COVENANT House, America's largest provider of short-term shelter and counseling for runaway and troubled youth, is reeling from the fall of its charismatic leader, the Rev. Bruce Ritter. Late last year, the first of several allegations by young men that Fr. Ritter had a sexual relationship with them spiraled into a broad-based scandal ranging from financial irregularities to nepotism.
The priest has resigned, but the charges and revelations keep coming. A $1 million trust fund, unknown to most of the institution's board members, has come to light. The fund, unreported to the State of New York and the Internal Revenue Service, gave loans to Ritter's sister, two board members, and top staff members.
In addition, Ritter's niece and her husband conceded they had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for decorating and construction projects at various Covenant House locations. Public relations executives hired by Ritter were found to be earning salaries close to and exceeding $100,000 while youth-care workers made under $20,000.
Although it is the hundreds of line workers who make the institution's work possible, to the American public Ritter was the driving force behind Covenant House. President Reagan singled him out in a State of the Union address as an American hero.
And President Bush pointed to Covenant House as one of the great success stories of his proposed ``thousand points of light'' emphasis on voluntarism.
But now, questions are being raised as to the effectiveness of the charity's highly praised program itself.
According to Covenant House, it serves 25,000 runaways and homeless youths at locations in New York City; Houston; Toronto; New Orleans; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Los Angeles; Anchorage, Alaska; and in four Latin American countries.
But critics in the social services field say what it provides is very short-term food and housing in sometimes dangerous shelters after which the youths are sent back onto the street.
``It's a revolving door, McDonald's style, eat and run,'' says John MacNeil, who ran the Toronto Covenant House in the mid-'80s. ``As if three days or three weeks at Covenant House was going to turn around a life that was in despair for 16 or 17 years. It's ridiculous.''
Covenant House has grown rapidly from a mere $7.7 million budget in 1980 to its current $87 million budget. Much of this has been due to a well-financed direct-mail campaign aimed at average Americans.
Many youth services professionals say that in its appeals, the organization exaggerated the number of teenage runaways. They also say that to draw contributions, Covenant House portrayed its charges as young middle-American teens while many of them were 18- to 20-year-old poor inner-city youths.
``The runaway poster child is not a blond kid with ringlets,'' says Linda Glassman, Covenant House's New York program director from 1987 to 1989. ``It's a black or Latino person with a substance-abuse problem. And that's not terribly marketable.
``The real issue is poverty. ... You're dealing with kids who were shunted from foster home to foster home, have substance-abusing parents, may well be substance abusers themselves....''
Although Ritter was the charismatic figure who brought in the funds and inspired the staff and the youths, his solo operating style has proved to be at the heart of the institution's current problems. Ritter was not under the supervision of either the archdiocese or of the Franciscan order. Even his board of directors was hand-picked by him. It has been fiercely loyal to him, even as the charges have mounted.
To get the program on track, New York's Cardinal John O'Connor said he will appoint interim officials to run Covenant House.