Covenant House leader speaks at MCC assembly
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
JEFFERSON CITY - Can any faith-based institution recover from the scandal of sex abuse and continue doing God's work on behalf of children?
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Sister Mary Rose McGeady told Catholics at the annual Missouri Catholic Conference Assembly that unwavering focus on doing God's work is the way to overcome scandal.
Sister Mary Rose McGeady not only says "Yes," she offers her own Covenant House as a living example.
Speaking Oct. 5 to nearly 500 Catholics from across the state at the annual Missouri Catholic Conference Assembly, Sister McGeady said that Covenant House continues today providing food, clothing and shelter to some 60,000 runaway and homeless teen-agers a year in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Guatemala because it met its own scandal with its focus fixed on the children the agency serves.
Sister McGeady, a Daughter of Charity, said the Catholic Church in the U.S. now must do the same if it hopes to continue to protect and nurture children.
"Our task today is to look to the future asking ourselves how can we truly stand for children in ways that will prevent their exposure to abuse, and what can we do to address the harm done to victims and the church by past actions of clergy," she said in her keynote address.
"This is the essential task I faced when I assumed the presidency of Covenant House in 1990," she said.
Sister McGeady recalled how Covenant House was rocked when its founder, Franciscan Father Bruce Ritter, was forced to resign when several teens who received help from Covenant House accused him of sexually abusing them.
Some key staff members resigned in anger, Sister McGeady recalled. Donations plummeted by a third. Board members were "talking too freely to members of the press, often without all the facts."
"I was immediately faced with what to do, how to go about healing," she said. "This is just the point the church faces today."
Sister McGeady said the first step was to heal all the victims.
"The list of victims was extensive," she said. "It included all the young people who had been sexually abused by Father Ritter, also the staff, the board, the long list of donors, the budget, and of course and perhaps most important of all, our good name and the public image of the agency."
Sister McGeady said Covenant House began by responding to the direct victims "to the extent they wished regarding the needs of each victim." This included counseling and "monetary assistance."
Second, she focused on the staff and board members who "remained committed to the mission of the agency, the care of homeless and runaway kids."
"This kind of commitment is what we had going for us," Sister McGeady said. "We held staff meetings to dispel anger where it existed, and nourished the staff's basic commitment to the kids."
Sister McGeady said the agency then turned to healing the anger of the donors. She said this was done by giving them all the facts that were known.
"We sent to our donors a full report on the investigation," she said. "We did nothing that could be seen or read as 'cover-up.' I did many interviews. I took the position that only God could judge Father Ritter, who denied all the accusations, and I put the emphasis on the great need for our services for kids.
She also said she hit the road, logging more than 100,000 miles as she visited all 28 Covenant Houses "meeting with donors to let them know we still needed them."
The effects of the scandal didn't disappear overnight, Sister McGeady said.
"For more than three years, questions about the scandal continued," she said. "We lost many donors and a lot of money, but with God's help, we gradually achieved our goal, of preserving the agency and its services for kids."
Sister McGeady said that eventually, the positive public image of Covenant House was restored because the people who worked there remained focused on the agency's mission.
"Throughout the entire ordeal, it was obvious that we were doing God's work, and that he is clearly present among us in many ways," she said. "Believing this and truly relying on God is what strengthened and sustained all our efforts to keep good things going for our kids amid such sorrow and pain."
The U.S. church can also recover if it continues to take a stand on behalf of all children who suffer abuse. She especially urged all Catholics to remain vigilant for the signs that children are being abused and to let them know that there are adults at their schools, in churches, and at police stations ready to help them.
Sister McGeady also stressed that the sexual abuse of children is an epidemic across U.S. society.
"The number of hurt children and adolescents that I see everyday would simply amaze you," she said.
She said that a study of some 2,000 children who sought help at Covenant Houses in New York and Los Angeles reported that 48 percent of the girls and 18 percent of the boys had suffered sexual abuse at home, "much of it at the hands of family members or unrelated persons living in the same household."
"I can hardly believe the frequency and seriousness of the use of sex as a common behavior in our modern society, and so much of it involving kids," Sister McGeady said.
U.S. culture, she said, is steeped in a "sexual atmosphere permeating our lives."
"Recognize that the action we take to truly stand for children and reduce the danger to which they are exposed is action taken in a society literally riddled with permissive sex," Sister McGeady said. "While we do condemn the sins of the priests, we must face the fact that this is part of a broad cultural phenomenon."
From that culture come the children of Covenant House. They kept coming even through the height of the Father Ritter scandal, and they keep coming today," Sister McGeady said.
"All are homeless, many of them runaways from real misery or maltreatment in their homes," she said. "Many come out of living situations hardly worthy of the word 'home.' They know hunger, neglect and every form of misery."
Sister McGeady said the present clergy sex abuse scandal must not deter the church from its mission to protect children.
"We must cease being reactive and become really proactive," she said.
"The only way we can stand for children is to be ready to stand for each and every one of them as a child of god in whose stead we serve," Sister McGeady said.
"To truly be there for an abused or potentially abused child is indeed to live our Catholic calling to embrace all injured souls with the compassionate love of Christ," she said.
Sister McGeady urged her audience to draw upon the model of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who left the flock to find the one lost lamb.
"We picture Jesus returning to the fold holding that little one close to his heart," she said. "May Jesus fill our hearts with the same dedication and care to continue to go after each one of our little ones and hold them close to our hearts."