Jailed for life: ex-priest who murdered a woman in 1960
It took 57 years for justice to catch up with John Bernard Feit, 85, who was found guilty last week of killing Irene Garza, a schoolteacher and former beauty queen, after she went to him for confession at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas, in 1960.
According to this report, although colleagues and elected Catholic officials in Hidalgo County suspected Feit of being involved in the killing, he was shielded to protect the church’s reputation.
Prosecutors asked jurors for a 57-year prison term – one year for each year he had walked free since killing Garza. The 25-year-old victim disappeared on April 16, 1960. Her bludgeoned body was found days later. An autopsy revealed she had been raped while unconscious, and beaten and suffocated.
Prosecutor Michael Garza, who is not related to the victim, had asked the jury not to view the now elderly and weak Feit as he is today, but to try to imagine him as a 28-year-old man capable of subduing the woman.
The jury deliberated just over four hours on Friday before deciding on the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Afterward, Garza said at a news conference that he wished that he could take credit for the conviction and sentence, “but it was God-driven.”
Prosecutors presented evidence earlier in the week that church and elected officials suspected Feit but didn’t want to prosecute him. They feared it could harm the reputations of the church and Hidalgo County elected officials, most of whom were Catholic. Senator John F Kennedy, a Catholic, was running for president that year.
Feit, then a priest at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, came under suspicion in the investigation early on. He told police that he heard Irene Garza’s confession in the church rectory rather than in the confessional, but denied he had killed her.
Two priests told authorities that Feit had confessed to them. One of them said he saw scratches on Feit soon after Garza’s disappearance. His portable photographic slide viewer was found near Garza’s body.
Feit had also been accused of attacking another young woman in a church in a nearby town just weeks before Garza’s death. He pleaded no contest and was fined $500.
The church sent Feit to a treatment centre for troubled priests in New Mexico. Later he became supervisor with responsibility in the clearing of priests for parish assignments.
Among the men Feit helped keep in ministry was child molester James Porter, who assaulted more than 100 victims before he was defrocked and sent to prison. Porter died in 2005 aged 70.
Feit left the priesthood in 1972, married and went on to work at the Catholic charity St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix, training and recruiting volunteers and helping oversee the charity’s network of food pantries.
Garza’s family members and friends had long pushed authorities to reopen the case, and it became an issue in the 2014 district attorney’s race. Ricardo Rodriguez had promised that if elected, he would re-examine the case.