Parish Is Burning

With a controversial priest dividing the flock, a Mesa church may not have a prayer

Father Dennis Riccitelli, who's twice been transferred by Catholic Church officials after parishioner complaints, has another churchgoer revolt on his hands.

But this time he's playing hardball. Riccitelli has hired an attorney and is threatening church members who are petitioning to have him removed from their east Mesa church.

Riccitelli was given the huge congregation at Holy Cross Catholic Church on Power Road in 1996, despite having been forced to resign from St. Jerome's Catholic Church in west Phoenix amid allegations of questionable financial practices and other problems.

A 1997 New Times story profiled the troubled cleric, a man who joined the Catholic priesthood in middle age. But Riccitelli so offended his parishioners with his authoritarian style, chronic absenteeism, friction with parishioner oversight committees, questionable use of funds and capricious firing of church employees that twice he inspired uprisings.

After parishioners at St. Jerome's investigated Riccitelli's use of church cash and organized a $25,000 boycott of the 1994 Christmas offering, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien audited St. Jerome's books, accepted Riccitelli's resignation, and assured the St. Jerome's faithful that Riccitelli would get counseling.

But O'Brien made Riccitelli lead pastor of one of the state's richest parishes, Holy Cross Catholic Church in east Mesa, a church which had no parishioner financial committees to oversee Riccitelli's use of donations.

In 1997, parishioners at Holy Cross told New Times that the same pattern of Riccitelli's behavior--and parishioner unhappiness--was beginning to emerge.

Today, Holy Cross is a holy mess.
In recent weeks, 146 parishioners signed petitions imploring Bishop O'Brien to remove Riccitelli, citing the same complaints O'Brien heard from churchgoers at St. Jerome's as well as at a parish in Kingman in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, 16 ushers at Holy Cross have turned in their special coats, resigning in an organized show of protest against Riccitelli.

Despite the petitions and their many letters to the bishop, parishioners tell New Times they've heard nothing from O'Brien, who oversees Arizona's Catholic diocese. O'Brien and Riccitelli also did not return phone calls to New Times.

Eileen and Gene Esch expected some fallout when they circulated the petitions among other churchgoers. Both have attended Holy Cross for 14 years, and say that they assumed that Riccitelli would react strongly to their criticisms.

But the Esches say they didn't expect to receive a threatening letter from Riccitelli's lawyer.

"I am presently undertaking an effort to investigate and catalog the statements made regarding Father Riccitelli and the identity of each individual making such statements; appropriate remedial action will be taken," Mesa attorney Steven Goodrich writes in the letter to the Esches.

Goodrich writes that he is concerned about what he calls Eileen's "pattern of conduct" at the church. She says she doesn't know what Goodrich may be referring to other than her help gathering signatures on the petitions.

Goodrich declined to discuss the letter, telling New Times that he had to speak with Riccitelli before commenting. He didn't return a follow-up call.

Other parishioners say they've received similar letters.
If Riccitelli meant to intimidate them through his attorney, however, the Esches say it won't deter them and the other unhappy worshipers at Holy Cross, who say they've been saddled with a man wholly unsuited to the priesthood by a bishop who refuses to do more than move Riccitelli from one disastrous assignment to another.

The 10 parishioners sitting in Gene Esch's living room would never be mistaken for rebellious rabble-rousers. Most of them are elderly, longtime church members. Faithful churchgoers, some of them attend Mass every day.

They know they could face unpleasant repercussions for coming forward with their complaints about Riccitelli. Other parishioners who dared complain to the priest have been ordered by Riccitelli never to set foot in the church again, they say.

Like their counterparts at Riccitelli's previous churches, the 10 worshipers say they are so frustrated with Riccitelli's ways--and Bishop O'Brien's tacit approval of them--that they can think of no other remedy than to go public with their grievances.

"I can't believe that I'm saying what I'm saying," says Adeline Fladmo, who has attended Holy Cross for 15 years and goes to Mass every morning. "Our parish is not there anymore. It's just an edifice."

The church, on Power Road next to Superstition Springs Center, was founded in 1981 by Father William Mitchell, who retired in 1995. The 10 parishioners in Gene Esch's living room say they miss Father Mitchell, but they don't believe they have held Riccitelli to an unrealistic standard. They would be happy to have assistant pastor Charles Bormann take over, they say.

"Riccitelli isn't running the church. He's wrecking it," says former usher Aubie Theis.

Parishioners say they recently asked Riccitelli about his previous problems at other churches and about the story in New Times ("St. Peter Principle," August 21, 1997). The priest, they say, told them the allegations about his problems in Kingman and west Phoenix were lies and that the reporter had been fired and the newspaper was being sued. (The reporter has not been fired and no lawsuit has been filed. In fact, New Times received no complaint about the story from Riccitelli, Bishop O'Brien or other church officials.)

Eighty-year-old Marguerite Bliesener, who's been going to Holy Cross for 17 years, says she's terrified of Riccitelli after the priest yelled at her for signing the petition against him.

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