Saturday, July 4, 2009

New York City & Father Bruce Ritter's 'Broken Covenant'

It feels like I haven't posted anything to my blog in a long time, so now I get back into the swing of it.

On June 30 I returned to Toronto after a week's vacation in New York City. I was there with a friend to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, an event many consider the pivotal spark that ignited the fire which fed America's (and eventually Canada's) gay liberation movements.

The events of Stonewall have been told on many other blogs and websites, so I will only provide a short summary here:

In the last days of June 1969 NYC police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar in the city's Chelsea district that courted gay patrons and allowed same-sex couplings on the dance floor (shocking, no?) During the 1960s' the Stonewall Inn was a Mafia-controlled bar. The bar's owners would frequently pay off New York police officers in exchange for tip-offs about raids. Well, on the night of June 27, 1969, things went differently.

Police raided the bar and attempted to shut it down. I believe the charge was serving liquor without a license. When the cops escorted Stonewall patrons into a waiting paddy wagon the crowd fought back and forced the cops back inside the bar as they pelted the officers with rocks, beer bottles and anything else they could find. Reinforcements arrived but the crowd of gay men and lesbians swelled as more local homos joined the fight. The riots continued for the next several nights. Their aftermath saw the formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and many other activist groups across the country.

While visiting I was lucky enough to attend a 'reunion' of former GLF members at the New York Public Library. There was a lively panel discussion followed by an abbreviated Q & A period because many of the speakers had gone far over the time limit.

The real highlight of my visit was finding the old Maritime Union Building in Chelsea. From 1987 to 1997 the building was home to Covenant House, a charity whose mission is to provide shelter and food to NYC's homeless youth. The building has portholes for windows; clearly the building's architect took the 'ship' aspect of the building as far as they could. On an island crammed with condos, high rises and office towers the former Covenant House headquarters all but smacks you over the head when you catch sight of it.

Before 1987 the building was slated to become a prison by former NYC mayor Ed Koch. However, Father Bruce Ritter, the Franciscan priest who founded Covenant House, wanted to make this odd, ship-like building his New York headquarters (the charity has branch offices worldwide, including one in Toronto opened in 1982) Ritter's plans for the building came into conflict with Koch's intentions.

However, Ritter had a trump card given that he was a Catholic priest helping children
and he was battling cancer at the same time. Almost all the press coverage played into Ritter's hands according to Charles M. Sennott's excellent book Broken Covenant which details the life of Father Bruce Ritter, his founding and eventual expansion of Covenant House into a multinational charity with an operating budget in the millions. To finish up the story of the old Maritime Union building, Ritter won his battle with the mayor and won his battle with cancer (that time)

But 'Pride cometh before the fall,' as the saying goes. While doing the 'Lord's work,' Ritter was paying himself a yearly salary of $90,000 under the table and giving comparable paychecks to members of his inner circle at the charity. Meanwhile, many of the front-line child care workers in Covenant House's employ were earning as little as $15,000 a year. Some brought their children to work so the kids could receive supervision and hot meals, something their parents couldn't afford on such meager salaries.

In the late 1980s' Ritter was also having a sexual relationship with a former street hustler named Kevin Lee Kite. As the relationship deteriorated (at least from Kite's point of view) he decided to air Ritter's dirty laundry in public. In addition to having sex with someone who was supposed to be under his protection Father Bruce was using the charity's money to pay rent for Kite's apartment, furnishing him with a wardrobe and a personal computer among other comforts. Certainly Kite was receiving more financial help than any other ward of Covenant House.

On December 12, 1989, the
New York Post broke the story with the headline: TIMES SQUARE PRIEST PROBED. FORMER MALE PROSTITUTE CITES 'GIFTS'.

After the story broke Ritter's days at the helm of his behemoth of a charity that he'd nurtured from its' infancy in squalid NYC apartments to the relative splendor of the Maritime Union Building, were numbered. Things fell apart and the centre could not hold for Father Bruce Ritter. And so he resigned from his position at the helm of Covenant House in February 1990. During the press conference where he stepped down Ritter said, "I have no way of proving my innocence. My accusers cannot establish my guilt."

To me this reads like Ritter was doing one big sidestep in an attempt to avoid the toxic ooze that was the circumstances surrounding his resignation. Through the media storm and after, Ritter denied the allegations of financial mismanagement and sexual abuse until the end of his days. Bruce Ritter died of cancer in 1999 at his farmhouse in Decatur, N.Y.

You can read Ritter's obituary on the New York Times' website here.

For me Ritter's tale is a classic story. It's the story of hubris brought crashing to Earth.

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