seal of confession

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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You can confess -- but not to an Anglican priest

The Adelaide Advertiser reports the Anglican Church of Australia has lifted the veil of secrecy between priest and penitent, no longer requiring its clergy to maintain the seal of the confession. I expect many people will be surprised and some upset by this development. Not least of all the writers of mystery thrillers who will see one of their favorite plot devices disappear.

Alfred Hitchcock used this motif in his 1953 picture I Confess. In the film a priest, Montgomery Clift, hears the confession of his gardener, who has just killed a shady lawyer. A police inspector, played by Karl Malden, investigates and comes to suspect the priest — who may have been blackmailed by the lawyer. The killer plants evidence in the priest’s room and our hero is arrested and brought to trial.

The Quebec jury finds Clift not guilty, but a mob assembles outside of the court house and threatens him. This proves to be too much for the killer’s wife, who shouts that her husband the gardener was the killer. The gardener tries to kill the priest, but is himself shot and fatally wounded by the police. The film ends with the killer dying in Montgomery Clift’s arms after he gives him absolution. Classic.

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