St. Peter Principle

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Acknowledging that a priest's salary is low, Scrip points out that many of his needs are met by a parish. Provided housing and other amenities, priests are not expected to need a large income. Unlike some orders, however, priests in the Phoenix diocese do not take vows of poverty. But that doesn't entitle them to enrich themselves with church donations, Scrip says.

Parishioners could not have timed their rebellion with more impact. Scrip and others say that $25,000 is a conservative estimate of the money their boycott cost the parish.

On Christmas Eve, Riccitelli responded with a letter of his own:
Please know that not only am I completely innocent of these charges, but the mysteriously obtained facts and figures are completely erroneous. As Pastor I have been diligent in the distribution of financial pastoral reports. These reports can withstand any kind of audit if necessary. I am certainly open to any objective inquiry from the Diocese or any other source. The $15,000 that was mentioned in last week's letter was spent on a multitude of items for the church office, the associate's rectory as well as for my rectory. Any items purchased for either rectory are the property of St. Jerome's Church and not the property of the priests. The $8,000 accusation is ludicrous. Men do not become priests for financial or material gains. My gross salary before taxes is $16,406. . . . Any church-related credit card expenses that I incurred were naturally reimbursed by the parish. Any credit card expenses that were of a personal nature were paid by me personally. All these figures are well documented.

Two days later, Riccitelli sent out another letter, this time telling staff that because of "serious financial restrictions," they faced salary cuts of 10 percent to 40 percent.

"In addition to the salary reductions, you may be asked to reduce your work load to 1U2 or 3U4 of your present activities. And your salary will decrease accordingly."

But Scrip says the cuts were never made. She believes Riccitelli sent the letter to intimidate staff, who had obviously helped the parishioners with their revolt.

On January 3, Bishop O'Brien announced that he and Riccitelli had "agreed that an objective review and audit of parish matters should be conducted by a special committee appointed by me so that clarification can be achieved."

An official audit began.
When it was done, however, the diocesan committee took with it the records that it had examined, Scrip claims, making them inaccessible to parishioners.

On February 8, Bishop O'Brien reported the results of the investigation, writing, "The audit, which should dispel any further rumors or speculation, showed that there was no misappropriation of parish funds by Father Riccitelli for his personal gain. . . . Father Riccitelli's style of pastoral ministry also came under criticism and was addressed in the report. . . . Out of concern for the parish, Father Riccitelli subsequently offered me his resignation as Pastor--which I accepted."

Parishioners claim that the bishop assured them Riccitelli would get extensive counseling.

They say they certainly never expected that he'd work as a pastor again in the Diocese of Phoenix.

"He did go for counseling, as a matter of fact. Then he came back," says Father Blase Meyer, pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Scottsdale.

Eight months after he resigned from St. Jerome's, Riccitelli became associate pastor at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mesa. At the time, Meyer was its lead pastor. The two of them are good friends and have owned a condominium in Ahwatukee since 1986 as a place to go on their days off, Meyer says.

Meyer was the only church official who would speak about Riccitelli's travails. Bishop O'Brien didn't return calls. His spokeswoman, Marge Injasoulian, says the diocese considers Riccitelli's experiences a personnel matter and will not discuss them, particularly with New Times, which she claimed harbored an anti-Catholic bias.

Meyer, meanwhile, says that complaints about Riccitelli are based on the fabrications of a few unhappy parishioners.

"The problems that occurred were malcontent people looking for a scapegoat. I think Father is very conscientious about his job. Some people like to do their own thing. They like to make up stories. I think a few have vendettas. And you have to be careful who you listen to and what ax they have to grind. I think they're badmouthing a really good person, a very dedicated priest."

Meyer, 56, says he met Riccitelli, now 54, in Pennsylvania, where Meyer was a chaplain at Penn State.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega