St. Peter Principle

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"To see him the pastor in another church is a shock and a great disappointment to us," says a present St. Jerome's employee.

They wonder about the wisdom of putting Riccitelli in charge of Holy Cross Catholic Church in east Mesa. Located on Power Road and bordering the parking lot of Superstition Springs Center, it serves the population of nearby Leisure World and other retirement communities.

In the winter, attendance at the church--and money in its collection plates--overflows.

Yet Holy Cross has neither a pastoral council nor a finance committee.

Riccitelli has none of the oversight he fought so fiercely against in his previous parishes.

Father William Mitchell, who founded Holy Cross and continues to say Mass there occasionally, says he was in the process of forming a pastoral council and finance committee when he retired in 1995. He says he knew little about Riccitelli when the priest arrived to join pastor Blase Meyer. "I had heard that there were some problems, but that was before he arrived," Mitchell says.

As for Riccitelli's stint as pastor of Holy Cross, Mitchell says he knows of no problems. Asked about a recent large turnover of employees, Mitchell answers: "If you heard about a lot of employees leaving, then I must have heard the same thing."

A longtime parishioner and volunteer who asked not to be named says that many of the employees at Holy Cross have had problems with Riccitelli. Several have been driven off, he says, by Riccitelli's "domineering approach."

"The big turnover shocked a lot of people. But I've been staying away from it. I just told him right off, I don't take any crap from him.

"He has problems. He is aware of his problems and he's trying to do something about it . . . but I'd prefer we didn't have to go through all this. We've had a lot of problems.

"There's no check of accountability now, as far as I can tell. He's stressing financial security, but we don't know what happens after money leaves the collection plate. In winter, we can take in $22,000 to $25,000 [per weekend]. It sure would be a hell of a temptation if there was a problem before."

Other parishioners speak up for Riccitelli, saying that he's a perfectly good priest, and that they were unaware of any problems in his past.

Parishioner Marceline Franey, who attends Mass every day, says Riccitelli's overbearing manner has had an effect. "I have noticed that a lot of people have left Holy Cross. I'm sure that's what it is."

Franey says she can see that Riccitelli affects other parishioners, but she doesn't let him bother her. She considers it a test of faith.

"I figure we don't really have a pastor. He's never there. Right now he's taking Italian," she says, adding that Riccitelli's recent trip to Vermont to study Italian and his annual pilgrimages to Italy have raised eyebrows in the church.

"The only reason he came back this weekend was to get his check," she says, laughing. "That's what we were joking about this morning."

Other members tell familiar stories of absenteeism, indifference and focus on materialism.

Some parishioners say they were shocked when Meyer allocated church funds to purchase a rectory in 1995 which Riccitelli now lives in.

"We saw the bill and we couldn't believe it. They bought themselves a rectory that was a huge home for about $200,000 when there were perfectly good houses for $80,000 a lot closer to the church. And the other stuff, too, Berber carpeting, a Jacuzzi, the 35-inch television. Riccitelli's got it good," says a parishioner whose wife works at the parish. "The man's psychologically bent. I wish I had a nickel for every time my wife came home in tears."

Parishioners say that some members have begun circulating petitions about Father Riccitelli, and that others are beginning to make appeals to Bishop O'Brien.

As a familiar pattern at Holy Cross Church begins to emerge, parishioners at St. Jerome's and St. Mary's wonder about diocese leadership.

"I think it's important for you to understand. There's a shortage of priests," says Margie Scrip. "The most charitable explanation for O'Brien and his leniency in the matter would be that he doesn't have a lot of priests to assign to parishes. But I feel that no priest is better than a bad priest."

Other parishioners endorse the idea of nonpriests running parishes as long as the church continues to suffer from a shortage of men willing to make the sacrifices expected of priests.

John Kornfeind, however, disagrees that O'Brien's decision to move Riccitelli to Holy Cross was something that could be explained by a lack of alternatives.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega