In 1968, two Catholic priests, Bruce Ritter and James Fitzgibbon, resigned from comfortable professional college work and moved into a tenement building in New York City’s East Village to establish a ministry for helping runaway teenagers and other troubled youths. They called their home Covenant House, and their effectiveness in providing a mix of counseling and practical shelter, food, and safety services to vulnerable youngsters drew many clients and volunteers. The organization was incorporated in 1972 and set out to acquire additional properties, first in midtown New York, and then across the country. The group developed a specialty in rescuing sexually exploited teenagers, and added to its homelessness services drug counseling, physical and mental-health programs, foster-care transitions, and other assistance.
Originally, much of the group’s funding came from contracts with New York City agencies, but disagreements with city officials over how facilities should be run led Covenant House to decide most of its funding should come from private donations instead of government. Catholic philanthropists like Peter Grace and Bill Simon became loyal donors. Simon started volunteering in the group’s homes, often with his children, starting in the 1970s. When grown, his children later became important donors and volunteers at Covenant House chapters.
In 1990, charismatic founder Bruce Ritter became embroiled in a sexual scandal and resigned. Donations collapsed and the organization was in peril. Aggressive intervention by the board of directors, with help from Cardinal O’Connor, resulted in a thorough investigation and airing of all findings, changes in staff and internal governance, and a stern new director in the person of Sister Mary Rose McGeady. The organization stabilized, and donations recovered. Today Covenant House shelters and otherwise serves 62,000 youths per year, in 21 locations, relying on $100 million of annual contributions.
- Philanthropy magazine history, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/when_founders_fall