In the spring of 2016, officials at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston began suspecting that someone was stealing from the collection plate at St. Mary’s, a Catholic parish in Winchester.
Local police and the FBI investigated, but no one was ever charged. Parishioners, who had heard a swirl of rumors about stolen donations and quiet staff departures, never learned what had actually happened.
But Salvatore Caraviello, St. Mary’s longtime director of youth and family ministries, was rankled by the silence of church officials.
After the archdiocese appointed a high-ranking priest, the Rev. Richard Erikson, as the new pastor in April, Caraviello approached him for answers.
Whatever happened with the investigation?
In late August, Caraviello wrote a letter to church staff: At a time when the Catholic Church was again engulfed in crisis for concealing the truth about abusive priests, how could St. Mary’s hide what happened in its own parish, he asked, according to several people who later heard his account.
On Aug. 27, about a week after he sent the letter, Caraviello, 53, was placed on administrative leave. According to his lawyer, he is on the brink of losing his job.
His removal has spurred an outcry, and parishioners are calling on church officials to reinstate Caraviello, who for more than two decades has led the church’s popular youth program, counseled grieving families who lost loved ones, and organized an annual Christmas drive that delivers presents to needy children around the state.
Parishioners say they are writing letters to Cardinal Sean O’Malley and withdrawing their children from St. Mary’s educational classes in protest.
On Sunday morning, when ushers passed around baskets to collect donations for the priest retirement plan, some parishioners dropped in envelopes with the message “#StandbySal.” Instead of money, some included a photo of Caraviello or a testimonial about him.
“I’m heartbroken that this is happening to him,” said Donna Ashton, 47, an attorney whose 14-year-old son has participated in activities that Caraviello organized. “He’s very devoted and just a kind, kind man, and it doesn’t make any sense.”
About 500 parishioners gathered for a candlelight prayer vigil outside the church Sunday night.
Earlier on Sunday during Mass, Erikson spoke briefly about the situation. “This is not a matter of ministerial misconduct. This is a personnel matter,” he said.
A church spokesman said he could not comment on Caraviello’s removal. “Unfortunately, rumors and inaccurate information have made their way into the public arena,” said Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for O’Malley. “This concerns us greatly. In time, we hope to be able to resolve the matter for the good of all concerned.”
In a letter sent to parishioners Friday, Erikson, an Air Force veteran who was a chaplain during the Iraq War before he was made vicar general at the archdiocese, said he had “great admiration” for Caraviello and would meet with him soon to discuss the situation.
“Our parish family is in the midst of a very difficult time and I suffer with you,” Erikson wrote, calling the matter “heartbreaking.” “Many people have been quite concerned and even angry that I have said little about what is happening. This is why: We are dealing with a personnel matter. This is not a ‘veil of secrecy’; it is me respecting the privacy of one of our beloved staff members.”
He also said many of the calls and e-mails to parish staff about Caraviello’s removal had “not been kind.”
“I beg you, as Christians, to treat them kindly and respectfully while we navigate this process,” Erikson wrote.
Caraviello’s lawyer, Doug Louison, an employment attorney in Boston, said the removal occurred shortly after Caraviello brought up his frustrations about the investigation. “He was expressing concerns about the lack of communication to the St. Mary’s community regarding what he understood to be an investigation,” Louison said.
A church official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is related to personnel, said Caraviello’s removal had nothing to with his questions about the investigation, launched by the archdiocese around April or May of 2016 after one of the business managers at St. Mary’s reported that collections seemed lower than usual, according to Winchester police reports.
What happened next is largely unknown in the parish. The archdiocese hired technicians from a company called Hidden Eyes to install cameras in the chandelier of the rectory, where the money collected after each Mass was counted.
In October 2016, officials from the archdiocese went to Winchester police with a tape that showed two unidentified men apparently taking money from the table and putting it in their pockets, according to the police reports. Steven Ultrino, the other business manager at the church and a state representative from Malden, was in charge of supervising the counting, according to several people with knowledge of the investigation.
The case was then referred to the FBI, “due to the nature of the investigation and potential crimes,” according to a police report. The FBI and police interviewed Ultrino and the priests in charge at the time, according to a law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the case.
Bank accounts were scoured for irregularities, and a grand jury was convened to investigate the allegations, the official said.
“At the conclusion of the investigation, the FBI determined that they would not be going forward with any criminal charges against anyone involved and leave it to the church to handle internally,” according to the police report.
Ultrino left his position with the church around the time of the investigation. Ultrino did not return e-mails or calls to his office.
The FBI and the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts said that in keeping with Department of Justice policy they could not confirm an investigation. Winchester police declined to comment.
The church official said the archdiocese did not discuss the investigation with parishioners because no one was arrested. The high turnover of priests at St. Mary’s following the death of the Rev. Richard Messina, a popular priest who died of pancreatic cancer in October 2017, also made it difficult to address the matter, the official said.
Just before Caraviello was placed on leave, church officials brought up “innocuous administrative” issues about his job performance, Louison said. For example, they asked him why he did not have receipts for sodas he had purchased for kids at a vending machine during a summer trip to Washington, D.C., Louison said.
“He’s upset,” Louison said of Caraviello. “He feels very much a part of that community, as the outpouring has shown, and he’s upset that what he thinks is an appropriate query by him has resulted in him being targeted.”
Caraviello declined to comment.
On his Facebook page, he thanked parishioners for their support: “No matter how demanding it could be, I have the job I love, serving the people I love. That job is extremely complicated at the moment. But, truly, it’s never been a job. It’s always been a ministry.”
Susan Gill, whose 18-year-old son Patrick was killed in a car accident in 2014, recalled how Caraviello comforted her son’s friends in the weeks after his death. He would visit the house and stay long into the night with Gill and her husband, reminiscing about Patrick and helping them cope with the tragedy.
“He would be there until 2 or 3 in the morning, helping us to find the spirituality in it, the comfort and trying to help us understand,” Gill said. “I desperately want him to stay, for me personally because I care so much about him, but for all the kids in town. . . . He’s exceptional.”Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMCramer.