The passing of Bruce Ritter

March 14, 2007

When I was in college, there were a few books I had acquired that I found comforting, somehow, in my turmoil over Xianity. One was a book about this woman named Peace Pilgrim, who basically carried out the mission on which Jesus had once sent out his disciples – namely, to live without resources of any kind, relying on the hospitality of other people and of God. I’ll have to catch up with her later. The other was a book called Sometimes God Has a Kid’s Face by a priest named Bruce Ritter. It was a collection of shamelessly manipulative letters Ritter had composed over a period of years to raise money for a charity he started called Covenant House – which still exists – ministering to homeless kids in New York City. I read that book over and over again for some reason. Like Peace Pilgrim, Fr. Ritter was someone who had given up his entire life in a kind of service to God. And he lived out, vividly, the conviction which Jesus tried to instill in us: that in the most miserable and apparently useless people, the Spirit of God is present, and to love such people is to show love to God.

At some point in college I found out something that struck me powerfully. I don’t recall the news astonishing me, but rather that I resounded when I heard it, like a bell. Fr. Ritter had resigned in disgrace under accusations of sexual improprieties with young men. This is not as striking without an acquaintance with Ritter’s writings, which are filled with a kind of morbid awareness of the depravities children who were on the street in NYC would encounter. If the accusations were true, it meant that Ritter had come to embody the kind of sin with which he had been in direct combat for many years. It was also apparent from his writing that Ritter’s stance towards the kids who came to him for shelter was emotional and intimate. He didn’t just offer services dispassionately to those kids; he opened his heart to them, at the risk of his own emotional stability. I felt intuitively that I had something to learn from Fr. Bruce Ritter, from the intersection of extraordinary love and extraordinary transgression in one man. I always thought it would be great to find out what had happened to Ritter and try to reflect on his story more systematically.

For some reason – and it would be interesting to know why this was – I got rid of my Peace Pilgrim book and my Covenant House book after holding on to them for many years. And that was the end of it – until shortly before Elijah’s first birthday. Out of nowhere, I had the impulse to look him up online; and sure enough, in less than a minute I had an obituary from the NYT that filled in a great deal of what I wanted to know about Ritter. Here it is. I don’t have much comment to add to it, except to say that I still think I could learn from him.

In Quiet Fields, Father Ritter Found His Exile;
Published: October 22, 1999

The dying priest celebrated Mass every day alone in his chapel overlooking nothing but wooded hills and the clover field where he knew he would be buried. He worked in his garden, he wrote, and he visited with friends who had remained in touch despite his scandal-stained public life, 200 miles and one decade away.

The Rev. Bruce Ritter, 72, died of cancer on Oct. 7, in near seclusion in this Otsego County town, population 356. In 1969, the Roman Catholic priest founded Covenant House, a shelter for homeless teen-agers that grew from two cold-water flats on the Lower East Side to a $90 million corporation with sites in 15 cities, the largest shelter network for homeless children in the country. Father Ritter resigned from the agency in 1990 amid allegations that he had sexual relationships with young men at the shelter and concerns about a secret trust fund, although after four investigations, he was never charged with a crime. In 1991, a lawsuit filed by one accuser was thrown out because the statute of limitations had expired.

For those who believed the allegations against him, the acts Father Ritter was accused of constituted a great betrayal: a crime against the most vulnerable children, an abuse of the power of the priesthood, an assault on a thriving charity and a slap in the face to the idealistic people he attracted into social work. For those who believe him to be innocent, he was exiled unjustly.

Whatever his guilt or innocence, his friends say he rediscovered his priesthood in his final years, living alone in a beneficent landscape, putting up bluebirds’ houses behind his farmhouse overlooking the wooded hills 60 miles west of Albany.

“He lived very quietly up here,” said Joseph J. Saccente, a former chief of staff at the Board of Education who retired to nearby Richmondville. Mr. Saccente knew Father Ritter because they were the only two who bought a New York City newspaper at Killenberger General Store, about four miles from the priest’s white house on Penksa Road. Shortly before Father Ritter died, Mr. Saccente took him vegetable soup that his wife, Dorothy, had made from locally grown tomatoes, zucchini and carrots. They had shared meals in each other’s homes, though the priest told the couple that he had not visited with anyone else in town. “He loved his house,” Mr. Saccente said. “He loved the serenity, and he appeared to be at peace with himself. It appears he was able to live without people.”

Neighbors knew the priest as John, the name he was given at birth, before taking the name Bruce when he joined the Franciscans. Those who were acquainted with him at his rural retreat saw him as intelligent and empathic, a neighbor who walked a German shepherd and waved from his car. They were aware of his past, because stories had run in the local papers. But they did not shun him.

Covenant House, from its modest conception, served a population that had previously fallen between the cracks: homeless teen-agers who either had run away from home or been kicked out. Many turned to drugs and prostitution and met grisly fates.

After teaching in the theology department of Manhattan College in the Bronx, Father Ritter moved to the Lower East Side in 1968 to help homeless young people when six of them knocked on his door during a winter storm. At its height, Covenant House had grown to include a large shelter on West 41st Street, an outreach van with social workers who encouraged children to come in from the streets, and rooms for young people with AIDS, early in the epidemic. It spent three times more money on runaways than the Federal Government did. And Bruce Ritter was the force behind it — a charismatic, eloquent, persuasive, ambitious man who won the backing of the city’s most powerful politicians and deep-pocketed corporations.

In December 1989, a former Covenant House resident accused him of offering financial benefits in return for sex. The priest had also created a trust fund of nearly $1 million, built mainly from his salary, which gave loans to several board members and the priest’s sister. In February 1990, he resigned, saying it was in the best interests of the agency.

Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan District Attorney, did not charge him with any crime. Mr. Abrams brought no charges against Covenant House over its handling of charitable contributions. But an investigation commissioned by Covenant House found extensive evidence that he engaged in sexual activities with residents of the shelter. Even if he did not, the report concluded, he “exercised unacceptably poor judgment in his relations with certain residents.” If he had not resigned, it concluded, he would have been required to leave.

Though contributions plummeted after the scandal, Covenant House, which declined to comment on Father Ritter’s death, continues to help homeless teen-agers in the United States, Canada and Central America.

A report from the Franciscans neither cleared nor condemned him, but the order demanded that he live in a friary and seek counseling. Father Ritter, who repeatedly denied the accusations against him, believed that seeking counseling would amount to an admission of guilt, said the priest’s former assistant at Covenant House, John Spanier. He left the order in 1990… Alan Ouimet, who had worked with Father Ritter in the Lower East Side and kept in close contact…said Father Ritter regretted his estrangement from the Franciscans. “Only two weeks before he died he was still saddened by the fact that they were absent in his life,” Mr. Ouimet said.

About six years ago, Father Ritter moved into the farmhouse and began renovating it, after living in various places including Pound Ridge, N.Y. He supported himself with help from friends and with Mass stipends, money sent to a priest for saying Mass, acquaintances said. At the house, an old grindstone and buckets of petunias decorated the front yard, near a stand of weeping birches. Several windows were decorated with maple leaves that had been pressed between sheets of wax paper. The chapel that the priest had added to the house had tall windows overlooking a broad valley and contained a plain altar with candles, a seat and a table with a book lying open. A large, modern crucifix hung on the back wall.

Father Ritter would visit St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass., each month and often went on a retreat for Holy Week, as he had done when he lived in the city…

Father Ritter’s ashes were buried at a corner of the stone walls behind his house, under a statue of St. Francis… Mr. Spanier said two men were among those who spoke about Father Ritter at the funeral, one an attorney from Kentucky who had been helped through Covenant House when he was a teen-ager. The other was a marine who lived near the farmhouse and who said the priest had played an important role in his life, helping him make choices about school and joining the service. “They were bookends to the type of people Father was able to help and connect with,” Mr. Spanier said.


One Response to “The passing of Bruce Ritter”

  1. nancy kurtz boyd Says:

    Years ago, while on silent prayer retreats, in a Jesuit retreat center I felt spiritually compelled to write a letter to Fr. Bruce Ritter of Covenant House. For reasons I can’t recall I started getting his raw intimate portraits of kids used and abused by their families and by society. Even though I was a single mother with two small children at the time I would occasionally send him the little bit of money I could. I had a dream of some day being a volunteer in spiritual community at Covenant House doing what I could. To my surprise, Father Ritter wrote me a personal letter back. I cherished that letter as he was as Christ-like and real as any religious person I had ever met. Like Christ, he went into the gritty brutal darkness of humanity and stood with the most vulnerable among us—kids. When I heard about his dark side I felt spiritually crushed. Couldn’t anything or anyone remain pure in this world? Yesterday my daughter called to tell me she went to Covenant House in Florida to offer volunteer services to kids there. After what happened years ago I, too, had placed Father Ritter and Covenant House in some walled off place in my psyche. But tonight I went on-line and googled his name, seeing that he passed away some time ago. After what happened (and I believe it did) it broke my heart to see that Father Ritter never redeemed himself, even at the end of his life. But, there is a part of me that believes he was (like all of us) neither all good or all bad. Perhaps he became careless in his belief in his own omnipotence becoming less cautious of his own sexual impulses. No matter what, I am grateful for the good he did. Perhaps this is a lesson for me and others as well—never idealize any human being for we are all weak and vulnerable underneath it all.

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