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Parish Is Burning

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.

"I was afraid to say, 'You're out of your mind, Father.' I couldn't say it because I was afraid," says the slight, frail-looking woman.

"He's frightening," says Eileen Esch.
"He's an evil man," another woman agrees.
"I am deathly afraid of him," says Bliesener.

The parishioners say they're also fed up with Riccitelli's absenteeism and seeming lack of interest in his job, including the priest's increasing use of general absolution instead of taking individual confessions.

Gene Esch says he's seen nothing like it since World War II. As a Catholic serviceman stationed in Okinawa, Esch says he became accustomed to mass confessionals, known as general absolution.

"A priest can't hear 300 to 400 confessions at one time. So he sets up a makeshift altar with two candles on it, says some prayers. You kneel down and you confess your sins to God, but not out loud. Then the priest gives everyone one blessing instead of giving one to each person," Esch says.

"The only time I'd seen it done like that was in the military. Not in a church."

After Riccitelli came to Holy Cross in 1996, he cut back the lead pastor's Mass schedule. Esch says Riccitelli became an absentee priest who seemed hard-pressed to fulfill the basic duties of the leader of a large parish. Esch says he was shocked to see Riccitelli leading mass confessionals as a way to save time. The priest has also left penitents simply standing in line, waiting for confessions that Riccitelli doesn't have time for. "That's not kosher in the Catholic religion," Esch says.

Aubie Theis recently wrote a letter to Bishop O'Brien, summarizing Riccitelli's career at the east Mesa parish. Theis says Riccitelli fired longtime volunteer workers, removed the choir leader and then disbanded the choir. He fired Olga and Tony Murato, two well-liked church workers who had performed custodial duties and other responsibilities, and humiliated them by having the police escort them from church property. (Olga says they were told only that they had been fired for "insubordination.") Theis notes that Riccitelli also turned away Father Mitchell, who had founded the church and was still saying Mass at the church occasionally. (Mitchell now works out of All Saints Catholic Church in Mesa and did not return a phone call.)

"If you people who are in a position to stop this impostor of Jesus Christ do nothing about it, then I say you are no better than Riccitelli," Theis wrote. "I believe it is time we take back our church and get rid of Dennis Riccitelli or the same thing is going to happen here that happened in the previous two parishes he came from. We will bankrupt it. . . .

"What he is doing here is exactly a repeat performance of what happened in St. Jerome's and Kingman. He has created more hell and havoc in this parish than any one person should be allowed to. . . . I don't believe in my lifetime have I ever heard of a priest who seems to represent the Devil more than he represents Jesus Christ. . . .

"At the drop of a hat he is capable of going ballistic and turning on almost anyone that he sees fit, and nearly tears them to pieces. He completely loses his composure."

But Theis concedes that the 146 people who signed petitions against Riccitelli represent only a small number of the very large parish; Theis estimates its size at more than 1,000. Holy Cross serves a huge snowbird population, and Theis acknowledges that most of the seasonal residents haven't shown an interest in the controversy over Riccitelli.

"The snowbirds aren't aware of it," Theis says.
"They aren't here long enough to want to get involved," says Fladmo.
"That's what's saving Riccitelli. The snowbirds," adds Gene Esch.

The Holy Cross churchgoers' complaints are similar to those made by angry parishioners from Riccitelli's previous two churches. At St. Mary's church in Kingman, parishioners complained to Bishop O'Brien that Riccitelli had a tendency to explode in anger, even during Mass; that his absenteeism and lack of interest in church programs were so pervasive he once refused to walk even a single block to comfort a grieving family distraught over the workplace death of a young church member; and that he seemed unable to remember the names of parishioners.

 

One St. Mary's parishioner who had been both a priest and Benedictine monk wrote to O'Brien that Riccitelli was "without a doubt the most self-centered, vain, materialistic, mean-natured priest I've ever had the misfortune to come across. . . . Father has confused ordination with coronation."

When a St. Mary's finance committee refused Riccitelli's order to spend $20,000 to upgrade his rectory--the church-owned home where he lived--Riccitelli responded by firing the entire committee. By mid-1990, unhappy parishioners had taken to holding anti-Riccitelli meetings and advertising them in local newspapers.

Bishop O'Brien moved Riccitelli to St. Jerome's church in west Phoenix in 1993. There, the priest fired five accountants in only three years and battled the committee of parishioners charged with overseeing his spending. Again, O'Brien received a flood of letters from parishioners who complained about Riccitelli's absenteeism, quick temper and lack of compassion. In 1994, 86 parishioners signed petitions denouncing Riccitelli. Then, they organized an investigation of the priest and found that he had made thousands of dollars in questionable expenditures--including $8,800 for his credit-card accounts and $2,595 in checks written to himself or for cash.

Riccitelli responded with a letter declaring his innocence; he followed it up with a letter to his staff--which had obviously helped in the investigation--threatening to cut their hours in half.

Only after parishioners organized a boycott of the 1994 Christmas donation that cost the church $25,000 did Bishop O'Brien take action. O'Brien ordered an audit of St. Jerome's books and proclaimed them clean. But he didn't allow parishioners to get a look at the books themselves. Citing complaints about Riccitelli's "style of pastoral ministry," O'Brien accepted Riccitelli's resignation. Riccitelli did receive counseling, but then the bishop assigned him to Holy Cross.

At Holy Cross Catholic Church, there are no parishioner oversight committees; parishioners say they have no idea how their donations are being spent.

Adeline Fladmo says her suspicions about how Holy Cross money is spent were aroused when she learned that Riccitelli claimed that the church had spent money on a complete repainting of its interior. She wonders why people who attended Mass daily didn't notice any scaffolding or any new paint.

Fladmo says she and others made their suspicions known to the church staff; the next issue of the church bulletin featured a photograph of the custodian holding a paint brush with news that the job had been done.

The parishioners in Gene Esch's living room also complain that Riccitelli lives in a lavish rectory, and they believe he has taken home church property for his personal use. But without financial oversight by parishioners, they don't know how donations have been spent.

They've turned to O'Brien for help, but have heard nothing.
"Why does he completely ignore us?" Theis asks.
Then another parishioner, who asked that her name not be used, speaks up: "One thing you have to remember about the Catholic Church is that it is an autocracy, not a democracy. When parishioners push, the higher echelons push back."


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