in the care of the charity.
Born John Ritter in Trenton, New Jersey, he grew up in nearby Hamilton Township. His father died in 1931, and his mother struggled financially during 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. He entered the Order of Friars Minor Conventuals in 1947, taking the name Bruce. He transferred for a time to explore monastic life as a Trappist, but returned and eventually 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.
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, which 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, even 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 effect social and political change. Fitzgibbon soon left the ministry, but 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 focus his efforts on sheltering homeless youths, as the issue of "runaways" was receiving considerable national media attention and the Greenwich Village area 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 the Times Square area. He began to obtain 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 trade.
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 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.
In December 1989, Ritter was accused by Kevin Kite, a former male prostitute and pornographic actor, of having sexual relations 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."  But 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. Then, on Jan 24, 1990, another accusation surfaced in the Village Voice. John Melican, 34, of Seattle, told the weekly that from the time he was 17, he had an intermittent 13-year sexual relationship with Ritter. Melican repeated his claims to the New York Times, which published them in 1990. The Times also reported that a third man, Darryl Bassile, 31, had approached the paper in mid-January to say he too had sexual relations with Ritter. He had complained earlier to the Franciscan friary in Union City, N.J., after he heard of Kite's charges, and it started an investigation. A fourth accusation came from 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 15 cases of reported sexual contacts between Ritter and people sheltered at Covenant House or 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 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," said the report, whose preparation was supervised by Robert J. McGuire, a former New York City Police Commissioner and now senior managing director of Kroll.
Additional allegations surfaced concerning financial improprieties and administrative irregularities at the agency. Charles Sennott, a reporter for the New York Post broke the story and it became a tabloid sensation into the early months of 1990. It also served as one of the earliest and most highly publicized cases in the clergy sexual abuse scandal that subsequently emerged within the American Catholic church. Despite mounting a vigorous public relations defense and denying any wrongdoing, Ritter was forced to resign from the organization 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, where he died of cancer at the age of 72. He celebrated Mass privately in his home and attended retreats from 1990 until the end of his life.
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