After nearly dying from a serious illness, Fr Chris Riley is ready to return to helping kids living on the streets. However he and the charity he founded have different views on what that might mean
In what many would regard as a near-miracle, Fr Chris Riley AM has beaten the odds and is on his way to a full recovery.
Unconscious for the best part of two years, the popular priest celebrated his first public Mass in Menai last weekend telling parishioners that while it’s been a long road, he’s ready to get back out on the streets.
Due to complications associated with diabetes, the founder of Youth Off the Streets (YOTS) has no memory of his illness and was completely unaware of COVID, spending months in respite care with his future considered “grave”.
However the man regarded by many as a living saint for his work helping more than 150,000 street kids has made what YOTS Chairperson Anne Fitzgerald said was “nothing short of a quite miraculous recovery”.
Recuperating at his Southern Highlands home for the past few months with his beloved Great Danes, he said all he wants now is to get back to work.
“I was born for this and my life without the kids doesn’t really mean that much to me to be honest,” Fr Chris, 69, said.
“I was dying, my body was slowly shutting down, everybody was sure I was going to die.
“Everything of mine was given away, my clothes, my animals, my possessions … everything.
“I even had to borrow vestments to celebrate Mass here at Menai.
“I died three times during the past two years, I honestly don’t remember anything, not even COVID.
“I have been working with these kids for 50 years, started YOTS 30 years ago and raised billions of dollars and now I feel a little unwanted.”
“I have been left with nothing, but at the end of the day as long as I have the kids, I am incredibly rich, they are all I need to keep going.”
What started as a single food van delivering meals to young homeless people on the streets of Kings Cross in 1991, has become one of the largest youth services in Australia.
However, today the popular Salesian priest said he is at a loss as to why he can’t return to his role as CEO of the charity he established over 30 years ago.
He said he stepped down from the role in 2020 due to his declining health, but now finds himself in negotiations with the charity over his future.
He remains listed as founder and Executive Director.
“After everything I’ve been through I just assumed I’d go back to work like I was before I got sick, but unfortunately that’s not the case,” he said.
“Let’s just say I didn’t feel like I was welcomed back with open arms.
“I have been working with these kids for 50 years, started YOTS 30 years ago and raised billions of dollars and now I feel a little unwanted.
“I’m driving round in a $6000 old bomb that just goes along, I can’t even get a decent car.
“It is very disappointing, but I will keep going because a life without the kids is pretty worthless, I can’t just sit on a farm, the kids are and always have been my life.”
Long-time friend and YOTS board member Julia Zaetta said Fr Chris’ role is “to be decided”.
The former magazine editor said changes to the role of CEO over the past few years would not allow the popular priest to spend his time doing what he does best, helping young people.
“The administrative role of the CEO is not where he would do his best work,” she told The Catholic Weekly.
“If he does get called CEO he will be doing the administrative work – but that’s not his strength. Looking after the kids is.
“We exult him as the founder because the organisation is completely because of him and what we are trying to do now is to make sure that he can go and do what he does best, but with a title that is accurate.
“We are currently looking for a CEO as the person acting in the role has resigned and I guess Fr Chris has to look at the requirements of a CEO and decide if it’s what he wants to do.
“YOTS doesn’t want to get in the way of what he wants, far from it, YOTS wants to get him doing what best suits his needs and the organisation’s.
“The board is determined to make his founder role a really good and useful one as he does all of that beautiful stuff with restorative justice.
“So the intention is to move from the administrative stuff and be the shining light of YOTS, which makes him much more valuable to the organisation than doing CEO reports.
“As for his car, we are helping him at the moment find one that best suits his needs, we are going to get him a van for the purposes of those rough roads and the dogs that he takes everywhere.
“I was meant for this work, there’s no doubt about it, that’s why I joined the Salesians because of their work looking after disadvantaged and marginalised young people.”
“Yes, he always had a driver, and if it comes to pass that he gets back to work this will all be re-organised but right now it’s in a hiatus stage deciding what can be done with him.
“Once we find a title that suits him for what he wants to do, we’ll all be at peace.”
Father Chris was inspired by the 1931 movie Boys Town starring Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy, and at the age of 15 decided to become a Salesian priest to take care of the kids who had no one else.
He worked for the charity Boys’ Town at Engadine in a variety of roles before becoming principal.
In 1991, he left and established his own charity for troubled youths, helping them develop skills and qualities to enable them to regain control of their lives.
Throughout his 50-year ministry, he said that while every child is different, the desire to be loved is the same in them all.
“It really is as simple as that, it’s what we all want,” he smiled.
“I was meant for this work, there’s no doubt about it, that’s why I joined the Salesians because of their work looking after disadvantaged and marginalised young people.
“I just like the kids and spending time with them.
“I was very tough on them because you have to be, but they knew it all came from a place of love.
“I’ve been working with kids for over 50 years, I’ve made lots of mistakes, but given the opportunity I’d do it all again.”