A grand jury has indicted two priests on charges they stole $160,000 from the Holy Cross Parish in Mesa.
Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley said Wednesday that the Rev. Dennis Riccitelli, the church’s former pastor, and the Rev. Blase Meyer, associate pastor at St. Clement in Sun City, worked a number of schemes to steal from Holy Cross, 1244 S. Power Road.
Romley said Riccitelli, who had been the church’s pastor since 1996 until his resignation in December 2003, would reimburse credit card expenses to himself that the church had already paid, write checks to himself from the church bank account, and have staff cash checks from the petty cash fund for his personal use.
A report from the Mesa Police Department also indicates that Riccitelli and Meyer co-owned property they would lease to the church to house visiting priests, and bill the church even for vacant property.
The investigation went back only two years because the financial documents from previous years had been destroyed.
"If we had the paperwork, we would have looked into it," Romley said.
Riccitelli is charged with 14 counts of theft and fraudulent schemes and artifices and Meyer faces one count of each charge.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has placed both men on administrative leave and suspended their priestly duties.
Police arrested the two priests at a Mesa home in the 7100 block of East Juanita Avenue on Tuesday, which defense attorney Joe Keilp said was an unnecessary use of public funds because Riccitelli had agreed to surrender once the grand jury returned its indictment.
"We intend to vigorously defend against these charges until Father Riccitelli is vindicated," Keilp said.
Meyer is free on $8,100 bail.
Riccitelli, who is free after posting a $81,000 bail, resigned his pastor position at St. Jerome in west Phoenix in 1995 amid a battle over personnel and finances.
Romley said the parishioners there went to Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, then leader of the Phoenix diocese, and threatened a charity boycott unless Riccitelli was removed.
O’Brien transferred Riccitelli to Holy Cross rather than calling police, Romley said.
Romley said the new culture under Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, who has led the church the last year, is "very welcome."
The diocese conducted an internal audit of the church in the first week of December 2003 and "found significant financial concerns and procedures that did not conform to diocesan policy," said the Rev. Fred Adamson, the diocese’s moderator of the Curia.
"In March 2004, Bishop Olmsted determined that the diocese needed assistance in this matter and the Mesa Police Department was asked to conduct an official investigation," Adamson said.
Don Seyfferle, a member of the parish since its founding in 1978, had helped lead a petition drive more than five years ago to get O’Brien to remove the priest from Holy Cross. He said petitions, phone calls and letters to the bishop went unheeded.
Seyfferle said parishioners were upset that Riccitelli did not have a parish finance committee to oversee church funds, contrary to church law.
"He had so much control on what came in and all the deposits," he said. While many families quit the parish amid the turmoil, many parishioners had the attitude that "a priest can do no wrong" and were a "bunch of sheep," he said.
The church is home to 2,800 families and celebrates 13 masses a month.
Adamson said the diocese has taken "actions to minimize any financial loss to Holy Cross Parish."
The diocesan lawyer, Michael Haran, said the diocese and Riccitelli’s lawyers have been talking for a long time about recovering money for the church.
"If necessary, we’ll bring a civil action," Haran said.
Seyfferle said Holy Cross has rebounded in the year since Riccitelli’s suspension. "We have a good priest (the Rev. Richard Felt) now, and so many parishioners have started coming back and the parish is crowded again."