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One of the strangest interviews I have ever conducted was with Father Bruce Ritter, the fighting priest who established Covenant House, a refuge for runaway teens in New York City. I found him extremely convincing in a low-key way, though some of the more grisly remarks quoted below were excised by my editor, presumably for reasons of taste. In retrospect, my editor exercised better judgment than I did. A few years later press reports would accuse Ritter of molesting teenage boys. He left the organization he founded under a cloud of suspicion, although Covenant House survives to do the laudable work of protecting vulnerable teens from the horrors of the big city. The experience taught me to be a more skeptical journalist. To this day, I cannot be sure where Ritter's truth-telling ended and his embellishments began. Perhaps only he knows the whole truth. -- MF

As seen in Amtrak Express, April/May 1988:

Homeless kids have a tough defender in Father Bruce Ritter

by Mark Fleischmann

Pimps don't like Father Bruce Ritter. The Franciscan priest who founded Covenant House has spent too many years snatching runaway kids from the jaws of the sex industry and ministering to their shattered lives. Pimps especially don't like the Covenant House vans which "cruise all night, picking up kids," says Ritter. "Often the girls will come running out to the vans, scared to death, beaten up bloody either by the johns or the pimps. And we'll bring them here."

"Here" is an anonymous building at the corner of 41st Street and Tenth Avenue in Manhattan, a short walk from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. In this building -- and others like it in Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Toronto, and Guatemala City -- Covenant House shelters hundreds of homeless kids each night. If they choose to stay, they get help.

Father Bruce isn't dressed like a priest today. Clad in a comfortable navy sweater and old jeans, he directs his steady blue-eyed gaze past the dagger-like letter opener revolving between his forefingers. He sits very still and speaks calmly about everything, including pimps.

"No girl here in New York works the streets independently -- they all have pimps. The pimps have unwilling affiliation agreements with the Mob. If you have just one girl or one boy in your stable, you're not even considered a pimp. You're called a 'macaroni.' If you operate four or five girls or boys you achieve status. You are called a 'player.'

"When you achieve that status you're congratulated on your eminence and invited to pay for your franchise: $1,000 a week to organized crime. If you miss the first week's payment you're beaten up with iron pipes. If you miss the second week, the contract is terminal -- $500 up front, $500 after the hit. The pimps pay or they die.

"So they take a very dim view of kids coming into our center. They take an even dimmer view of us taking kids away from them." Armed guards watch the doors of the center around the clock. Inside, the business of Covenant House goes on -- the business of "feeding, clothing, sheltering, nurturing, caring, curing."

In practice

Bruce Ritter was born in 1927 in Trenton, New Jersey. After stints as a freight-car loader and in the Navy, he became a priest in the Order of St. Francis and received his doctorate in medieval theology.

By 1968 he was comfortably settled at Manhattan College. The Cardinal had just asked him to become chaplain when "the world I enjoyed came to a rather abrupt end right in the middle of a sermon on zeal and commitment." The student-body president stood up and literally challenged him to practice what he preached. "I thought about it," he recalls, "and realized they were correct."

Ritter took an apartment in the city's junkie-ridden East Village, then a haven for hippies, and began a "ministry of availability." This vague mandate to help the poor involved him in problems relating to welfare, unemployment, day care, and landlord/tenant relations. One snowy evening, a knock at the door changed his life.

Four boys and two girls stood outside, "looking as innocent as only kids can look, when they want to. They asked if they could sleep on my floor. What could I do? I said yes.

"The next day, four more came in. These 10 kids had banded together as a quasi-family in one of the tenements down the street. They were being pimped by a bunch of junkies, who had just sold them to a notorious child pornographer. That was back in 1969. People don't realize how formative that experience was for my thinking."

Ritter describes the first teenagers he sheltered as "white middle-class runaways seeking fulfillment and romanticism. There seemed to develop a kind of counterculture and the media hyped it all endlessly, it became the 'in' thing to do, become a flower child."

Today, "There's no romanticism left on the streets. Most of the kids are not runaways -- they're throwaway kids, they're walkout kids, they're kids who have suffered extraordinary abuse at home. They're caught up in the drug culture, their families have disintegrated, and they wind up on the streets. They survive by expedients that weren't even thought of in the '60s."

They are product in what Ritter calls "the great American sex industry," which he says rakes in $8 billion a year. Some of them know so much about it that they arrive at Covenant House with prices on their heads; they must be spirited off to "safe houses." Only Ritter and one other person know where they are.

Inside Covenant House

Ritter estimates that at least a half-million kids ages 17-20 roam the streets, having "aged out" of the child-welfare system. About 1,000 of them appear on his heavily fortified doorstep each month. "Seventy-five percent of all homeless kids who seek help in New York seek it here at Covenant House," says Ritter, citing statistics compiled by Columbia University researchers. "Extraordinary," he mutters.

Kids who cross the threshold enter a new world of "unconditional love." Those who want to work the streets by day may still return to the center at night if they so choose. Ritter forbids drugs, violence, and "sexual acting-out" but otherwise imposes as few rules as possible.

He stresses that no one must toe the party line: "We never try to convert. That's destructive for a kid. If you tie his success in a program to his openness to religious experience, you're violating his conscience."

Anyway, "I don't care to make a distinction between human and spiritual needs. If you take a scared kid whose basic problem is that he doesn't belong to anyone, if you address that problem of total alienation from any caring adult, you're dealing with his spiritual needs in a profound way."

Anyone who stays longer than 24 hours becomes subject to a treatment plan. Sometimes the treatment is simply to return home (12 percent in New York, as much as 20 percent elsewhere) if conditions there are not abusive. "You can't tell a 17-year-old girl to go home where she's being raped by her stepfather," says Ritter.

Covenant kids find considerable resources at their disposal. Separate floors of the large complex are dedicated to young boys, homeless mothers and babies -- children with children -- and older girls and boys, some in job-training programs, some waiting for a place in a job program. There is a school for kids, ages 14-16, with certified teachers, as well as a computer learning center, gym, library, and clothing room. There are several doctors, a full-time psychiatrist, five examining rooms, a clinic, lab, and pharmacy.

These kids need all the help they can get. Columbia researchers found that one-third of all Covenant House girls have attempted suicide; another third have seriously considered it. One-sixth of boys have tried it and another 25 percent have thought about it. "In the aggregate," says Ritter, "about half of our kids have either tried to kill themselves or are thinking about it seriously as a way to end the pain. None of these kids really want to die, they just want to stop hurting."

Some unknowingly have gone into a sexual self-destruct mode already. "The AIDS problem has exploded on us in the last year," Ritter says. "Any kid who was on the street five years ago when he was 13 or 14, picking up three or four johns a day, runs a high probability of testing HIV-positive. The American street kid is the third great wave of AIDS victims" (following gays and IV drug users).

The process of self-destruction is psychological as well as physical. Ritter says that about a third of his street refugees are "unreachable -- the erosion of the character, the distortion of the personality becomes so massive that it cannot be turned around. What is left for them is simply to die, and they do that very quickly. Nobody lives on the street for a long time -- nobody -- and survives in a recognizably human way."

Spreading the news

Coping with this tidal wave of suffering has thrust Ritter into an unexpected role: journalist. Each month he writes a few hundred words that arrive in thousands of mailboxes as "Father Bruce's Newsletter." Readers inevitably become contributors, and vice versa. Last year, 95 percent of Covenant House's budget came from private donations.

Some of his letters have been collected in a book, Covenant House: Lifeline to the Street (Doubleday, 1987). This magazine story contains no heartwarming (or -chilling) case histories of suffering young kids because Ritter has already done the job. He has done it in the honorable tradition of tabloid journalism -- which is to say, short, pungent paragraphs that show an equal regard for fact and emotion.

Some stories seem to leap right off the page. A girl is kidnapped off the streets of her hometown, brought to New York by the pimp, and forced to work as a prostitute. She escapes -- only to fall into the hands of another pimp. A boy is sold to a Fortune 500 company that maintains a stable of girls and boys. Their job is to entertain clients.

The book is also revealing in another way. It provides an impressionistic portrait of a world-weary, strong-willed, passionately imperfect man. He writes: "When a john abuses a kid or hurts him, my ability to love and forgive diminishes rapidly . . . . Jesus said that it is still forgivable. I'll take His word for it." And again: "The organized-crime animals who sell sex for profit and casually kill anybody who interferes with their filthy business make me gag" -- strong words from a Franciscan theologian.

Guerilla tactics

The book's jacket contains statements of praise from President Reagan, Mother Theresa, and Jesse Jackson. Ritter does not, however, number New York's Mayor Ed Koch among his admirers. Koch and Ritter clashed in the headlines when they competed to buy the Maritime Union building in Manhattan's Chelsea section.

Ritter wanted the building to house boys enrolled in a job-training program. Koch wanted it for a prison. Ritter's competitive bid won the building for homeless boys. Koch was not amused.

The mayor threatened to wrestle the building away from Covenant House by condemning it. He dropped the fight only on discovering that he did not have enough support from the city's Board of Estimate to proceed with the condemnation. In the face of newspaper editorials and public outcry, his votes on the politically sensitive board had disappeared.

Enraged, the mayor cried "dirty pool" to the New York Times, adding that Ritter had "abused his position" and "violated the golden rule." Koch sent an open letter to the press saying, "It is very difficult to enter combat with a priest, especially one suffering from cancer." The latter reference is to Ritter's bout with Hodgkin's disease, for which he has been receiving chemotherapy. The mayor "is not a good loser," Ritter observes drily.

Koch needn't have been surprised. Father Bruce is an experienced guerilla fighter. In the early days of Covenant House, when it was still a single tenement in the East Villge, he took on the junkies who were trying to pimp what he refers to as "my kids."

He later wrote about his tactics: "I hired some friends to break into their apartments, steal their clothes, steal the furniture, and remove the plumbing. The junkies would come back to their apartment from trying to cop some heroin, realize they were unwanted, and move away. I took over half a dozen apartments that way and made the building a lot safer for the rest of us."

Desperate times

Very amusing, yes. But do these tactics seem extreme? Consider what Father Bruce and his staff are up against.

We're standing in the Covenant House Crisis Shelter on Eighth Avenue. Ann Donahue, coordinator of the Off the Streets program, is talking about the perils of operating the Covenant House vans. "We've had a few threats," she says. "The van was robbed at knifepoint. Pimps have flashed knives at us, spat at us, cursed us out."

On the wall is an enormous map of Manhattan with dozens of blocks marked off to chart prostitution activity: red for girls, blue for boys, and green for transvestites. Across the street, visible from the window, are the Cameo Theater ("3 SUPER HOT ADULT HITS") and Paradise Alley ("ADULT ENTERTAINMENT/GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS/50 CENTS/LIVE").

Maybe the best way to end this story is to point out that in this country, dollars can be as powerful as votes, and travellers spend a lot on leisure.

In the words of an old American folk song: "Whose side are you on?"

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