John Feit

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

 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.

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Complicated cold case: Was beauty queen raped, killed by her priest (now an ex-priest)?

Complicated cold case: Was beauty queen raped, killed by her priest (now an ex-priest)?

I have been thinking about the rather picky journalism issues raised in this post for quite some time now, so consider this a trip into my GetReligion "file of guilt."

What we have here is another argument about headlines. I find fights over headlines quite compelling, in part because (a) I spent several years on a copy desk writing headlines and (b) I know (the research has been around for decades) how many readers merely scan headlines and, at most, the top paragraph or two of most stories. Many readers see a headline and then react. That's the sad truth.

So what about that long, very detailed Washington Post headline the other day that proclaimed, "Break in ‘unholy’ cold case: Police arrest former beauty queen’s priest in her 1960 killing." And here is the top of the story:

Fifty-six years ago, a young schoolteacher went to church during Holy Week and never came home.
The next day, a few of her possessions were found scattered along the road outside the local Sacred Heart Church, as Texas Monthly recounted. One high-heeled shoe, a patent-leather handbag, a piece of crumpled white lace.
The following week, her body was found, fully dressed and badly bruised, retrieved from a canal in which someone had left her to decompose, her corpse washed clean of evidence. An autopsy found that she had been raped while comatose.
This was Irene Garza, a 25-year-old, dark-haired belle of McAllen, Tex., who was once named Miss All South Texas Sweetheart. She was her high school’s homecoming queen, the first person in her family to graduate from college and a teacher for disadvantaged children.
Above all, Garza was a devout Catholic. The last place she was seen was at Confession.

The priest hearing confessions that night long ago was the Rev. John Feit, who was 27 at the time.

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