James Hayman: Recently my second thriller The Chill of Night was re-released by Harper Collins. Unlike it’s original release in which it sank unnoticed like a stone, the second incarnation of Chill is doing very well. Yesterday it hit #19 in Barnes & Noble’s Nook store and was the 6th best selling crime book ahead of such luminaries as James Patterson and Harlan Coben but behind the latest Jack Reacher adventure and, sad to say, behind the ever popular 50 Shades of Grey.
Like all my books, The Chill of Night is a character driven thriller. At its core, Chill is a story of betrayal. Betrayal of both the innocent and not-so-innocent at the hands of people they should have been able to trust.
One of the key characters in the book is a lapsed Catholic priest named John Kelly. Kelly, who is gay, was sexually abused by a priest when he was a young teenager. An idealist, Kelly himself later entered the priesthood in the midst of the abuse scandals, ostensibly in the hope that he could best help reform the institution from the inside out. However, after a few years, he left the Church, disgusted by the institution’s ongoing refusal to properly deal with and punish pedophile priests.
Kelly’s next project was to found Sanctuary House, a non-profit in Portland, Maine whose mission was to provide shelter and support for runaway teens. Most of the kids who came to Sanctuary House ran away from their families because they were suffering physical and sexual abuse at the hands of fathers or other family members who, as Kelly insists, they should have been able to trust but who in the end betrayed them.
The plot of The Chill of Night swirls around the question, did Father Jack, the beloved, trusted and revered protector of teens, kill Sanctuary House board member and attorney, Lainie Goff, to keep her from revealing that Kelly was himself sexually abusing the same teens who had come to him for protection from the abusers in their own families?
One of the inspirations for creating the character of Father Jack grew out of the sordid and complex story of Father Bruce Ritter, the founder of Covenant House, a much larger real life version of Sanctuary House.
When Ritter was a young Franciscan priest in the 1960’s, he left his post teaching Theology at Manhattan College and rented a large apartment in New York’s East Village. When a group of homeless teens knocked on the door seeking shelter from a blizzard, Ritter took them in and this apartment became the original Covenant House.
At the time the East Village wasn’t the chic neighborhood it has since become. Rather, it was a slum that attracted the down and out, and harbored, within its crumbling tenements, an assortment of derelicts, petty criminals, drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps. Father Ritter continued to use this apartment, and eventually others, to provide shelter and support for a population that had previously fallen through the cracks: runaway teens, both male and female, who’d fled their homes and come to New York where most had fallen into lives of prostitution and heavy drug use.
Over the next two decades Covenant House grew into one of the country’s largest non-profits dedicated to supporting homeless youth. According to Ritter’s 1999 obituary in the New York Times, “Covenant House had grown to include a large shelter on West 41st Street, an outreach van with social workers who encouraged children to come in from the streets, and rooms for young people with AIDS, early in the epidemic. It spent three times more money on runaways than the Federal Government did.
And Bruce Ritter was the force behind it — a charismatic, eloquent, persuasive, ambitious man who won the backing of the city’s most powerful politicians and deep-pocketed corporations.”
One of these “deep-pocketed corporations” was Young & Rubicam, the large New York advertising agency where, for nearly twenty years, I served as a senior creative director. During my time at Y&R, I met Ritter a number of times and frequently listened to him speak on behalf of the charitable institution he’d created.
Because of this connection, I clearly remember the uproar, in December of 1989, when Ritter was accused by one of the teens he had once helped of offering his wards money in exchange for sex. Other former Covenant House residents stepped forward accusing Ritter of the same thing. He was also accused of diverting Covenant House funds for personal use.
Though nothing was ever proved, Ritter resigned as the director of Covenant House and retired to a life of quiet contemplation in upstate New York where he died in 1999. I should mention that Covenant House is still a thriving institution. With assets of over $90 million and houses in 22 cities throughout the US, Canada and Latin America, it is today the largest privately funded agency in the US providing support services to homeless and runaway youth.
Did Ritter actually do the evil things he was accused of? We’ll never know. Did John Kelly, my fictional version of Ritter, kill Lainie Goff to cover up his crimes? That’s a spoiler so I’m not telling. To find out you’ll have to read The Chill of Night.