A Different Kind of Catholic Church Scandal at a Winchester Parish

By ·

Photo illustration by Benjamen Purvis

St. Mary’s Director of Ministries Sal Caraviello was milling around at a lunch service when he got the panicked call. It was a chilly Thursday morning in February 2017, and Caraviello, a longtime fixture at the Winchester parish, had driven two and a half hours southwest to Branford, Connecticut, for a funeral earlier that day before following mourners to an Italian restaurant a few minutes down the road to eat. Charismatic with a youthful face despite being in his early fifties, Caraviello was busy consoling friends when he felt the buzz in his suit pocket. It was Father Richard Beaulieu, the administrator at his church. Not wanting to disrupt the meal, he walked out to the parking lot and took the call.

“Did you hear about the FBI showing up here?” asked Beaulieu, clearly shaken.

Caraviello felt like his heart had skipped a beat. “I haven’t heard a thing,” he said, trying to catch up.

Beaulieu told Caraviello what he knew. At about 10 a.m. that day, FBI agents and uniformed cops had knocked on the doors of four church members: Beaulieu; one of two church business managers, Steven Ultrino, who is also a state representative; the parish money counter, Joseph LoPiccolo (who was Ultrino’s cousin); and the church’s partially retired pastor, Father Dick Messina, who lived in Maine. The authorities hadn’t told the interviewees much, but it was clear that the rectory, where the offering money was counted after church services, was the focus. It didn’t take Hercule Poirot to realize they were likely investigating a theft from the collection plate—and presumably a serious one, given the FBI’s presence.

Not long afterward, Beaulieu relayed to Caraviello over the phone, church staff searched the rectory and found a set of tiny hidden cameras with wires that snaked up into the attic, where they connected to a computer. Someone had been watching them, and for who knows how long. Confused and angry, a staff member grabbed the computer and yanked out the wires.

Caraviello felt a surge of frustration as he listened.

After hanging up with Beaulieu, Caraviello paced in the parking lot. The more he thought about it, the less real it all seemed. He’d never known anyone who had been of interest to the FBI. It felt like he was suddenly in a mystery movie and was baffled by how he’d ended up there. He’d spent 21 years as a St. Mary’s employee and found the parish to be idyllic—the rare Catholic church cutting against the national trend of closures and shrinking memberships. With around 7,500 parishioners, 500 volunteers, and one of the largest religious-education programs in the Boston Archdiocese, it was beloved by all.

As Caraviello climbed into his car and pulled on to Route 1 heading north, his mind began to race. It was the parishioners’ money that appeared to have been stolen, and they deserved an explanation. If not, the story would likely fester and grow toxic. He feared it might even tear his community apart.

Caraviello’s life at St. Mary’s began in September 1992. He was 27 years old and nursing a broken hip when he hobbled gingerly up the half-dozen or so stone steps that led inside the grand red-brick church building. As he crutched himself through the door, the somber interior—dim lighting with stately carved wooden beams that stretched across the ceiling—enveloped him. At the time, the parish was slowly withering, but Caraviello felt instantly at home.

A native of Burlington, Caraviello was staying at his grandparents’ one-level house in Winchester while he recovered from his injury. He was also looking for his place in the world while finishing a master’s in education at Emmanuel College. As he flipped through the church bulletin, he saw a posting for a volunteer 10th-grade religious teacher. He applied for the gig and got it, painting houses on the side to make ends meet.

After nearly four years of volunteer work, the pastor, Father Messina, brought Caraviello on full time. The two men became friends, often staying up until 2 a.m. to hatch a vision for St. Mary’s as a loving and inclusive home. Together, Messina and Caraviello brought a dying parish back to life. Messina, a gifted storyteller, drew people in with his homilies. Caraviello, who was promoted to director of ministries, worked on the front lines with families and kids. He started a youth group, youth mass, and a Mardi Gras/Ash Wednesday celebration, and he poured his energy into making faith and God relatable to teens, attending high school football games and taking students to meals that would span hours.

Caraviello’s commitment won him a legion of devotees. “Sal is a brilliant minister,” says Christa Lucas, a former pastoral associate who worked with Caraviello. “The parents love him, and the kids love him. Usually, it’s just one or the other.” Scores of others felt the same. Under his leadership, the church’s religious-education program, known as CCD, expanded from 525 students and nearly 40 volunteers to 1,100 students and 175 volunteers. Parents sought out Caraviello when they struggled through divorce, a crisis of faith, or just wanted to gush about their Aruba vacation. For many, Caraviello was the reason they stayed with the church.

That’s not to say that things were perfect at St. Mary’s—like any small workplace, the staff was made up of people who didn’t always agree. Caraviello was often charming, but he was also passionate and could butt heads with other members of the staff from time to time—most notably with Ultrino. In 2012, Caraviello suspected that Ultrino was badmouthing him behind his back, so he wrote a letter to Messina criticizing Ultrino’s handling of the parish finances. Three years later, when Messina announced he was downshifting to working part time—a step toward retirement—and that his replacement was Beaulieu, Caraviello lost his closest ally.

To Caraviello, Messina’s departure and Beaulieu’s arrival marked a new era of instability at St. Mary’s. As part of the transition of power, the archdiocese commissioned an external, parish-wide audit in 2016—an act later described by church representatives as standard procedure. What the audit uncovered, however, was decidedly not standard: It appeared that money was disappearing. Without alerting parish leadership, the archdiocese and law enforcement launched an investigation, which culminated in the FBI knocking on church doors in February 2017. No charges were filed, but within a week of the FBI’s visit, Ultrino was put on administrative leave and eventually resigned. (Ultrino did not respond to requests for comment.) The departure landed with a thud.

The shakeup, though, did nothing to clear up Caraviello’s questions of what had happened, whether the investigation had found anything, or even what the authorities were looking for. To the contrary, a fog of secrecy wafted over St. Mary’s. Not only were parishioners kept in the dark about possible theft, the staff members themselves—most of whom had worked together for close to 15 years—had little clue what was going on. In place of answers, confusion bloomed. Employees wondered whether a whistleblower was in their midst. Caraviello thought some of his colleagues viewed him with suspicion, given his contentious history with Ultrino. He asked Messina for answers and says he was brushed aside. Then he asked again, and again, worrying over it like a sore tooth. “I was frustrated, tired, angry, and tremendously heartbroken over our situation,” Caraviello says. Beaulieu had told him the incident was nothing to worry about, but Caraviello felt there was more to it than anyone was letting on.

For the first time since he had arrived at St. Mary’s decades earlier, Caraviello considered leaving: A recruiter, he says, sent a tempting job prospect his way, a position at BC High, and he started to think that maybe this was the right time to go. But in April, Messina, the longtime rock of the parish, discovered he had pancreatic cancer. Then in July, Beaulieu left on a sick leave and never returned, retiring that fall. Caraviello felt he couldn’t abandon the parish while it was in a tailspin.

Over the next year and a half, leadership at St. Mary’s was a revolving door—and throughout the upheaval, Caraviello felt he was constantly in trouble. Anna Swain, one of the church’s business managers, complained about how he handled his church-related expenses, and he in turn felt he was being asked to jump through an increasing number of hoops to meet what he saw as ever-changing expectations. Caraviello clashed with one priest over performing weddings outside of the church—something he says he’d done for years with the aid and approval of Messina. When Caraviello was disciplined for it, he hit the roof—shouting profanities—and was sent to the regional bishop’s office for further disciplinary action. It was starting to look, Caraviello thought to himself, like saving St. Mary’s might really be beyond him.

In January 2018, Caraviello and the rest of the staff gathered around a large conference table at St. Mary’s to welcome the latest incoming pastoral administrator, Father Richard Erikson, a former military chaplain and Cardinal Seán O’Malley’s right-hand man. Many on staff viewed him as a fresh start for St. Mary’s. As the meeting wrapped up, Caraviello remembers that Erikson struck a serious tone, asking, “Is there anything else you think I should know concerning St. Mary’s?”

Caraviello took a deep breath. Then he raised his hand. “Well, I think I should bring up the big pink elephant in the room,” he said. “We’ve had a tough year.” The parish had lost its longtime leader, he said, and the investigation had cast a dark pall over the place. Would Erikson be able to shed light on what had really happened in the rectory? Caraviello could feel the room grow tense as he spoke. Erikson seemed to bristle. He didn’t know anything about this, he said. “Now I have a big decision,” Caraviello remembers him saying. “Should I demand the cardinal tell me what’s going on? Or should I just let it go? I’ll need to reflect on this.” It was not the response Caraviello was hoping for.

The staff itself was divided on whether to let the issue lie. After the meeting, Caraviello says, a colleague told him that he’d overstepped. Leave the past in the past, another employee said. But others came up to him and thanked him for speaking up. The veil of secrecy was too much, they said.

By summer, though, leaving the past behind was no longer an option. A Boston Globe reporter was looking into the story and had reached out to Caraviello on his cell phone. In turn, Caraviello went to Erikson to figure out what to do. This was an opportunity, Caraviello felt, for something long overdue: full disclosure. It had been 18 months since the FBI visit and parishioners still knew nothing, he argued. Caraviello remembers Erikson waved it off and told him to direct them to the church’s PR representative. To punctuate the point, Caraviello says, Erikson asked him to sign the archdiocese’s non-disclosure policy, a standard document that Caraviello says he had already signed. His heart sank. “I felt my days were numbered,” he said.

In what can only be described as an ironic twist, it was an altogether different scandal outside of St. Mary’s that finally proved the tipping point: When a new series of revelations surfaced in July that the Catholic Church had covered up allegations of sexual abuse in Pennsylvania and at Brighton’s Saint John’s Seminary, Caraviello recognized the church’s toxic culture of silence. He sat down and wrote an impassioned letter to his colleagues since he wasn’t able to attend a staff meeting that had been called—a Jerry Maguire–like manifesto arguing for the restorative power of transparency. “My struggle is deeply intensified because of the secrecy around this church’s FBI investigation and hidden cameras and the consequential marginalizing of me in the process,” he wrote. “How can we begin to do any healing on any level with massive problems like PA and Boston, when we can’t even address our own pain in any healthy way?” He pushed for cleansing sunlight: “It is the parishioners’ church,” he wrote. “It is their money.” The only way to heal, he argued, would be to close the chasm between the church and its members.

It was one of Caraviello’s last acts. A week later, Erikson and an HR representative from the archdiocese presented Caraviello with a professional-improvement plan and a list of best practices: Carefully record professional expenses, accept direction from the pastor, and be respectful toward the staff. Each point seemed to insinuate a violation that Caraviello felt he hadn’t committed. He asked for some time to find a lawyer and was given a few days. In the meantime, Caraviello says, he was told he would be placed on administrative leave. The HR representative took his office keys and escorted him off the grounds.

The news of Caraviello’s dismissal and the FBI investigation into St. Mary’s seeped onto the pages of Winchester’s local paper and the Globe at about the same time. The blowback was instant. “It was like a bomb went off; it came out of nowhere,” one former parishioner said of Caraviello’s removal. “I felt like we were betrayed by the archdiocese.”

“It was like a bomb went off; it came out of nowhere,” one former parishioner said of Caraviello’s removal.

By the time general counsel Beirne Lovely Jr. stepped up to speak at St. Mary’s on a mild evening in September 2018, church members were seething and rabid to hear what he had to say. Ruddy-faced and wearing a striped blue shirt and a dark jacket, he started to unravel the story of the FBI investigation. Parishioners leaned forward in the pews to listen.

It all started with the 2016 audit, when someone—later revealed in a police report to be business manager Swain—found a deposit slip for an account that she didn’t recognize. Swain had also noticed that the collection plate totals seemed oddly low. When she informed the auditor, it sparked a chain of events: The auditor told the archdiocese, which had hidden cameras secretly installed. When members of the archdiocese watched the tapes, they saw two church-appointed money-counters taking bills from the collection plate and stuffing them into their pockets. The archdiocese then told the police, who also watched the tapes. The police contacted the FBI. Then Lovely delivered the final plot twist: What first looked like a clear-cut case of theft turned out to be nothing more than a silly misunderstanding. Messina had told the counters to take the cash as payment for their service, and to replenish the “secret” account, which was nothing more than a discretionary fund—an old-school church accounting practice with no malicious intent. “This was a legitimate credible appearance of theft, which turned out to be unjustified,” Lovely told parishioners that evening, adding that accounting practices had since been updated. The truth was kept secret, Lovely said, to protect the counters, who were just doing what they were told.

When Lovely finished speaking, it was the parishioners’ turn. They were not pleased. “Do you see the walls you’re building?” Franca Richard asked at the time, referring to the secrecy surrounding the FBI investigation. Another worshiper, Gary Grassey, was similarly frustrated. “If we were going to be transparent,” he said, “we could have saved a lot of heartache by having disclosure sooner.”

By that point, the parish was already in revolt. Parishioners had organized a candlelight vigil outside the church to show their support for Caraviello; the hashtag #StandbySal appeared on notes that people tossed into the donation plate instead of dollar bills. Some members stopped attending church and yanked their children out of CCD. About 200 parishioners signed a letter to Erikson and O’Malley pleading for an explanation for Caraviello’s dismissal. One parishioner, whose two teenagers went through the entire CCD program with Caraviello, hand-delivered more than 100 letters in support of Caraviello to the archdiocese.

The relationship between Caraviello and the church, however, had grown too fractured to repair. Over two long meetings with regional Bishop Mark O’Connell, Caraviello remembers that he tried to make a case for his ministry and for returning to work, while O’Connell expressed concern over whether Caraviello was in a state to come back. Walking into the third meeting at the Braintree pastoral center on October 18, 2018, Caraviello and his lawyer, Regina Ryan, were hopeful. But 20 minutes into a heated exchange, Caraviello says, O’Connell interrupted him. “I’ve had enough,” O’Connell said. “You are fired!” According to public comments by O’Connell, Caraviello was fired because he refused to sign a professional-development plan that set conditions for his return. But Caraviello was never given a chance to sign the document, his then-lawyer said at the time.

Three days later, O’Connell announced Caraviello’s firing at a parish-wide meeting. Standing alone in front of an angry crowd, he painted the longtime staff member as a “sometimes rule-follower” who was emotional and didn’t follow financial protocals. “I’m so sorry that this happened to you,” O’Connell said to parishioners. “It’s partly my fault, and it’s mostly not my fault.” The crowd booed and jeered throughout the speech, then erupted in applause when parishioner Peter Haley proposed assembling a few prominent lawyers from the parish to review Caraviello’s case again. “The strength of the church lies not in the cardinal or the bishop or the pope or the clergy,” he told the crowd. “The strength lies in the faith of the people.”

The fallout was almost immediate. Hundreds of parishioners left St. Mary’s in a massive exodus in 2018. Collections plummeted and the church was suddenly looking at a $400,000 shortfall. They were about 40 percent shy of making their CCD revenue goal. Some people took their families to other parishes in Winchester and Medford. Others stopped attending services altogether. Grassroots rosary groups that sprouted among St. Mary’s members prayed for the restoration of the parish.

Since then, most people involved in the debacle have moved on. Caraviello, though, remains dogged by the scandal. Nearly two years later, no one invites him to speak at events, and job leads suddenly fizzle after promising first interviews. “All I have is my name,” he says. The way his dismissal played out in public—and the excuses provided by the church—have made it almost impossible for him to find work, he claims. This past January, he did what at one time would have been unthinkable: He filed a defamation lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Boston, Lovely, and O’Connell. “Mr. Caraviello has suffered emotional distress, damage to his reputation and character, loss of earning capacity, loss of economic opportunities, financial hardship, embarrassment, ridicule, and loss of long-held friendships,” the lawsuit states. It also claims that Caraviello was made a “scapegoat” in part because he is a “single, unmarried heterosexual.” (The Archdiocese of Boston declined to comment on Caraviello’s lawsuit at the time of publication but said, “the parties anticipate filing robust and substantive responses to the complaint.”) Meanwhile, Caraviello is still not convinced that there isn’t more to the FBI story: His lawyer recently filed a public-records request for the FBI documents on the investigation. So far, the FBI has denied the request.

It’s still not clear to Caraviello why the church kept the investigation shrouded in mystery, especially given that there was never a crime in the first place. Perhaps it was just a misunderstanding that stemmed from practices still stuck in the past. At the same time, though, the appearance of wrongdoing can be just as toxic as the real thing. After all, it wasn’t just habit, tradition, or even faith that kept people coming back to St. Mary’s each week. It was trust. And when that was broken, there was nothing left to come back for.

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2020/04/14/st-marys-winchester/