Was it counseling or confession? A crucial twist in the cold-case murder trial of a priest

Anyone who has spent much time on the Godbeat knows that religion is complicated and that, when dealing with issues of doctrine and religious law, things can get even more confusing.

It's crucial to get the details right, including using the correct words, using these terms accurately and then helping readers understand why these fine details matter.

Thus, I would like to praise a recent Washington Post story about the infamous, and very complicated, cold-case investigation into the 1960 rape and murder of former beauty queen Irene Garza in McAllen, Tex. However, I want to praise this feature while also noting one strange choice of words that will worry many readers, especially Catholics.

Now, it's crucial to know that Garza's faith is at the heart of this story, since she was a daily-Mass Catholic. (Click here for a previous post about coverage of this case.)

One day this young woman went to confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and she never came back. The last person to see her alive was the priest who heard that confession, the Rev. John Feit.

There were good reasons to suspect the 27-year-old priest of murder, including another priest's testimony that Feit had scratches on his hands after midnight Mass -- only a few hours after Garza went to confession. However, the case was complicated on several levels, including fears among local political leaders and clergy that charging a priest with murder might hurt Sen. John Kennedy's chances, as a Catholic, to win Texas in his campaign for the White House.

So what evidence cracked open this old case? This is where the Post feature includes one vague word -- precisely at the point where precision was crucial. Here is the crucial passage:

... (I)n April of 2002, the San Antonio police department received a phone call from a former priest in Oklahoma City -- Dale Tacheny. He explained that in 1963, he had lived at a Trappist monastery in Missouri and counseled a priest from San Antonio.
“He told me that he had attacked a young woman in a parish on Easter weekend and murdered her,” the caller said, according to Texas Monthly. In a letter, Tacheny identified Feit and recounted how he took the woman to the parish house to hear her confession. After hearing her confession he assaulted, bound and gagged her, Tacheny said.

So there are two questions that should be asked at this point. First, at the time of this monastery encounter with Feit, was Tacheny a monk or a priest? There are monks who are priests, but there are other monks who are not ordained as priests.

Why would that matter to readers?

Here is the second question: Was this encounter between Feit and Tacheny something that happened during "counseling" with a monk or was this a case of a priest hearing another priest's confession, which under canon law is protected by a vow of secrecy? Yes, the Post feature does note that Tacheny is a now "former priest," but that does not mean he was a priest at the time of his "counseling" with Feit.

As a reader noted, in an email to the GetReligion team:

Was this under the seal of confession? I can't tell you how many priests have told me that they would never ever break that, under any circumstances. ... And I can't tell you how many times I've heard that a confessor would require the penitent to turn themselves in as part of their penance, even as a condition for absolution. Was this some other discussion? Not a "Father, forgive me for I have sinned" Confession with-a-capital-C?

Now, it should be noted that the Post story includes the word "confession" several times, after that initial reference to the "counseling" encounter between Feit and Tacheny. For example:

Tacheny said he kept these confessions to himself out of a religious obligation. But decades later, he changed his mind.

Was this an "obligation" or a scared "vow'? Also, see this crucial reference:

At trial this week, Tacheny described how Feit had confessed to him that he had murdered a young woman. It wasn’t until years later that he learned that the woman was Garza.
“So I asked Father Feit, why are you here and not in prison?” Tacheny recounted, according to video of the testimony from KRGV. “He said there were three things. Number one, the church helped me, primarily through a priest. Law enforcement helped him. Finally, the seal of confession helped him.”

I think that it's safe to say that we are talking about a matter of "confession," which is a sacrament, as opposed to mere "counseling."

At that point, readers really need to know how seriously clergy in ancient, sacramental churches -- thinking the Church or Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy -- take the vow that protects the privacy of someone who comes to confession. In this case, Catholics would also want to know why Tacheny left the priesthood and whether he believes that decision allowed him to break the seal of confession.

Why is clarity so important on this point? Well, consider this question: Would law officials have been able to put Feit on trial, after all this time, without the testimony from Tacheny?

As always, let me stress that journalists (and readers) don't need to agree with church teachings, concerning the vow to protect penitents who come to confession. It is, however, crucial to understand the role that canon laws about confession played in this case. This is a crucial detail in this news story.

So, why use the word "counseling" at all? If Feit came to Tacheny for confession during that monastery encounter, why not say so in that important first reference?

Words matter, especially in complicated religion/legal stories.

Please respect our Commenting Policy