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By Ray Stern
By New Times Staff
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By Robrt L. Pela
It was Sunday, and God's chosen representative to a few square miles of west Phoenix was about to address his new flock for the first time.
Longtime parishioners of St. Jerome Catholic Church remember that 1993 morning well. It wasn't every day that the diocese sent them a new pastor, and, as is often the case, they knew little about him.
By appearance, Father Dennis Riccitelli seemed a typical priest. A little too stern-looking to call avuncular, he was 49 years old and balding, and he began the 11 a.m. Mass competently, guiding it through its programmatic crescendo.
Riccitelli then launched into his first homily--and spoke about his convertible.
Riccitelli sermonized about his pride in his automobiles and other possessions, including his condo. He bragged that he was independently wealthy, and had attained that wealth with a sharp business acumen as well as a windfall from a lawsuit. In his hands, he told his new flock, St. Jerome's would prosper.
He also asked the parishioners to wave when they saw him motoring down the street with the top of his car down.
His listeners say they didn't want to pass judgment on the father, but it was difficult to ignore that their new priest sounded more like an infomercial salesman than a spiritual leader.
It was the first sign that the match between Riccitelli and St. Jerome's might not be harmonious.
Within a year, that relationship became disastrous.
Riccitelli's critics say he was an absentee priest who, when he bothered to engage in church matters, intimidated members and employees to the point of abuse.
Those critics insist that they had experienced priests of vastly different temperament in the church's history. Some pastors at St. Jerome's had managed with a light touch, others had been more authoritarian. But never, parishioners say, had they encountered such a dictatorial priest.
Neither had they met one who seemed so averse to accountability. Riccitelli rejected existing systems of financial oversight, dismantling the parish council and replacing the finance committee with members who had little background in church-money matters.
Throughout 1994, attendance at St. Jerome's dwindled, and with it so did cash donations. Employee turnover soared.
Parishioners wrote hundreds of letters to Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, leader of Arizona's diocese, imploring him to do something about Riccitelli.
With an extraordinary amount of desperation, frustration and sorrow, parishioners, with the help of church employees, went so far as to begin an investigation of Riccitelli and his use of St. Jerome's money.
They turned up records which suggested that Riccitelli was using parish funds for lavish furnishings and other personal uses.
The sleuths also discovered that before Riccitelli was assigned to St. Jerome's, he had spent an equally calamitous two years at a parish in Kingman, where attendance also declined, contributions plummeted, Riccitelli fired the volunteers who oversaw his use of money, and he was ultimately removed.
Kingman's problem had been dumped on St. Jerome's, it seemed.
Dissatisfied with the bishop's responses to their appeals, the parishioners at St. Jerome's took a more radical step. Just before Christmas 1994, at a time of year when churchgoers typically make their largest contributions of the year, Riccitelli's critics circulated a petition signed by 86 parishioners which called for a boycott of the collection plate.
Those who organized the boycott estimate that it cost the church more than $25,000.
Only then did Bishop O'Brien act.
O'Brien audited St. Jerome's books, proclaimed them clean, but then announced that Riccitelli had offered his resignation. O'Brien accepted it.
The yearlong upheaval nearly ripped St. Jerome's apart, members say. Only now are some families coming back to the parish, which continues to feel repercussions from the revolt.
Parishioners say they were led by Bishop O'Brien to believe that Riccitelli would never be put in a position of authority again, and that he would receive extensive counseling. They hoped it was true. Tumult at two parishes, they say, was enough evidence that Riccitelli needed help.
But Bishop O'Brien apparently had a change of heart.
Soon after he left St. Jerome's, Riccitelli became an associate pastor at Holy Cross Catholic Church in east Mesa.
It's one of the state's richest parishes. And unlike other parishes, it has no parish council and no finance committee. It's a church with little oversight of its lead pastor's use of those funds.
In the summer of 1996, Father Dennis Riccitelli became that pastor.
John Kornfeind recalls an anecdote that illustrates how things got to be such a mess at St. Jerome's.
He speaks of Orville.
Orville was a man in his 80s, a volunteer who couldn't move very quickly but who did his best to help out with the collection plates.
One morning, several other volunteers had failed to show up. Orville did all of the collecting on his own without complaining.
After the service, he was met in a side room with a furious Father Dennis Riccitelli.
Kornfeind happened to walk in while Riccitelli was verbally abusing the old man.
"Riccitelli is chewing this man up one side and down the other because he happened to be in there by himself. I guess Riccitelli was worried that someone would be skimming. . . . I felt bad for the old guy. Orville was trying to do the responsible thing. It was things like that that really turned me off."
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