Denis Riccitelli, a Mesa Catholic priest, was accused in 2004 of using real estate and check-writing schemes to defraud his parish of $160,000.
Church leaders called in the Mesa police. Evidence was presented to the grand jury, which agreed probable cause existed to bring the case to trial.
The priest argued he was not guilty because under church law, he has the right to spend parish funds as he sees fit, including on himself.
Nothing unusual so far. Priests behaving badly, sadly, are a disappointment but no longer a surprise. Accused criminals devising preposterous, self-serving defenses are common.
But here’s where it gets weird. District Court Judge Sylvia Arellano bought the argument. In fact, she threw out the case because prosecutors “didn’t tell the grand jury about the laws of the Roman Catholic Church, known as canon law.”
The state appeals court and Supreme Court have both declined to overturn the judge’s ruling. They apparently are in agreement with Arellano that “church law and policies are directly relevant in determining whether (the) defendant committed the crimes he is charged with.”
Even though church authorities were the ones who reported his fraudulent activity, canon law may supersede criminal statutes, according to the solons.
This ruling is a broadside against foundational notions of our legal system.
Equality before the law, the rule of law and separation of church and state are all threatened.
It was historically a great achievement for our forefathers to create a system of laws that applied equally to all. It was unheard of until then for persons from all ranks and stations in life to be treated equally.
In fact, unequal treatment for those with privilege and power was considered to be necessary for social stability. Furthermore, official state religions typically shared the duties of governing with civil authorities.
That was presumably all behind us. So it’s chilling to hear a prevailing notion in our courts assert that the Catholic church considers itself a “complete society” with the right to “govern itself according to its own laws.”
Ironically, prosecutors will be required to “educate” grand juries in canon law when they aren’t trained in it themselves. There had been no need until now.
But if church members and officials are allowed to live by a different code than the law of the land, questions that were once considered settled have to be reopened. Law professor Stephen Saltzburg of George Washington University blithely asserts, “If it’s a case where the priest shot somebody, it would be simple.” But would it?
Religious history is replete with church-dictated violent crimes. Abortion foes feel compelled by their religious convictions to kill abortion providers.
The Fundamentalist LDS Church maintains its own laws, including those which permit polygamy. How can we allow Catholics to obey only their own laws while denying the same privilege to fundamentalist Christians and Mormons? No matter what the crime, the rule of law must apply consistently to all religions or to none.
This might be a bad time to go wobbly on our core principles. Social democracies across Europe, with legal traditions similar to ours, are faced with demands from the leaders of their growing Muslim communities that they be governed by their own law, Sharia law. Sharia law comes from Allah, who uses government to execute his desires for mankind. It denies free speech and other basic liberties. Compromise and accommodation with infidels are not possible for its adherents.
Sharia law is particularly hard on women. They are forced into genital mutilation, forced into burkas, forced into marriage, not allowed to drive or appear alone in public. It is believed that at least seven Muslim women have been killed by their families recently in Sweden alone for “honor violations.”
Yet many Westerners, either through misplaced religious tolerance or cowardice, lack the moral compass to resist these outrages. The Archbishop of Canterbury famously said he believed it was “unavoidable” that Sharia law would become part of British law.
Our law and customs allow for the free exercise of religion. But neither Catholics, Mormons, Muslims nor any other group may write their own superseding rules. In America, even priests must obey the law.