NEW YORK, AUG. 3 -- Investigators hired by Covenant House reported today that they found "extensive" evidence that Rev. Bruce Ritter, founder and former president of the charity, had sexual relations with young men staying at Covenant House shelters and made sexual advances to other youths and volunteers over two decades.
The report also confirms many of the allegations of financial irregularities that in recent months have shaken Covenant House, the nation's largest charity serving and sheltering runaway youth. However, it said, there is no evidence contributions were misused.
Ritter, a Franciscan priest, resigned as Covenant House president in February. The report stated that had he not resigned, "the termination . . . would have been required."
In releasing the 51-page report today, Covenant House officials said they hoped to restore credibility to the organization that recently cut its annual budget from $86 to $72 million and laid off 111 employees. "Now Covenant House is really squeaky clean," said William Ellinghaus, chairman of the committee that oversees Covenant House and former president of American Telephone and Telegraph Corp.
The four-month investigation, headed by former New York City police commissioner Robert J. McGuire, found that Ritter's sexual misconduct dated back 20 years and may have involved as many as 15 former residents and volunteers. Some were minors at the time, McGuire said today.
The report said that on several occasions, senior staff members at Covenant House and members of the Franciscan order were made aware of allegations of Ritter's sexual activities, but apparently Ritter's denials were believed. Rumors also were apparently circulating as far back as the 1970s among child care workers, some of whom decided not to refer runaways to Covenant House, the report said.
Ritter, 63, fiercely denied the allegations of sexual misconduct when they surfaced, calling them "simply nonsense." He refused to cooperate with McGuire's investigation and has declined interviews. He is reportedly living in New Jersey and considering leaving the Franciscan order.
A statement issued by Ritter's lawyer, Stanley Arkin, said, "revisiting these allegations now is wholly unnecessary, either for Covenant House or for the public."
Ritter, who founded Covenant House in 1968, became known nationally as an expert on runaways and sexually exploited youth. He was a member of former attorney general Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography, and has been praised by presidents Reagan and Bush.
Under Ritter's stewardship, Covenant House grew from a storefront operation to a multi-million-dollar charity with shelters in five U.S. cities and four foreign countries.
The report describes an organization Ritter ran like a personal fiefdom, as "sole member, founder and president, not to mention by force of his personality and abilities."
Board members, appointed by Ritter, had no real authority. They were unaware Ritter received a salary of $98,000 -- $60,000 of which he put into a personal, tax-exempt fund called The Franciscan Charitable Trust, but about which the Franciscan Order had no knowledge.
Ritter used the trust to buy land, to make loans to his sister, two former board members and a former Covenant House resident. The report called the trust "questionable at best."
The scandal unfolded last winter after Kevin Kite, a former male prostitute who sought refuge at Covenant House, accused Ritter of luring him into an ongoing sexual affair. In a telephone interview today, Kite said, "I'm glad it's finally over, but I'm still sad.
"When . . . the person who comes to help you abuses you again, it's devastating. I didn't want him to do that to anyone else," Kite said. "It's almost like diving in and saving someone who's drowning and them getting them to shore and raping them."