The Rise and Fall and Rise Of Covenant House

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The death in October of Covenant House founder Fr. Bruce Ritter, 72, closes the door on one of the more bizarre, contentious and certainly one of the most wildly publicized scandals in the history of 20th century American youth work.

Ten years ago this month, New York-based Covenant House was caught with its corporate pants well below its bended knees as a sex scandal enveloped the then-$100 million per year agency. For Covenant House and Fr. Ritter it looked like the agency's Go-Go '80s would quickly turn into the Death Throe '90s. The tabloid New York Post first broke the story on Dec. 12, tentatively announcing on its front page "Times Square Priest Probed," but by March 10, 1990, with Fr. Ritter resigning in disgrace, the headlines screamed Covenant "House of Shame." It marked the end of a triumphant but tortured trail in youth services for Fr. Ritter, one of the field's most flamboyant and famous charlatans.

As in a saccharin myth, Covenant House, claimed Ritter, began in 1968 with the priest's snowy rescue of six downtrodden "urban nomads." New York Post reporter Charles Sennott, whose coverage broke the scandal, proved Ritter's yarn to be as accurate as that of Romulus and Remus founding Rome. In his 1992 book, "Broken Covenant," Sennott interviewed some of those original "my kids," as Ritter paternalistically referred to anyone under 21 who had even casual contact with Covenant House. From the jump, Sennott reported, Ritter had been sexually preying on the teen boys he sheltered.

But when not leering and luring, Ritter was fund-raising. From every podium or pulpit on offer, he studiously collected names and added them to his growing mailing list. By 1978 the agency was able to raise a then-amazing $3.7 million per year, dwarfing any other program in the nation serving runaway and homeless juveniles. Aided by an adoring national press and steadily climbing direct-mail contributions, Ritter and Covenant House were ready to go national just as Ronald Reagan arrived in the White House in 1981. In 1982, Covenant House spent $12,442,832 and had a paid staff of 500 in New York City, Toronto, Guatemala and other locations.

Fr. Ritter was regularly turning in boffo public appearances, such as one on ABC's "Nightline," where an earnest Ted Koppel asked on the heels of a reel of grainy teen sexploitation footage, "Who's helping these kids?" "Other than Covenant House, Ted, no one," offered Ritter, glibly ignoring the then over 300 shelters, most (like Covenant House) funded by the federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. Beginning in 1968, youth workers had been steadily building an impressive network of services for youth-in-crisis and a few, including Covenant House, began to get federal assistance in 1974.

But who was going to argue with Fr. Ritter, proclaimed the nation's "unsung hero" in President Reagan's 1984 State of the Union address to Congress? Certainly not Koppel. And certainly not Covenant House's "Board of Directors," which later events would reveal had lacked any real legal authority since 1975, when Ritter rigged the Covenant House nonprofit corporate structure so that he became the "sole member" of the corporation. That left the apparently clueless board of mostly New York corporate and Wall Street bigwigs, at best, as mere advisory window-dressing and, at worst, a respectability veil for Ritter & Co.'s sexual maraudings.

By 1988, Covenant House, crowed Ritter in its annual report, had a budget of $60 million and a staff of 1,400. With its treasury overflowing, Covenant House grew rapidly, opening programs in Fort Lauderdale, Anchorage and L.A., plus Houston and New Orleans, where their direct-mail-enriched coffers helped sink established but financially shaky local agencies - Sand Dollar in Houston and Green House in New Orleans. These youth agencies were unable to sustain local financial support since Covenant House promised "free" services to what was represented to be the same youth population. In fact, the agencies that folded served kids under 18, while Covenant House, then as now, predominately serves 18- 21-year-olds in its residential programs. The immediate result was less shelter care for young runaways, not more, in Houston and New Orleans.

The 'Times Square' Priest    

Meanwhile "the Times Square priest" (not to be confused with Fr. Francis Patrick Duffy a Spanish-American War and World War I chaplin and an authentic hero whose Broadway statute provides him with the most entertaining view in New York) was collecting accolades, including 22 honoris causa degrees from universities ranging from Amherst College to Fordham. He even deigned to accept a lowly Service to Youth Award from the New York State Division for Youth, one from the Camp Fire Council of Greater New York and another, in 1983, from the then National Council of Juvenile Court Judges and the National District Attorneys Association, a shield that must have come in handy in 1990 when Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau declined to prosecute Ritter.

However, even in those blissful Reagan years, deep trouble was stirring in Covenant House's corporate closet. The Covenant House program development approach - perfected by the media-savvy Ritter - was to declare some sleazy urban neighborhood or even an entire city to be overrun by pimps snaring 14-year-old blond girls fresh from Minnesota or suburbia, and intent upon enslaving them by the thousands in God-less perpetual prostitution. Ritter became the "Right here in River City" Music Man for all at-risk kids in the eyes of the gullible public. Local news media intensely covered Ritter's titillating pitch - sex, kids and Reagan's unsung hero to the rescue made for good TV ratings.

But for his many critics, Ritter's proposed cure was as bad as the purported malignant disease, since non-secure shelters that really held hundreds of runaways under 18 (none ever has) would soon create an encirclement of predators-in-waiting. A typical emergency facility for runaways (by definition always under 18) has - for a variety of sound programmatic reasons - less than 20 beds.

Ritter's plans for this sanctuary-in-the-red-light-zone set off pitched battles in almost every city into which Covenant House expanded. In a proposed 1983 move into a 150-room hotel in Boston's Combat Zone, Ritter was bested, in David vs. Goliath fashion, by Sr. Barbara Whelan executive director of the Bridge Over Troubled Waters and its youth services allies. They were already offering, on a fraction of Covenant House's bloated budget, a full range of programs for runaway and homeless youth, then as now, regarded as among the best in the nation. In Los Angeles in 1989, the LA Homeless Youth Network, then steered by Gary Yates, now president of The California Wellness Foundation, fought Covenant House to a draw and forced a retrenchment of Ritter's Big-is-Beautiful plans to shelter hundreds of youth under one roof at the former Hollywood Hotel.

As direct-mail income boomed though the '80s, it was supplemented by a steady multi-million dollar stream of stealth federal grants that crescendoed during the Reagan era when sharp budget cuts for most federally funded youth-serving agencies were the norm. Its money and political clout raised Covenant House ever closer towards the heavens. For directors of runaway and homeless youth-serving agencies, a visit from Ritter's angel of death, Steve Torkelson, was about as welcome as being told to time-share their facility with the neighborhood undertaker.

Wholly Ritter Empire

By the time the fateful day of December 12, 1989 put Ritter on the New York Post's front page, Covenant House had the momentum of a crusade and a take-no-prisoners style to match. Ritter had always bristled at any regulation or oversight, and astutely kept would-be overseers, from New York Catholic Charities to genuflecting city, state and federal regulators and funders, at bay. In 1988, the Wholly Ritter Empire pulled in over $85 million in donations and had operations in 16 cities and six foreign countries. On tax returns, Covenant House claimed only $15,553 in government funds. Among the biggest donors was Charles Keating, the S&L lootmeister who - in a perverse intergenerational funding scheme - stole millions from elderly pensioners and then gave some of it to Covenant House. In the works were new programs in London and, under the direction of Ritter intimate, Patrick Atkinson, in Bangkok and Manila as well. One wry observer of Ritter noted at the time, "He's not running for office, he's running for sainthood."

But soon Ritter, the impotent board of directors and Covenant House's staff were themselves in need of refuge. As news coverage of Ritter's various sexual peccadillos and financial shenanigans spread to the national media, Covenant House counter-attacked with then-CEO Jim Harnett as point man. The Harnett defense: lies, lies, all lies. True, but as a sanitized 55-page August 1990 report by a team of criminal investigators at Kroll Associates spelled out in detail, it was Ritter and his aides - led by Harnett, Torkelson, Atkinson and odd ball anti-porn crusading Covenant House lawyer Greg Loken - who had it quite backwards. They successfully smeared Ritter's first accuser, prostitute Kevin Kite, as a liar, but by the time various investigations were completed over the next year, 116 former targets of Ritter's sexual appetite for teen boys had come forward.

In late February 1990, Ritter resigned, but not before Covenant House's plunging Christmas direct-mail campaign telegraphed the grim news that donations were off by over one-third and heading due south. Ritter's last act was to install the compliant Harnett as acting president. In April, well after Ritter's resignation in a deal with prosecutors that avoided indictment on a number of sex and financial impropriety charges, Harnett's lieutenant Norm Lotz, vice president for planned giving, was writing to donors claiming, "Our founder, Fr. Bruce Ritter, resigned in February. Four former clients of Covenant House came forward to allege that Bruce had a sexual relationship with them when they were at Covenant House.

Despite the absurdity of this, Bruce took these allegations very seriously. As he said, 'There's no way that I can prove my innocence.' Of course, all of these kids had their own reasons to come forward after so many years. Most of them expected to be compensated in some way or another for their 'story.' It is a tragedy to Covenant House and to homeless youth everywhere in this country that Bruce has left Covenant House, since he was by far the most effective advocate for youth in our country today."

Restoring Credibility

The rebuilding - initially little more than the nonprofit equivalent of skin deep preservation - was painful. First, Covenant House needed a real board of directors. It stuck with the very wealthy who had scant knowledge of what constitutes high quality service delivery, plus a few purported "experts" from the nonprofit world. One unfortunate pick: Bill Aramony, CEO of the United Way of America, who, unlike Ritter, wound up in prison for multiple felonious on-the-job acts of debauchery.

After fighting off a palace coup attempt by fellow board member and interim president Frank Macchiarola (and a former chancellor of New York's public schools), the belatedly legally empowered board in July 1990 hired Sister Mary Rose McGeady, a veteran social work administrator in the Brooklyn Diocese. Covenant House by-laws require that the technically secular agency be headed by a member of the Catholic clergy.

Sr. McGeady's first task was to restore Covenant House's credibility with its 800,000 direct-mail donors and the media. Second on the agenda was gaining respect from professionals in the social welfare and youth service fields, most of whom sneered at Covenant House's bizarre policies, practices and profligacy. Among the most controversial "practice" was its much ballyhooed "open intake" whereby, said Covenant House's direct-mail marketing machine, no youth was turned away - ever. In practice "open intake" only applies, as Harnett later wrote in a letter to the New York Times defending the policy, "when they first came to us" just like every other runaway youth shelter worthy of the name.

In reality, 70 percent of its clients around the U.S. were, as its now-closed "Under 21" New York program proclaimed, young adults between 18 and 21. At its 200-bed New York facility and in other U.S. cities, the agency's clientele were, and are, predominately black and Hispanic. Now, says Covenant House spokesman Richard Hirsch, "only 2 percent of the kids" at its New York facility are underage runaways. A typical client in 1990 was, and remains, a 19-year-old African-American male from a single-parent welfare family in the Bronx. No more endangered young American can be imagined, but poverty-crippled young adults are utterly lacking in direct-mail pulling power.

Here, Sr. McGeady had to stare Ritter's Faustian bargain in its ugly face. Tell the truth to donors about who your clients are, or keep pushing the wispy blond, blue-eyed, Midwestern 14-year-old girl with Covenant House's individual donors whose once blind faith in the agency was deeply shaken by the sex scandal.

With Jim Harnett and much of Ritter's crew still on board - only those top managers actually bedding down the boys at home had to go - the decision was devilishly easy. Nothing would change on the all-important marketing side, except that Fr. Bruce would become the priest who never was, while Sr. Mary Rose became the nun who always will be. Covenant House's signature direct-mail gimmick, the ghost written soft-porn paperback, remained.

On the off chance you didn't get one of the 10,000,000 copies of "Please Help Me God" mailed out annually, it begins "She...she does stuff to make money," she said. "You know, stuff with guys she meets." (Hint to reader: Conjure up an image of, say, a 19-year-old predatory black dude from the Bronx doing "stuff" with a naive white 14-year-old farmgirl.)

The Nineline

Another essentially unchanged element in Covenant House's resurgent marketing juggernaut is the Nineline (800-999-9999) which gets, says Covenant House spokesman Hirsch, "87,000 real calls" per month. The operation has seen its "hits" drop from 1.5 million in 1992 to one million per year now. Of the 600,000 calls actually answered, 39 percent come from under 18-years-olds, many not in crisis but seeking anonymous advice.

Former staffers say that 95 percent of the calls are hang-ups, heavy breathers and the like. With the National Runaway Switchboard in Chicago (it currently gets $995,000 per year through the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act), Boystown and other national crisis lines up and running long before the Nineline, critics charge that the Nineline is mostly PR and a reverse Dial for Dollars gimmick to turn distressed parents into future donors. That's nonsense, says Gil Ortiz, an experienced detached youth worker on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn who took over the Nineline in May. Ortiz and his staff of 50, including 33 who answer phones, don't ask for or get the address of any caller.

Sr. Mary Rose McGeady's don't-mess-with-success attitude towards Covenant House's direct-mail and telemarketing campaign has paid off handsomely. Those well-oiled machines raised about $75 million of the agency's $103,106,669 revenue in fiscal 1998. Another $7,756,399 came from government grants and contracts.

Fence-Mending Efforts

But in Covenant House's direct service face-to-face work with teens and young adults, the agency bears much less resemblance to the Ritter era. The centerpiece of the new Covenant House is the Community Resource Center (CRC), a conventional social service drop-in operation where youth workers give poor young adults "support and services in their own neighborhood." Four operate in New York City, where Covenant House also provides guidance in nine high schools and job training at a Regional Training Center.

It is a CRC, not a massive shelter such as its 200-bed facility that abuts the cavernous New York Port Authority Bus Terminal, that now announces Covenant House's more benign expansion into a new city. Among its post-Ritter openings are CRCs in Oakland, Orlando, D.C., Detroit, St. Louis and Philadelphia. For its U.S. operations, at least, "that's enough for now," said then-Covenant House board chair Denis Coleman in an interview a year ago.

Outside the U.S., Covenant House is also expanding with new programs in Vancouver, B.C., and Tegucigalpa, Honduras. A Panama City program closed in 1992, a casualty in part, of the post-scandal drop in income.

In two other important regards, the post-Ritter era Covenant House is a rehabilitation job in progress. On the public policy front,Ritter pursued a pauper-thy-neighbor approach to fund-raising and was either quiescent or supportive of social welfare and juvenile justice spending cutbacks while simultaneously garnering federal funds. Now,says spokesman Hirsch,under McGeady's leadership the board has decided "to be more involved in advocacy." To that end there is now "an advocacy person in each facility" working on welfare, juvenile justice and at-risk youth issues, says Hirsch.

During Ritter's sway, the Franciscan priest worked tirelessly to ingratiate himself with the nation's elites - and the richer and more ignorant of sound youth work practice, the better - while heaping condescending scorn on other rival local and national child welfare and youth service agencies. Ritter and his sycophantic staff viewed other runaway youth providers as a threat to the hoped-for hegemony of Covenant House. Under Sr. McGeady, an old school social worker, and an inherently conciliatory personality, Covenant House has gone from standoffish to an eager dues-paying joiner of youth-centered coalitions, collaborations and national groups. That simple and common sense shift in attitude has done more to rehabilitate Covenant House among its professional colleagues than its now completed de facto repudiation of Fr. Ritter's youth services policies.

Today Covenant House is a dues-paying member of the Child Welfare League of America, Catholic Charities, the National Network for Youth, the National Youth Employment Coalition and the Non-Governmental Organizations UNICEF Committee.

Yet Covenant House's staff of 2,038 still have plenty of fence-mending to do within the youth service field. Says John Wright, who ran Safe Space, a youth-in-crisis program sponsored by the Center for Children and Families from 1991-1996, Covenant House "still doesn't play ball" with other service providers in New York. But a reminiscing Wright, who is now director of operations for the After-School Corp., which runs 75 programs in New York City, observes while sadly recounting the history of Covenant House, "Don't be too hard on Ritter. He was my inspiration. That's how I got into youth work."

So complete is the Covenant House distancing from Fr. Bruce Ritter that his name appeared but twice in a detailed 25-year history of the agency published in 1997. In its 1998 report Ritter isn't mentioned at all. Even in death Ritter rated only a three line statement from Covenant House, at, says Hirsch, Ritter's request. Instead some Covenant House staff gathered for a private memorial Mass shortly after his death from cancer in October.

Where Are They Now?

Jim Harnett, utterly unapologetic over his enabling role for Ritter's depravities, is executive vice president of Covenant House and secretary to its board of directors. In 1997, he earned $154,452 including benefits. Good thing Covenant House didn't start in Tokyo, where executives still believe in the concepts of shame and personal responsibility.

Steve Torkelson spent five years as president of the Phoenix-based now-$84 million per year Make-A-Wish Foundation and became Vice President for Volunteers and Affiliates at the U.S. Committee for UNICEF in 1998, a development, says a former colleague, that certainly adds to the Halloween creeps when a cute kid announces "Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF."

Torkelson's pal Patrick Atkinson, who at age 23 headed Ritter's Covenant House operations in Central America, is back in Guatemala. Now he runs a Bismark, N.D., registered charity - the God's Child Project - known in Antigua, Guatemala, as Asociacion Nuestros Ahijados, which claims to provide scholarships to 700 needy youth. With the help of a $159,000 grant from the Dreamer Ministries in Plano, Tex., the group has built a community center in Guatemala. But Carlos Alfredo Toledo, a 1991 recipient of the Reebok Human Rights Award, and others have been pressing the semi-official Normalization Commission to investigate Atkinson and his program.

Greg Loken, who ran the anti-porn crusading Institute for Youth Advocacy financed by S&L bandit Charles Keating, is now teaching law at the Quinnipiac College School of Law in Hamden, Conn. He was forced to resign from the board of the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children after his role in Covenant House's scandal became known.     

Kevin Kite, Ritter's reputed lover and first accuser, now 36, was last reported to be living in Fayetteville, Ark.