In the late 1970s, the name “Covenant House” was synonymous with Catholics caring for runaway and homeless youth in the then-sex-business-ridden Times Square neighborhood of New York City. By the mid-1980s, the name had become tarnished by what were considered credible accusations of sexual abuse of some clients against Fr. Bruce Ritter, the Franciscan priest who founded and ran the burgeoning organization. Fortunately, the ministry of Covenant House survived the crisis, and the organization grew to having 27 centers in the cities of six nations around the world.
In a story that is filled with hope for the way Catholic organizations and LGBTQ groups can partner together around shared values, The Windy City Times, Chicago’s LGBT newspaper, recently profiled Covenant House, just as the organization is poised to open its 29th center, the first one ever in that Midwest metropolis. Prominently featured in the article is Kevin Ryan, the first lay President of Covenant House International. Ryan spoke proudly of the organization’s ability to help youth living on the streets and involved with drugs and the sex trade turn their lives around. He was even more proud, it seems, at how the Catholic organization has overcome its earlier soiled reputation, and how it is now seeking to improve its services and image for LGBTQ youth. He may be uniquely positioned to make this latter transition. Ryan, a heterosexual, has a gay brother, Owen Ryan, who is the head of the International AIDS society in Geneva, Switzerland.
The Windy City Times pointed out:
“While Covenant House is not an LGBTQ organization, any institution serving homeless young adults is aware that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of their clients are LGBTQ. Ryan said ‘there are more LGBTQ young people sleeping under a Covenant House roof than any other entity, because we are in six countries.’ “
But the accusations against Ritter, which developed into a law suit that ultimately was not pursued because of Ritter’s decision to leave the organization, hurt the group’s image among LGBTQ youth and foundations. Under Ryan’s leadership, that image has begun to change.
The True Colors Fund, the foundation set up by pop-star Cyndi Lauper to help homeless LGBTQ youth, has begun working with Covenant House to make it a safe space for this population. Jama Shelton, deputy executive director of True Colors, told the Windy City Times:
“There have been accounts, historical accounts, of young people reporting some extreme mistreatment. This is from LGBT young people, from staff and other young people in the space. They earned a reputation of not being safe. … I think part of it was, yes, practices that were not safe and not affirming, and environments that were not safe, and a recognition of that, and wanting to move past that and change that. And also try to repair that history and change the reputation.
“When we entered into this partnership, there were some people that were upset. I understand that because I understand the history of what had happened, and I also feel as a social worker, and from a solutions-focused perspective, my response was I hear you and validate that, but if there are people who want to do right by our young people, should I not try to facilitate that? I will say Kevin and everyone have come to the table and wanting to learn. That’s excellent. … Different sites have different degrees of understanding of LGBT and competency and learning. There are many hopes that through this process there will be some pretty clear understanding of policies and procedures to make LGBT young people safe.”
Shelton acknowledges that the religious background of Covenant House sometimes serves as a barrier for youth seeking help, especially for youth who have been abused by religious messages. But, she also stated that other religious service groups have the same problem, and that Covenant House’s religious roots generally affect only their mission and core values, rather than the way they interact with clients.
Ryan sees the Catholic background of the Covenant House actually helping it to be more inclusive of LGBT youth. The article described:
“Ryan said those religious roots provide the agency with a mission of social justice and helping the poor. ‘This movement is about celebrating young people for exactly who they are,’ he said. ‘Gay, lesbian, transgender, straight, for who they are. We don’t use the narrative of tolerance. It is about connecting kids to their authentic selves.’ “
And the agency is expanding its LGBTQ dimension on a variety of levels:
“Ryan said he believed Covenant House has moved far beyond its past. They have support from LGBTQ individuals and organizations. They have openly gay people on their international board of directors. “I don’t feel I have to prove anything to the city,” Ryan said. “I have to earn that with the homeless young people of Chicago. Will young people who are desperate, and trying to make a decision, whether it is better on the street or if they are better off inside, will they come inside. I hope they come inside, that they will view it as a safe place to turn their life around.”
There’s just so much hope in this story! It shows the power of a Catholic agency to turn itself around from a reputation tarnished by sexual abuse accusations. It shows how a Catholic agency can partner with LGBTQ groups to learn how to be of better service to all God’s children. It shows how LGBTQ groups can learn to put aside past failings of religious organizations to create a bright future for youth. It shows the power of family relationships helping to create new knowledge and awareness. The rest of the Catholic Church has a lot to learn from the Covenant House example.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry