The night before Easter in 1960, 25-year-old Irene Garza went to give confession at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas. She was met by her priest, 27-year-old Rev. John Feit. On Thursday, Feit was convicted of assaulting and murdering Gaza 57 years ago.
According to The Washington Post, the case’s outcome has been in doubt, and for good reason. The Catholic church and local authorities appear to have worked hard to cover up Feit’s crime, despite initial evidence that he killed Garza after hearing her confession in his parish house. This included a confession to another priest in 1963, the only living witness against him at his recent trial.
Dale Tacheny contacted the San Antonion police in 2002, saying he had counseled Feit at a Trappist monastery in Missouri, three years after Garza’s body was found in an irrigation canal:
“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.
Tacheny claims he had kept the confession to himself out of “religious obligation,” but changed his mind decades later. The case had long been closed against Feit, but Tacheny’s statement caused it to be reopened. But to say that Tacheny coming forward was the key to breaking the case disregards all the pieces of evidence that were ignored after Garza’s death:
A photo-slide viewer with a handwritten note saying it belonged to Feit was found in the same canal where Garza was found dead.
The Rev. Joseph O’Brien, an assistant pastor at Feit’s church, said that when a group gathered to drink coffee after midnight mass, he noticed that Feit had scratches on his hands.
Detectives also found out that Feit had been accused of attacking another young woman in a church in a nearby town just weeks before Garza’s death. While she was kneeling at the Holy Communion rail, CBS reported, a man matching Feit’s description grabbed her from behind and tried to put a rag over her mouth.
When asked to pick her assailant out of a police lineup, the young woman chose Feit. When he took a polygraph test and denied that he had harmed either Garza or the other woman, the examiner concluded that he was lying. He eventually pleaded no contest and was fined $500.
Though the case was reopened, the District Attorney at the time was reluctant to take it to court, due to a lack of DNA evidence. When he finally did, he didn’t call either Tacheny or O’Brien to the stand, and the grand jury refused to indict in 2004. O’Brien died the next year.
Then in 2016, under a new DA named Ricardo Rodriguez, Feit was arrested in Phoenix, according to The Monitor. Solving the case was part of Rodriguez’s platform while running against the incumbent who had dropped the ball. Feit was no longer a priest, but married with a family. Before leaving the church in 1972, he supervised a department that cleared priests for assignments. One of his cleared priests was James Porter, who abused over 100 boys and girls in his parish during the sixties.
That Feit has escaped justice for so long is undeniably the result of the Catholic church’s machinations, and even connected to national politics at the time. The Monitor reports that church officials believed that a local Catholic authority, County Sheriff E.E. Vickers, would have his chances for reelection damaged by a church scandal, and that it would even be connected to the campaign of Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy:
Rev. Joseph Pawlicki, a pastor at a church outside Austin, wrote to Rev. Lawrence Seidel, the head of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate order to which Feit belonged, urging him to hire a private investigator to find “loopholes” in the state’s case against Feit. The sheriff described the case as “quite weak for the prosecution.”
Files on Feit could not be found at his seminary nor at Corpus Christi, which his church was a part of in that era. This violates ecclesiastical law, which requires such files be maintained. The Catholic church also held enormous sway in Garza’s community, and Feit’s position protected him in people’s minds, as well as from the law. Two of Garza’s cousins told CNN that the people in McAllen couldn’t believe he had committed such a crime.
“We were accusing a priest that—in those days priests were infallible, “ said Lynda De La Vina, who was 9 years old at the time.
Another cousin, Noemi Sigler, was only 10 when Garza was killed. “It was impossible for a priest to do such a deed. I mean, if you thought of it, that would be sacrilegious.”