WASHINGTON (CNS) — In early December, the community in McAllen, Texas, felt the reopening of an almost 60-year-old wound that never healed and one that involved the local Catholic community, prompting a written response from the local bishop on Dec. 20 expressing “sorrow.”
After listening to evidence, a Texas jury delivered a guilty verdict on Dec. 7 in the case of a man convicted of murdering in 1960 a young woman while he was a priest and she went to him seeking the sacrament of reconciliation during Holy Week. A former priest, John Bernard Feit, 85, was found guilty of the first-degree murder of 25-year-old Irene Garza. He is said to have beaten, raped and strangled the popular teacher and beauty queen from South Texas, who was last seen seeking confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the border town of McAllen.
Feit was a priest for the religious order Oblates of Mary Immaculate and left the priesthood in 1972. He married and had children after a series of transfers following the murder. He was sentenced to life in prison on Dec. 8.
During the trial, some said local church members and law enforcement officials who were Catholic acted together to prevent Feit’s arrest, fearing the repercussions and damage to the church. That’s why for 57 years, many believe, the case went nowhere. Church authorities transferred Feit to two different monasteries within the U.S. following the killing. A former Trappist monk at one of those monasteries testified that Feit told him about the murder and his role in it, but he did not notify authorities for decades.
On Dec. 20, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, penned a letter expressing sorrow to the family and friends of the popular teacher, and said the diocese did not exist then so he had “no special insight into what was done or not done by civil and church authorities in the aftermath of the crime.” However, he said “whatever factors contributed to the 57-year delay in reaching a verdict in this case, Irene Garza, her family and the whole Rio Grande Valley deserved better than that.”
Though charges against Feit were not pursued while he was a priest, many had long suspected he was responsible for the killing believed to have taken place in the rectory of the church. It took decades and a new Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorney to bring charges against him.
The San Antonio Express-News reported on Dec. 8 that the young woman’s nephew, Nick Cavazos, read a victim impact statement during the sentencing phase and “said his grandfather never again set foot in church” after his daughter’s killing.
“On behalf of the church, for the sinful actions of members of the church, I express this sorrow to the family, and to those whose faith has been injured by these events,” said Bishop Flores in his statement.
He said he was praying “so that that any persons who may have contributed to the crime or acted improperly or unworthily in its aftermath, whether in the church or not, take responsibility for the great evil done. They should seek repentance before God, before they are called to the Final Judgment.”