Convicted Priest Helped Abusers Stay in Ministry
After Assault, He Supervised Clerics at Treatment Center

By Reese Dunklin
Dallas Morning News
July 13, 2002

U.S. Catholic leaders have long defended their decisions to let sexually abusive priests work again by saying they depended on the assurances of treatment centers that cleared the men for ministry.

One of the men whose recommendations helped some of the church's worst molesters gain new assignments - where they found more victims - was a priest who had been convicted in a young woman's sexual assault, The Dallas Morning News has found.

John B. Feit arrived at a New Mexico center for troubled priests in the early 1960s, after his criminal problems in South Texas prompted his bosses to remove him from parish work. Within a few years, he had joined the religious order that ran the facility in Jemez Springs and become a top administrator supervising priests sent there for counseling.

Among the men Mr. Feit helped keep in ministry: child molester James Porter, who assaulted more than 100 victims before he was ultimately defrocked and sent to prison.

Leading voices in the renewed debate over the church's handling of sexual abuse expressed surprise Friday at the Feit situation.

"That's really shocking, very much so," said Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante, the U.S. bishops' spokesman on sexual abuse issues.

Bishop Galante, of the Dallas Diocese, added that his colleagues nationwide have become less reliant on such evaluations when deciding whether to let a cleric accused of molestation work again.

For victims' advocates, Mr. Feit's criminal record raised new concerns about who staffed treatment centers in the past and the legitimacy of the advice they provided cardinals and bishops.

"We have long said that Catholic leaders are being disingenuous at best when they said they relied on the best medical experts, because they haven't," said David Clohessy of St. Louis, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"Clearly, this man [Mr. Feit] was the last person who should have been in that role. It boggles the mind to think the church did not know about this man's criminal past."

Mr. Feit would not say Friday how much the Servants of the Paraclete, the religious order that operated the Jemez Springs center, knew about his record when they made him a supervisor in the late 1960s.

The present leader of the Paracletes, the Rev. Peter Lechner, said former administrators told him they were aware of an apparent incident involving a woman - but they did not know about Mr. Feit's criminal conviction.

Father Lechner said he was stunned to learn that a priest with a criminal background made decisions regarding the continued employment of priests accused of sexual misconduct.

"We realize the ramifications and repercussions of that," Father Lechner said. "What happened back in the 1960s that is coming back to haunt us now."

Case of college student

Mr. Feit acknowledged Friday that in 1962, he pleaded no contest to aggravated assault in the attempted rape of Maria America Guerra, a 20-year-old college student. Ms. Guerra testified during his trial that the priest had attacked her inside Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Edinburg, Texas. He was tried the previous year on a more serious charge of assault with intent to rape, but jurors deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.

Mr. Feit - who left the New Mexico center and the priesthood in 1972, married and now works for a lay Catholic charity in Phoenix - refused to answer further questions.

"It's a matter of public record," he said when asked about his conviction. "I pleaded no contest."

Father Lechner said his staff could not immediately find personnel records that might show specifically what his predecessors knew about Mr. Feit. "Not everyone knew" back then about a priest's background, Father Lechner said. He added that there appeared to have been no problems or complaints about Mr. Feit during his time in New Mexico.

While he was facing prosecution on the charges that he had attacked Ms. Guerra, Mr. Feit also was questioned by law enforcement authorities investigating the sexual assault and murder of a 25-year-old beauty queen named Irene Garza. No charges were ever filed in that case.

No knowledge of slaying

According to news accounts at the time, Mr. Feit said he knew nothing about the killing. He acknowledged that the same night she vanished, he had heard her confession in the rectory of Sacred Heart. Authorities found Ms. Garza's body dumped in a canal in McAllen, Texas.

"It is considered open, and it's an active case," Sgt. Joel Morales, McAllen police spokesman, said.

In the midst of those high-profile cases, Mr. Feit's religious order at the time - Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate - removed him from parish work and sent him to the Jemez Springs complex outside Santa Fe.

Mr. Feit later quit the Oblates and by 1966 had joined the Servants of the Paraclete. A year later, he began working on the Jemez Springs staff, Father Lechner said.

Among the priests Mr. Feit supervised was Mr. Porter, who was sent from Massachusetts to New Mexico for treatment of pedophilia.

Church records that have emerged in a series of lawsuits by Mr. Porter's victims show that Mr. Feit had endorsed the priest's return to parish work several times. Mr. Feit helped find him assignments in Houston and New Mexico, then later agreed to send him to Minnesota.

Part of 'conspiracy'

Mr. Porter continued abusing children while under the watch of the Paracletes. Once in 1969, Mr. Feit failed to disclose to the priest's home diocese in Massachusetts that Mr. Porter had relapsed while on a probationary assignment in Houston. "Thus far, there has been no occurence of the problem which plagued Fr. Porter in the past," Mr. Feit wrote.

By the mid-1970s, Mr. Porter had quit the ministry amid mounting allegations of abuse and was eventually defrocked, convicted and in 1993 sent to prison.

The Servants of the Paraclete closed their Jemez Springs programs in 1994 because of sex-abuse scandals involving Mr. Porter and other priests. They operate a treatment center near St. Louis.

A lawyer who represented more than 40 victims of Mr. Porter said he planned to "scrutinize in a new light" his clients' cases in light of the disclosures about Mr. Feit.

Mr. Feit "was a centerpiece in the whole conspiracy of the bishops to protect their priests," said Jeffrey R. Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who has filed hundreds of suits against the church and religious orders.

"If the Servants of the Paraclete had not been complicit in a large-scale pattern of secrecy, we would not be faced with the lives shattered that we have to deal with today."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.