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St. Peter Principle

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A present employee of the church, who asked to remain anonymous, explains that parishioners were turned off to Riccitelli's "sense of spirit."

"He didn't speak a God language, and I think people got a sense of that. Charity, forgiveness, how to be a Christian. He had trouble with that language.

"I think in normal circumstances, Catholics are content to be Catholics. . . . But this was a parish that had very high standards. These were very intelligent people who cared about their church," the employee says.

Kornfeind says, "St. Jerome's had been a loving, caring community, and suddenly it wasn't. How do you deal with that? Suddenly, the world isn't right anymore. So what do you do about it?

"Going to the bishop seemed to make sense."

"I'm a cradle Catholic, and all of my life I've put priests up on a pedestal. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done," says one St. Jerome's parishioner of his decision to help investigate Riccitelli. The parishioner, like many others, wrote to Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, imploring the bishop to take some action.

New Times obtained several of the letters, including one written by an employee at the church:

Dear Bishop O'Brien,
I find myself greatly distressed about events that have occurred at St. Jerome's parish and feel compelled to write to you and inform you of these circumstances. . . . There is a problem with Father Dennis Riccitelli, the pastor. This man appears to have no compassion whatever for the people he is supposed to be ministering to. . . . St. Jerome's used to be alive and vital. Now it is only a shell of what it once was. People just keep going to other parishes and a few even to other denominations. . . . I have seen so much and just don't know what to do and I have anguished over this letter for several months, but I finally let my conscience dictate to me and decided it had to be written. I hope others have written. . . . I would also like to suggest you do an audit of St. Jerome's for the past year. It should prove interesting to you and others.

The employee detailed instances of Riccitelli's indifference to his flock, his unwillingness to minister to parishioners whose donations were low, and his wholesale replacement of volunteers and employees who handled the church's money. Other letters echo these concerns.

A 16-year-old parishioner wrote to the Bishop, complaining that because of Riccitelli's indifference to his flock during communion, "It seems like he is handing out potato chips instead of the body of Christ."

Kornfeind says that he, too, wrote letters to the bishop. And was rewarded with the bishop's wrath.

"In placing this man at control of this parish you could have done no worse than to have placed the devil himself here," Kornfeind wrote.

"Father Dennis may have his shortcomings," Bishop O'Brien shot back, "however, it is extremely harsh judgment for you to equate him with the devil himself. I find this offensive."

Other parishioners say they got no response at all from the bishop. Eventually, however, as 1994 progressed and the problem became too obvious for the diocese to ignore, Bishop O'Brien assigned a special liaison to St. Jerome's to hear complaints, parishioners say.

"With the Catholic Church, let's not delude ourselves, it's a political body. But it's not a democracy. They don't care if it's 1,000 or 100,000 people writing," Kornfeind says.

Pleas to the bishop seemed to be getting parishioners nowhere. So, with the help of some church employees, members began investigating their priest.

On December 16, 1994, 86 parishioners signed a letter which reported the results of that investigation and called for a general boycott of the Christmas donation, traditionally the largest of the year.

"Look at the sample enclosed expenditures," the letter states. "Did any of us expect that in excess of $15,800 would be used to refurnish our pastor's . . . residence, while much needed repairs to our facilities have gone unattended? In addition . . . we have evidence of over $8,800 that was used to pay personal credit cards."

Attached to the letter was a list of expenditures that parishioners claimed were used to refurbish Riccitelli's rectory--the priest's home owned by the parish. Scrip says the rectory was in good shape when Riccitelli moved in.

Among the expenditures, meanwhile, were questionable hotel-room bills and credit-card reimbursements that seemed to have had little to do with the running of St. Jerome's. Parish checks obtained by New Times which span a 15-month period also include several drafts totaling $2,595 which Riccitelli had written to himself or for cash.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega