St. Peter Principle

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Riccitelli entered the priesthood in middle age, he told parishioners, after receiving a $40,000 settlement stemming from an auto accident, and paying off his debts.

"He comes from a business background. He was in social work in charge of an office," Meyer says. Riccitelli was ordained in the Phoenix diocese and began his work as an associate pastor at St. Timothy Catholic Church in Mesa in the late 1980s.

In January 1989, Riccitelli became pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Kingman--and immediately alienated the people who would oversee his spending.

In a letter to the bishop, finance committeeman Tom Spear wrote that when Riccitelli met with the committee for the first time, he announced that he planned to spend up to $9,000 on improvements for his rectory, and that he'd discontinued payments to the diocese to retire the church's debt. He'd discussed none of it with finance-committee members before that night.

Spear tells New Times that Riccitelli later upped the amount he wanted for a rectory remodel to $20,000. Finance-committee members balked, Spear says, and asked to examine the house themselves to see what could need so much work. Riccitelli refused.

Riccitelli would dissolve the committee later that year. It was an unpopular decision that produced an embarrassing showdown for the priest. He called for an October 1989 meeting to discuss upgrading some of the parish's old buildings. In a letter to Bishop O'Brien, Spear described the meeting: When it started, Spear writes, it was obvious that the 40 attendees wanted to discuss the finance committee and other recent problems between the priest and his flock.

So Riccitelli put it to a vote. Which did the people prefer to discuss? Old buildings or new problems? When the crowd showed that it wanted to discuss the latter, Riccitelli bolted.

By the middle of 1990, unhappy parishioners at St. Mary's had resorted to announcing their meetings in the local paper. "Enough! Tired of hearing about all the complaints, your friends leaving, authorities of the diocese ignoring your letters and calls? Join us! Concerned Parishioners of St. Mary's Church," read an advertisement.

As was the case at St. Jerome's, dissatisfaction with Riccitelli spread far beyond finances. In dozens of complaints sent to the diocese, St. Mary's parishioners write of their distress over Riccitelli's ministering and openly plead for a new pastor. They complain of Riccitelli's disdain for accountability; his tendency to explode in anger, even during Mass; his absenteeism and lack of interest in church programs; his indifference to grieving families, refusing in one case to walk even a block to comfort the relatives of a young church member killed in a work accident; his callous treatment of young couples seeking pre-marriage and adoption counseling; his inability to remember the names of parishioners.

One parishioner who had a background both as a priest and a Benedictine monk wrote 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."

Bishop O'Brien told parishioners that Riccitelli would not be moved. And he wasn't, at least until July 1993, when Riccitelli was reassigned to St. Jerome Catholic Church.

Spear still doesn't understand that decision by Bishop O'Brien. "This man should not be a priest. But the pope of Phoenix doesn't see it that way. I can say those kinds of things now. I'm a recovering Catholic. Dennis is a problem. I don't know why the bishop does this. They do this with other problems, they just move them around."

In 1989 and 1994, New Times reported the cases of several Valley priests who had molested boys. In each case, the diocese had ignored early warnings that the priests might be pedophiles, and worked hard to keep news of the molestations from the public.

In one case, Bishop O'Brien, aware that a priest had become involved with a young boy four years earlier, allowed that priest to teach at a Catholic high school. When the priest was arrested for sexually molesting a student, O'Brien did not fire him.

Such incidents, parishioners say, explain to them why O'Brien preferred to deal with accusations about Father Riccitelli by simply moving him.

He was now St. Jerome's problem.
Margie Scrip tries to explain how frustrating it was for St. Jerome's parishioners to learn about problems Riccitelli had encountered in Kingman. "The more we learned this was an old story, the more difficult it became to accept the diocese doing nothing. Everything was the same except the names of the churches," she says.

But she and other parishioners say they never expected Riccitelli to move on to yet another church.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega