Former RI Priest Under Fire in Bronx; Questions About His Tenure Here

by Dick Lutz and Linda Heimer

Fr. Peter Miqueli, a Catholic priest who served on Roosevelt Island from 2002 to 2012, may soon be suspended from church duties, according to sources that The WIRE considers reliable.

Miqueli, who now serves at St. Frances de Chantal parish in the Bronx, has run into a firestorm of opposition from two groups of parishioners there. A representative of one of the groups says its goal is to have Miqueli removed not just from that parish, but from parish work anywhere. The group’s website (http://helpsfdchantal.weebly.com) contains a large number of anonymous postings, some with notable accusations.

Parishioners accuse Miqueli of setting up the handling of collections at masses in a way that runs contrary to rules published by the Archdiocese – changes from his predecessors’ practices that they feel give him an opportunity to mishandle the funds. Yet those who report Miqueli’s practices to the Archdiocese say they get no action. They suspect that someone is protecting him.

“This is really the Catholic twilight zone,” commented one – a man who asked not to be named to avoid disrupting certain relationships within the parish.

“The manner of how our donations are handled currently in our parish violates all ADNY [Archdiocese of New York] guidelines,” says Jack Lynch, one of the parishioners seeking Miqueli’s ouster. “The money is placed in [an] open bag and the priest takes this bag directly to the rectory [residence] after each mass. We know that the bags are sent directly to FM’s [Fr. Miqueli’s] room and are therefore open to manipulation.” Lynch adds, “You can quote me.” In a separate email, he reports observing the same handling of the collection funds last Sunday (September 6).

Another Bronx parishioner with extensive experience handling Sunday collections and firm knowledge of mandated procedures reports that she stopped volunteering for the “counting staff” when Miqueli changed the procedure. “The money is not secured in the presence of witnesses, so we cannot be sure what happens between the collection of the money and the counting of it,” she says, adding, “I could not be party to such sloppy technique as exhibited by Fr. Miqueli.”

Another describes arriving at the Bronx rectory one day to perform some maintenance work. Alone there, he found that he had to step over or around several piles of cash – “fives, tens, twenties, a foot or a foot-and-a-half high.” He added, “I don’t think [Miqueli] realized I would have to enter that room [to perform the scheduled work].”

The suspicions and complaints at de Chantal have led to a campaign to contribute only by check, and only $1, each Sunday.

Miqueli was ordered to establish a parish financial committee and to standardize other means of handling parish matters, according to a three-page letter from Timothy Cardinal Dolan that was read to parishioners.

Miqueli has also alienated his parishioners in other ways. Dee Masci Cai wrote, “My daughter recently went to the rectory to ask for a copy of her baptism papers. This so-called pastor asked why she needed them and, when she told him it [was] for a marriage license (she’s not getting married at St. Frances), he took it upon himself to not only deny her the paper, but he had the audacity to tear the paper up in front of her. When is something going to be done with this [derogatory comment] that calls himself a man of God?”

Roosevelt Island

Something similar arose on Roosevelt Island when a parish worker realized that Miqueli was not maintaining the traditional sacramental register in which baptisms, marriages, funerals, etc. are recorded. The worker used public sources like past issues of The WIRE to update records, then asked Miqueli for other records. He told The WIRE this week that the request, and what he had done, clearly displeased the priest; the other records were not made available.

Soon after Miqueli’s 2002 arrival, he lost some of the natural allegiance given to a new priest when he effectively “fired” Sr. Regina Palamara, after which there were rumors of trumped-up grounds involving the Cabrini Thrift Shop. With the active assent of Miqueli’s two predecessors, Palamara had run the Thrift Shop as a community service, occasionally employing parishioners who were in need of income instead of relying solely on volunteers. At times, its weekly gross revenue was twice that of collections at masses. Miqueli took control of the shop and chose new management.

Ultimately, Miqueli gave management of the shop to Keith Crist, a bodybuilder who has apparently followed Miqueli to his new post in the Bronx.

Palamara now lives in California. After her departure, the Catholic Youth Organization essentially ceased to exist.

Miqueli also fired Mary Jo Claugus, who had served as minister of music and choir director under Fr. Joseph Gorman.

A subsequent priest, Fr. Kevin Malick, who served here only briefly, revitalized the Thrift Shop, only to have it close in the Hudson/Related reshuffling of retail properties.

Keith Crist

Miqueli’s relationship with Keith Crist has raised eyebrows in the Bronx, and with some of Miqueli’s 11 siblings. Crist traveled to Israel and Rome with Miqueli. Miqueli signed a $1,075.50 rent supplement guarantee for Crist in 2014 – a step required for Crist to get an emergency bail-out from the City’s Human Resources Administration, Department of Social Services, to avoid eviction. There are seamy rumors, unconfirmed and subject to possible exaggeration, about the Miqueli-Crist relationship. One off-Islander who has had contact with Crist called him “Miqueli’s goon” in a conversation with The WIRE. Miqueli made Crist a trustee of the parish.

Roosevelt Island’s Catholic parish is now served by Father Richard Baker, but between Miqueli and Baker, there have been three priests. One is known to have been threatened by Crist, though it is unclear whether Crist was acting on his own behalf or at Miqueli’s behest.

Pipe Organ Fund

Shortly before Miqueli’s time on here, members of the Island’s Protestant parish, which shares use of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd with the Catholics, received the offer of a pipe organ, and a joint fund was created to pay for necessary work on the instrument – its installation and maintenance.

Two parishioners – one from the Catholic parish and one from the Protestant parish – took on the management of the funds raised for the purpose. Mary Fitzgerald, a retired NYPD Detective, represented the Catholic interest in the organ, and Carol Kennedy, a Rivercross resident, represented the Protestant interest.

At some point, control of the Organ Fund account, kept at Montauk Credit Union, which had an Island branch at the time, passed into Miqueli’s hands. This was discovered when Kennedy left for Peace Corps service and fellow Protestant parishioner Audrey Braver went to the Credit Union office to change the Protestant signatory on the account. It was empty. A transfer document showed that both Fitzgerald and Kennedy had assented to a transfer of the Organ Fund to Miqueli’s control, but both have now signed affidavits attesting that they did not sign the transfer document – indicating that their signatures were copied or forged.

In an April 2014 meeting, Braver and other representatives of the Protestant parish confronted Miqueli about the change. “Father Miqueli told us the fund was safely deposited in his church’s Candle Fund,” Braver told The WIRE. “He assured us that he had no intention of using that [Organ Fund] money [for other purposes], since it was restricted.”

The amount in the Organ Fund around the time that Miqueli took control of it was about $14,000. The Candle Fund had been established by one of Miqueli’s predecessors. A cashier’s check dated August 3, 2004, shows that $12,851.18 was taken from the Candle Fund account, then deposited by Miqueli the next day in Cabrini’s Stipend Fund. That fund is common in Catholic parishes; it is the account into which priests deposit fees that they are allowed to charge for weddings, funerals, baptisms, and special masses. Money in the Stipend Fund belongs to the priest.

Thus, an amount roughly equal to the April 2004 Organ Fund appears to have been moved, by Miqueli, through the Candle Fund into the Stipend Fund, available for his personal use.

Records Destroyed

Just before Miqueli left ­Roosevelt Island, many financial records accumulated during his tenure were destroyed. But papers that escaped destruction show that Miqueli withdrew a significant amount from the Stipend Fund. Close observers suggest that, in the time period involved, it is not likely that the usual stipend sources would have provided so large an amount.

Shortly after Miqueli’s departure, it was discovered that an Island House apartment rented by the parish for the priest’s use had become listed in Miqueli’s name. It was around this time that talk of privatization of Island House was about to create an opportunity for apartment owners to benefit from insider pricing (or buy-outs) on their apartments.

The result was that Miqueli’s immediate successor was denied use of the apartment, and even several months later, it was not available to the next priest assigned. The WIRE has not been able to determine its present status, but Fr. Richard Baker, the new priest, will live in a Riverwalk (Southtown) apartment, at least initially.

Miqueli reportedly owns a mortgage-free house in Brick Township, New Jersey, that he apparently acquired while serving his Roosevelt Island parish.

A Family Matter

Miqueli, the 11th of 12 children, is apparently a respondent, with a sister named Laura, in a lawsuit over his parents’ will. As explained by one of his brothers, at some point Peter persuaded his parents to will all their possessions to him, and a house they owned may explain at least part of a brokerage account in Miqueli’s name that approached $700,000 in net value in 2013. Sometime before his death, their father revealed the change in the will to two of his sons, and they arranged for it to be revised for equal distribution among the siblings. But after the father’s death, they think that Laura, who they believe was working with Peter, had further changes made, and the disposition of funds in the estate is unknown. The brother who spoke with The WIRE said that “nobody will answer the phone,” so the matter has been given to an attorney to pursue.

How things will play out for this former Roosevelt Island priest is likely to be handled privately and quietly by the hierarchy of ADNY, but some complainants have taken charges to law enforcement in an attempt to invoke subpoena power to force additional evidence into public view – and possibly to recover funds.

Miqueli did not respond to messages left on his cell phone seeking comment, nor to a message left with an assistant.

Tags: Organizations Dick Lutz Linda Heimer

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