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Behind the controversy: Sisters serve

By Carole Garibaldi Rogers

As women religious in the US once again stand accused of misdeeds by the hierarchy, it is worth asking: What have these women done? They have demonstrated with their lives that they are simply following the Gospel message to serve the poor.

Most often, that ministry has happened quietly in places like rural clinics or inner city parishes, far from the headlines. At other times, serving the disadvantaged has required that nuns become activists and create controversy. They have also had to step up and deal with controversy brought on by the misdeeds of the clergy.

In one of the first clergy sexual abuse scandals to become widely public, Father Bruce Ritter was forced to resign in 1990 from Covenant House, the hugely successful international agency he had founded to protect runaway teens. He was accused of having sexual relations with some shelter residents and improperly loaning Covenant House funds. The agency’s tarnished reputation led to a drop of more than $20 million in financial support, most of it from individual donors, within a year.

Sister Mary Rose McGeady, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, with years of experience working with emotionally disturbed kids, was selected as Father Ritter’s successor.

“Covenant House found me. One day the phone rang, and a gentleman introduced himself as a member of the search firm looking for a new director for Covenant House. He said, ‘We would like to know whether you’d be interested in applying.’ I said, ‘Well, no, thank you. I have a very nice job.’ He didn’t take that. He said to me, ‘Could I come and talk to you?’ So he came and he spent three hours in my office. And then he asked me if I would come over for some interviews with some of the board members, which I did. After about a month of this I felt that it wasn’t my decision. It was really like a call from the Lord.

“I’d been reading the papers. I was sixty-two years old, and I said to them, ‘Can’t you find anybody that’s thirty-five? I don’t know if I can do it.’ And they said, ‘Well, we would like you to try.’ One of the guys I worked with in Brooklyn, said to me, ‘Mary Rose, your whole life looks to me like it’s been a preparation for Covenant House.’ And that kind of capped it for me.

“When I was fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen, I was preoccupied with where we were going ice skating on Friday night and where we were going bowling on Saturday night and what movie we were going to see. These kids are trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their drunken father who beats them or who sexually abuses them. Or they’re kids forced into prostitution to have money to buy their school books. What a different world it is. What it does, it just whets my appetite for what we do, to try to give these kids the second chance they need to get started over again. People will say to me, ‘How can you do that work all the time? Don’t you begin to feel overwhelmed by all these kids?’ And I always say, ‘The only way we can make a mistake is to stop.’ The only time the church fails is when it stops being a caring community.

I’ve been thinking lately that when I was young, after the war, we went through an era of great prosperity, and the fifties and sixties became like the Golden Age. It was the Golden Age of religious life; we had more vocations than we had ever had in history. And then we had the Vatican Council, which created a real euphoria in the church. Now it seems to me like it’s all fading away. And I think it’s so sad that we haven’t been able to maintain that energy. You know, God is still God, the church is still the church.

“I see this roller coaster. We were high and now we’re low. I guess hope and confidence in God have always been dominant themes in my life. But retrenchment is really hard. I often think, ‘Well, okay, God, you gave me the good years and they were wonderful and I thank you for that. Now I’ve got to love you just as much in the tough times as I did in the good times.’”

Sister Mary Rose’s words from 1992 sound prescient now. She remained at Covenant House until 2003 when, because of her health, she returned to her community’s motherhouse in Albany. I interviewed her again in 2010, this time by telephone.

“My heart was broken at leaving Covenant House. My body was also broken. I have to be in a wheel chair now because of injuries from falls I had while visiting some Covenant House sites. No matter how hard we tried, the number of homeless kids increased so much. All over the world they wanted us. ‘Come here…Come here…’ I went around the world talking about the needs of these homeless teenagers and people responded. After I came here, five women from the Lutheran church asked me to help them establish a shelter for homeless mothers with children and it awakened in me a sense of what I had been doing. So I’ve been working at that for five years now. I’m 82. There’s always something else to do.”

Sister Mary Rose McGeady examines the handiwork of a young boy at the Casa Alianza, the Covenant House site in Guatemala City.

Carole Garibaldi Rogers has been an independent oral historian for more than 20 years. Her research and writing focus on the intersection of women and religion. She is the author of seven books, including her most recent Habits of Change: An Oral History of American Nuns. Look for her next post on the controversy tomorrow and read her previous post “Who are the women behind the latest Vatican reprimands?”.

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Recent Comments

  1. Matthew in California

    What an interesting story. I remember hearing about Fr Ritter and the controversy at Covenant House when I was growing up. It’s great to hear this story told in the voice of the woman who lived it. I look forward to checking out the full book — Habits of Change. Thanks for the post.

  2. Kevin Ryan

    Amen. For the last three years I have been blessed to lead Covenant House as Sr. Mary Rose once did, and we say in close touch. She remains an inspiration to me and to thousands of our staff and volunteers.

    I first arrived at Covenant House, which this year celebrates its fortieth anniversary, just as the dust was settling from the worst scandal to hit an American charity in many years. Truth is, there wasn’t a long line of applicants eager to work at Covenant House back then. In 1989, Covenant House’s founder, Reverend Bruce Ritter, resigned. A report commissioned by Covenant House’s Board of Directors described “cumulative evidence . . . supporting the allegations” and added, “Father Ritter exercised unacceptably poor judgment in his relations with certain residents.” The report, supervised by a former New York City police commissioner, concluded, “[I]f Father Ritter had not resigned, the termination of the relationship between him and Covenant House would have been required.”

    With Covenant House’s future hanging in the balance, the Board of Directors hired a new president, a forceful social worker and Roman Catholic nun, to save the day, and that she did. Sister Mary Rose McGeady arrived in 1990, clear-eyed about the task before her: thousands of staff members, volunteers, and donors felt betrayed, curtailing their support of Covenant House just as the economic recession of the early 1990s caused a surge in teen homelessness. She implemented rigorous new standards of transparency and accountability that the state attorney general had insisted on and spent the first several years restoring confidence in the charity. Thanks to her work, after a free-fall in donations in 1990, donations to the agency’s income became stable, then grew again, allowing her to more than double the number of Covenant Houses, in the United States, Canada and Latin America. The agency has reached more than 1.2 million children and youth – and well over half of those kids found safety because Sister Mary Rose decided to make the street children of the Americas the mission of her life.

  3. […] her most recent Habits of Change: An Oral History of American Nuns. Read her previous posts “Behind the controversy: Sisters serve” and “Who are the women behind the latest Vatican […]

  4. carole

    Kevin, Thanks for adding more details to Sister Mary Rose’s story. Good luck with continuing the work of Covenant House. Carole

  5. […] by Carole Garibaldi Rogers on OUPblog at Oxford University Press Sisters in their finest moments Behind the controversy, sisters serve Who are the women behind the latest vatican […]

  6. catherine Ewan

    Covenant House continues to be one of the charities to which I contribute. It was so upsetting when Father Ritter had to resign. thank God for the insight and dedication of Sr. Mary Rose. While Working at a high school in NJ, I had some students over the years who would run away to NYC. They shared some of their experiences in the city and how they were taken care of at Covenant House. God Bless the work of these people attending to the needs of desperate adolescents. Catherine Ewan

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