A Life In Ruins And Molestation Allegations Against A Priest

(In some editions yesterday, Rick Anderson's column was incomplete. This is the entire text.)

At a table near the bar, a nervous John Melican sat rubbing his bleary eyes.

``I haven't slept for five days. Every reporter in America's chasing me. I don't have a home. I'm broke. I feel like a truck hit me.''

Melican, 33, wagged his head.

``I wish I was dead, man.''

Some people thought he already was because in 1986 - as a cover to his flight - he had left a message on a friend's telephone recorder in New York, where he grew up, saying he was dying in a San Francisco hospital.

He quietly moved to New Orleans, then Seattle, trying to distance himself from a life of booze, jails and illegal sex.

But last week when he took a telephone call, the past came rushing back. The caller was a New York reporter who wanted to know whether Melican had ever had sex with a priest.

Yes, John Melican, a former altar boy, said. More than once.

With that, his planet tipped. Melican became one of now four former residents of a New York shelter for runaway youths to accuse the shelter's founder, the Rev. Bruce Ritter, of having engaged in sexual relationships with them.

Ritter, 62, who bitterly denies the charges, this week was ordered by Franciscan leaders to take a leave of absence from his $87 million international shelter program.

The leave was the order's first move against Ritter since the allegations began surfacing two months ago.

And as the church and the Manhattan district attorney's office opened inquiries, John Melican slipped away from the headlines and into the Seattle night.

``There I was, named in The New York Times, Village Voice, the Seattle papers, everywhere - they were talking about me on CNN,'' Melican said. ``I was going crazy. I had to get out of the little place I was living in.''

Wearing a New Orleans Saints jacket and cap, two shirts and two sweaters, unshaved, hands shaking, Melican hunched over a cup of coffee in a downtown Seattle bar.

``I was a teen-ager. I was cold and hungry. That's how it began in New York,'' Melican said. ``(The shelter) was a place to stay. Sex was your rent, man.

``We continued after I moved out. Fourteen years altogether. I guess in the later years, I was doing it in part because it was a kick. You know, having sex with someone who was on the Meese Commission?'' Ritter was a member of the commission on pornography.

Melican said he took to the streets last Friday after the brief telephone interview and when his name began showing up in print.

``The worst part is that my mother, on Long Island, is hearing this spread over the place. She'll never talk to me again. And I was finally getting my life together.''

As life goes, it wasn't pretty. Runaway, street kid, prostitute and alcoholic in New York and other cities. He also worked as a stand-up comic and cab driver. At one time, he says, he was married to a transsexual.

``She loved me and cared for me. Then I took her home to mom. Well . . .''

After he arrived in Seattle from New Orleans three years ago, Melican settled into a relationship with a woman, took an apartment house custodial job, and recently reunited with his mother and sister.

He was putting the past out of its misery, Melican said, although he hadn't given up prostitution altogether.

``It's what you do when you need money,'' said Melican, who describes himself as bisexual. ``I don't go out and rob people or burglarize homes or sell drugs. I sell the one thing I've got to sell.''

Such sexual relationships with men began in 1972, at age 16, when he met Ritter, Melican claims.

He came to the shelter ``freaked out,'' he said, after running away from his middle-class home on Long Island when his parents divorced.

``At first, I didn't think of it as sex,'' he said. ``I thought of it as affection.''

Melican said the relationship continued intermittently until 1986.

A spokesman for Covenant House, the nation's largest runaway-shelter operation, yesterday said there would be no further comment on the charges while the church inquiry is being conducted.

``The denials have been made, and they stand,'' said the spokesman.

Ritter earlier this week told reporters:

``I have no way of proving my innocence. My accusers cannot establish my guilt. I devoutly hope the inquiries under way will bring an end to this incredibly painful chapter in my life.''

Melican says he has not yet been contacted by the church inquiry board - but then he hasn't exactly been available for phone calls.

However, the Manhattan district attorney's office has talked to him.

And assistant district attorney Dan Castleman told Melican yesterday that the office has heard from dozens of people alleging sexual involvement with Ritter. However, Castleman told Melican, none of the callers is still a minor nor is any of them younger than 23 - which would allow prosecution under the five-year statute of limitations.

Melican admits that his dilemma today is in part his own doing. It began in 1986, when he agreed to an interview with Philip Nobile, a writer from Penthouse magazine. The topic was Ritter.

For a fee, Melican said he was willing to tell all about the alleged long-running sex affair with the aging priest.

Penthouse apparently believed Melican's story: He passed a polygraph test. But it held off because Melican stood alone in making the allegations.

The story did break, finally, in December when The New York Post reported the allegations of another former Covenant House resident and prostitute, Kevin Lee Kite, also known as Tim Warner.

He, as did Melican and two other former residents who would later come forward, claimed to have had sexual liaisons with the priest.

Kite's father, however, was flown in by Ritter to announce that his son had a ``history of lying'' and a ``personality disorder.''

The story then lingered until last week when the ex-Penthouse writer, Nobile, broke Melican's story in The Village Voice.

Looking at the storm that has swirled around the story, Melican observed:

``Monday's my 34th birthday. Working the streets, I've been stabbed, shot - I have a .38 slug inside me still. I've lost all my teeth.

``Would I be here, like this, if I hadn't been molested when I was 16? You tell me.''