It is late on a weekday night, and Joey Velez, a 21-year-old male prostitute, is on the corner of 52nd Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, waiting for a trick. A heroin junkie, he claims to have been on a “suicide mission” in a netherworld of violence and AIDS. Then a blue Covenant House van rolls up, and suddenly Velez is brimming with life. He is eating peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, embracing the counselors—and defending the man who made this flicker of light in the greater dark possible. “To us guys on the street, Covenant House is all we have,” he says. “It’s our family. If it’s true what they say about Father Bruce, well, everybody deserves to be forgiven.”
What “they” say about the Reverend Bruce Ritter, 62, is that he used his position as the patron saint of runaways to persuade vulnerable young men to have sex with him. The first allegations were made in December by a 26-year-old former prostitute, who not only claimed to have just concluded an eight-month-long sexual relationship with Ritter but also accused him of diverting thousands of dollars of Covenant House funds to finance their affair. Ritter, who vehemently denies the charges, appeared to have survived the assault on his good name—until three more men came forward saying that they, too, had had sex with the priest while under his supervision. The Manhattan district attorney’s office and Franciscan officials announced they were investigating the allegations, and early this month Ritter was forced to step down as president of Covenant House. Meanwhile, workers in the organization—which serves 25,000 young people in the U.S., Canada and Latin America—are trying to carry on amid fears that the organization’s reputation has been irrevocably tarnished.
Until now, Covenant House has been virtually synonymous with Ritter, the Franciscan friar and onetime theology professor who in 1968 founded a shelter for homeless youths on New York City’s crime-ridden Lower East Side. Soon he was soliciting funds to expand the shelter and to help the young addicts, prostitutes and runaways who were flocking there. As his organization grew during the ’70s, Ritter began to capture the public’s imagination and tap into its pocketbooks. With branches in 16 cities, and some 3,700 paid staffers and volunteer workers, Covenant House now has an annual budget of $85 million—most of that supplied by individual donors—and Ritter has been praised by Presidents Reagan and Bush.
But that was before last December, when ex-prostitute Kevin Kite dropped his bombshell, claiming that Ritter, after meeting him at Covenant House in New Orleans last February, had flown him first-class to New York and begun a sexual relationship with him. Kite, who says he ended the affair in November, told the New York Post that Ritter had provided him with money, housing, and personal gifts worth $25,000. He also said Covenant House had supplied him with phony identification papers.
Ritter denied being Kite’s lover, just as he later rejected the claims of his subsequent accusers. In January accusations surfaced from John Melican, 34, of Seattle; the following month both Darryl Bassile, 31, and Paul Johnson, 33, also publicly charged they had had sex with Ritter. Responding to Kite’s charges of financial improprieties, Covenant House officials said they had provided only $9,800 for his expenses at Manhattan College, a personal computer and weekly pocket money—a normal sum for those in the organization’s Rights of Passage program—and that the ID papers given to Kite, a former drug runner, were necessary to protect him from a vengeful drug underworld. Last December, Covenant House flew Kite’s father from Texas to New York City, where he denounced his son as having a “personality disorder.”
Soon afterward Kite checked himself into a New York psychiatric hospital. “I was being blasted from every side,” he says. “I was called a liar, spit at and asked to leave restaurants. I had to step out of the whirlwind.” Now working as a doorman at several Manhattan nightclubs, Kite is still bitter toward Ritter. “He took away my chance at starting over with that relationship,” he says. “I want him to fess up. This whole thing is almost like a Greek tragedy. Here is somebody who’s done so much good but has that one fatal character flaw that almost destines him to doom.”
Remembering his own alleged encounters with Ritter, Darryl Bassile feels much the same. Abandoned by his parents, he was bounced from one foster home to another in New York City and claims he was raped not only by a relative but also by other boys at a local orphanage. He landed at Covenant House when he was 14, desperately looking for help. “Bruce would always comfort me, putting his arms around me and saying, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ ” says Bassile. But soon, he says, Ritter began making sexual overtures. “I wanted to please this person in order to stay there,” says Bassile, “but my other reaction was, ‘Oh, no, not again!’ ” He claims he had sex with Ritter no more than eight times in 1973 and ’74 but was deeply traumatized by the experience.
Now a counselor at a program for the disabled in Ithaca, N.Y., Bassile, who is twice divorced, began seeing a therapist early last year. “I just always seemed to be mad,” he explains. “If someone said ‘Boo!’ I was ready to jump all over them. There was something really wrong, and I wanted to find out what it was.” Bassile says his therapy—and the allegations by Kite—prompted him to speak out about Father Ritter. “I just want to tell him, ‘I came to you because I had been abused, and all you did was reabuse me,’ ” he says. ” ‘I’ve been sick for 15 years, and you are part of my cure. I don’t want publicity, money or sympathy, just answers.’ ”
Back on 52nd Street, Joey Velez questions all charges against Father Ritter. Trading on his knowledge of the New York City street scene, the young hustler insists the priest has to be innocent. “If it was true he was interested in male hustlers, I’d have found one or two that would have told me,” he says. “And let me tell you, if you’re an ex-hustler and you think you can cash in on something, why not? Some of us can be downright devious.”
Covenant House, meanwhile, is trying to weather the storm. Chief financial officer Robert Cardany reports that donations were down $3 million in December, from an expected $15 million, but that they picked up again in January. Former New York City schools chancellor Frank Macchiarola, who has temporarily replaced Ritter, says he is convinced that the priest will be vindicated. Melvin Anderson, 39, Micheline Touissant, 31, and their fellow workers at Covenant House want badly to believe that too. “[Father Ritter] was one of the main reasons I came here,” says Anderson, who distributes food and counsels runaways on the street. “He’d sit down, have breakfast with you and talk. You could see and feel his sincerity.” Though many staffers seem resigned to the fact that Ritter may never return, Covenant House, they say, will survive. Says Touissant: “You almost feel disrespect in saying so, but, yes, we are going to go on.”
—William Plummer, Alexander Connock and Sue Carswell in New York City