The Bruce Ritter case
A member of the Franciscan order, Rev. (John) Bruce Ritter (1927-1999) began a one-man outreach to homeless youth in Manhattan’s East Village during the “flower-child” era of the 1960s. To further his work he founded Covenant House in 1968. At its height, Covenant House operated in fifteen cities with a $90,000,000 budget, reputedly spending three times what the federal government did on runaways. Father Ritter's work was held in high esteem by the public, the news media, a multitude of donors, and by president George H. W. Bush, who cited it as one of his "thousand points of light." Father Ritter himself was sometimes mentioned in the same sentence with Mother Teresa.
Ritter was noted for his empathy with his young charges, though some noted that this affinity seemed to extend particularly to attractive white boys. He called the teenagers in the Covenant House “my kids,” “nice kids,” and “gorgeous kids.”
In December 1989 Kevin Lee Kite (born 1964), a former hustler and gay porn actor, claimed in a New York Post interview that Father Ritter had diverted some $125,000 in Covenant House funds to support him in return for sexual favors. Kite also asserted that Ritter had provided him with papers that allowed him to assume the identity of Tim Warner, a young boy who had died of cancer. Subsequently three former residents of Covenant House--Darryl J. Bassile, Paul Johnson, and John Melican--came forward, stating that they had been involved in past sexual relationships with Father Ritter.
Kite's accusations opened the door for financial scrutiny of Covenant House which led to charges of financial impropriety stemming from the use of a $one-million tax-exempt Franciscan Charitable Trust. In his earlier work in the East Village Ritter had found that it was sometimes necessary to circumvent normal procedures in order to support his work. As Margaret O’Brien Steinfels explains, “the priest's aversion to red tape and oversight, beginning with his relationship with his religious brethren, served him well in working his way around the maze of child welfare regulations. He was a priest but not of the Archdiocese of New York, which had no authority over him. His Franciscan community, based in New Jersey, let him live beyond the confines of its walls, perhaps because he was a difficult person but probably also because he was a self-sustainer at a time when religious orders were losing members and trying to adjust to changes in the church.”
Laudable at first, this free-wheeling approach to funding and regulations created a bad precedent. At all events, Ritter established the Franciscan Charitable Trust in 1983, apparently without the knowledge of his Franciscan order or of the full board of directors of Covenant House. The fund was not registered with the state of New York, nor did it file returns with the IRS. The harsh reality was that the trust, ostensibly set up to support the charitable work of Covenant House, served mainly as a conduit to make substantial personal payments to Kite and others.
Curiously, the Covenant House board eventually found no serious financial impropriety, even though they uncovered extensive evidence of sexual misconduct. As a result, no charges were filed by the district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau or state attorney general Robert Abrams. In view of what we later learned from the priestly pedophile scandals, this looks like a cover-up--a partial one, at least--on the part of the overseeing authorities. Fiscally, they failed to do their duty.
Still denying the allegations, Ritter resigned from the charity and the Franciscan order in 1990. Ritter eventually retired to the small town of Decatur in upstate New York, where he died of cancer at the age of 72.
I do not know what has happened to Kevin Lee Kite, the whistle blower. Clearly he was an sleezy individual. Yet sometimes information that is valid derives from unsavory sources, as we have seen in the more recent scandals of James McGreevey, former governor of New Jersey, and John Edwards, former senator and aspirant to higher office. This repellent origin must not serve as a pretext to disregard the allegations. If that were so, all that a person who had been involved in an improper relationship would have to do would make sure that the information was revealed in an unsavory manor. Then the person would be “home free.”
Whatever the source, the information must be fully investigated. In the Ritter instance it looks as if the investigation was incomplete. to say the least. In addition to having sex with minors, Ritter was guilty of embezzlement and abuse of authority.
At all events, Kevin Kite deserves credit for helping to encourage others in the United States to report priests who were involved in inappropriate relations with those in their care. In the sequel the Ritter case proved to be but the tip of the tip of the iceberg.
Labels: Ritter priestly abuse