The Case of Irene Garza & the Catholic Church
By Princess Weekes
December 15, 2017
There was a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, My Favorite Murder episode 99: “Shin Kick,” which discussed the murder and case of Irene Garza, and instantly I thought, I need to write about this, but how? Well, life finds a way.
Today, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse finished a 1,000-page report, filled with recommendations to the Church including that “Catholic priests should not be forced to live a life of celibacy, and the sanctity of the confessional should not prevent religious figures from reporting child sex abuse.” According to the findings by the Royal Commission, 61.8% of sexual abuse cases connected to religion came from the Catholic church.
The case of the rape and murder of Irene Garza is tied heavily to the corruption and cover-ups that happen with just that kind of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. On April 16, 1960, Irene Garza was last seen going in for confession—in the rectory rather than the confessional, unusually—at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas. Garza’s body wasn’t located until the 21st of April, in a canal, and the postmortem examination found that Garza was raped and beaten before dying of suffocation. All physical evidence, semen, blood, hair, etc., was washed away by the canal.
Father John Feit was the last person to see her alive.
Once the canal was fully drained, Feit’s slide photo viewer was found with Garza’s body. During midnight mass on the last day before Garza was found, other priests noticed scratches on Feit’s hand. That same year, Feit was charged with the attempted rape of Maria Guerra, though he pleaded “no contest” and was only sentenced to pay a fine of $500, after clergy members proclaimed that one of their own couldn’t have done such a thing.
Anyway, Feit became the main suspect in the Garza case. He initially lied to police officers about where the confession took place and was given a pass on an inconclusive polygraph test that the examiner later said should’ve been a failure—as you may have guessed, this was a huge Catholic community at the time. It was also the ’60s, so this was before molestation allegations against the church were a widespread concept. Feit was not charged with anything.
After the allegations, he was sent away to a treatment center for troubled priests, where he eventually rose up, took on a supervisory role, and helped clear and relocate Father James Porter, a man who would be later be accused of molesting as many as 100 children. Eventually, after Feit left the priesthood and started a family, other priests began to admit that Feit had confessed his actions to them, and finally, in 2016—otherwise a pretty terrible year—new District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez decided to reopen the case.
Just last week, John Feit was arrested and then convicted of the murder of Irene Garza, with a sentence of life in prison. He’s 85 years old.
Garza’s case, just like the Netflix documentary The Keepers and the movie Spotlight, shows how the corruption of the Catholic Church has stopped families, like the Garza family finding justice for 57 years. Moving Feit to different programs and allowing him, someone who was there because of murder and rape allegations, to be in charge of clearing other priests for service, all shows how the lack of transparency can be taken advantage of by those who want to use the power and authority of the collar in order to hurt people.
In response to the Royal Commission’s report, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher said that the “debate would go on” about celibacy, and that it was a distraction to discuss changing the rules of confession. “Any proposal to effectively stop the practice of confession in Australia would be a real hurt to all Catholics and orthodox Christians, and I don’t think would help any young person. Focusing on something like confession is a distraction.”
While this commission was focused on Australia, we know too well that the effects of child abuse in the Catholic Church span worldwide and that, while the majority of priests may not be responsible for it, the issue is a larger system that allows people like Feit to get away with murder for almost a lifetime. He got to live a full life. He was a husband, father, and grandfather. Irene Graza didn’t even live to be 26.