- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

NEW YORK When Sister Mary Rose McGeady took over Covenant House 12 years ago, the shelter network for homeless teens was operating in the shadows of sexual-misconduct claims against its founder.

But when she retires next year at age 75, Sister McGeady will leave as the head of a rejuvenated group that is the nation's largest privately funded child welfare agency.

"When I agreed to come to Covenant House in 1990, I made a covenant with God that if he wanted this agency to survive, he would have to help us," she said.

Since then, Covenant House has not only survived, but thrived. It serves more than double the number of people it did annually when Sister McGeady became its leader.

A Hazelton, Pa., native, Sister McGeady was recruited from her job coordinating 40 Catholic charitable agencies to be the president and chief executive officer of Covenant House, which has a budget upward of $110 million.

Last year, the agency assisted more than 60,000 homeless or runaway children in the United States and five other countries, helping them get job training and complete high school equivalency certificates.

Of those, 14,000 entered residential programs in which they were fed and housed, given medical care, drug-abuse treatment and legal services. The youths enter the shelters voluntarily, and agree to abstain from substance abuse; curfew in New York is 10:30 p.m.

About 23,000 others were served at community service centers, and 26,000 through Covenant's outreach program.

Many of the youths work in local stores or learn marketable skills in fields such as nursing, computer design and food services. There's also a program for teenage mothers.

Sister McGeady's work for those young people has also rescued Covenant House.

In 1989, a former male prostitute said he had an affair with Covenant House's founder, the late Rev. Bruce Ritter. Several other young men at Covenant House also accused the Franciscan priest of seducing them.

Father Ritter denied the charges, but was ordered to take a leave of absence when questionable financial transactions surfaced. He later resigned.

The Covenant House board eventually found no serious financial impropriety but found extensive evidence of sexual misconduct. Father Ritter, who died in 1999, was never charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

The scandal seems distant history now.

"I think they've done unbelievably well, despite what's happened. They're the nation's leading program to help homeless children," said Rick Koca, a retired Navy officer who founded StandUp For Kids in 1990. The San Diego-based, nonprofit program provides food, clothing and other services to youths on the streets of 28 U.S. cities.

"There are some great programs in America, people who are soldiers in the armies of compassion one of which is Covenant House," President Bush said in introducing Sister McGeady at a White House conference on missing, exploited and runaway children this month.

With degrees in sociology and psychology, plus 31 honorary doctorates, Sister McGeady has lectured in places such as Japan and Central America. She has met with President Clinton and Pope John Paul II. Polish President Lech Walesa invited her to be a consultant in helping children living on the streets of Warsaw.

Yet for all her accolades, it was clear during a recent interview at Manhattan's Covenant House that the motherly Irish-American nun is at ease with Covenant House's residents.

"Hey, I want to look at your earring. Is it real gold?" she yelled out to Alize Ronquillo.

She went up close for a better look, also taking note of a teardrop and star tattoo under Mr. Ronquillo's left eye. The young man beamed her a smile: "You're making me blush."

His is a common story: He left his California home at 16 because his mother couldn't handle him and his father "was never really around."

He slept at various friends' houses and at a New York shelter endless moving that Sister McGeady calls "couch surfing." In February, Mr. Ronquillo checked into Covenant House's dormitory on Manhattan's West Side, one of three New York facilities that serve almost 4,000 youths.

"I had no family members to help me," he said matter-of-factly.

At "the Cov" as youths call it he has a warm bed, friends and a job that Covenant House helped him get with United Parcel Service in New Jersey.

Sister McGeady, who announced her retirement earlier this month, logs about 100,000 miles a year tapping corporate support culminating with Covenant House's annual event at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel. She also visits Covenant House branches all around the United States and Canada, and in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The typical donation, she said, comes from "a 55-year-old woman who goes to church" and sends in an average of $35.

Since it was founded three decades ago, Covenant House has served 664,000 youths. Though guided by church principles, it has a lay board and is not a part of any diocese. A search committee has been appointed to find a new Covenant House leader.

Sister McGeady blames the breakdown of the American family for so many children leaving home, yet remains hopeful that many can be helped.

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