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St. Peter Principle

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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."

Kornfeind resigned from the church's finance committee shortly thereafter. Riccitelli's predecessor had asked Kornfeind to sit on the committee and employ his skill with finances. Kornfeind, who works in the insurance industry, is a lifelong Catholic and had come to St. Jerome's in 1987.

"We had a priest by the name of Vernon Meyer who's now associated with the Kino Institute. Father Vernon asked several people to be on the finance committee since finances were not his forte. He asked for my perspective. He had other people, accountants and others with experience. There were problems left over from earlier pastors. We dealt with them."

Three years later, Meyer moved. Kornfeind says he and many others tried to welcome Riccitelli to St. Jerome's. "Right from the beginning, we found that he thought of himself as an autocrat. I'd run into other priests like that, but with Riccitelli, he chose to alienate all of the people who had formed St. Jerome's."

Riccitelli did not respond to New Times' repeated requests for interviews.
Kornfeind says longtime parishioners were offended when Riccitelli canceled early-morning weekday Masses and brought in outside priests for many of the Masses that did take place.

"St. Jerome's was not particularly rich. We have a school to run besides the church. But Riccitelli rarely said Mass himself. He brought in rent-a-priests. A lot of old-timers took offense to that. Here we're low on funds and you're paying for outside priests and not doing the work yourself."

Former liturgist Rory Cooney echoes that concern, writing via e-mail from a church in Illinois that Riccitelli seemed uninterested in saying many Masses.

"Dennis came in, and the first thing he told the staff and the parish was that the bishop hadn't sent him in to change anything at 'beautiful Saint Jerome's' which he said had a great reputation in the diocese. Then he turned around and within weeks of his arrival changed the Mass schedule to give himself more off time, because he said his number one concern was priest burn-out," Cooney writes. "There were a number of obnoxious homilies about his favorite dessert--tiramisu--and how hard it is to get reservations at expensive hotels in Las Vegas between Christmas and New Year's."

Riccitelli's indifference meant that greater responsibility fell to his associate pastor, Father Bob Bliven, parishioners say.

"Had it not been for Father Bob and his loving heart, I don't know how many people would have been left in our parish," says member Margie Scrip.

Bliven is currently associate pastor at St. Louis the King parish in Glendale. He declined to speak about his experiences at St. Jerome's.

"People started whittling away," Kornfeind says. "Some left the finance committee, and some left St. Jerome's altogether. I was the last of the original committee. He had brought in new faces, and I had no idea what their involvement with the church was. These people would be there for a few weeks, then disappear."

(Diocese guidelines instruct pastors to form finance committees out of parishioners with financial skills, and to appoint them for two- or three-year terms.)

Meanwhile, the church began going through bookkeepers. During Riccitelli's tenure, at least five would come and go.

Scrip and Kornfeind say that before Riccitelli's arrival, the church had been able to meet its financial obligations. But as the parish began to shrink, so did its ability to pay bills.

"People [donors] had been very consistent in the past, but now when Father Dennis would ask for more money, donations would actually go down. That's because they were suspicious of what was going on," Kornfeind says.

Scrip explains how members were motivated to conduct their own investigation: "When people make contributions to the parish, they assume that their money will be used to run the school, to repair the parish roof, to pay the salaries of staff members, to keep the parish books balanced. Then why was there no money to pay the bills?"

However, every St. Jerome's member who agreed to talk to New Times stressed that while concerns about Riccitelli's use of parish money were important, it was Riccitelli's effect on the spiritual life of the community that primarily fueled the rebellion that would follow.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega