Mistrial Avoided in Former Priest’s Murder Case

EDINBURG, Texas (CN) – An expert witness’s brief mention of John Feit’s 1960 polygraph during testimony in the former Catholic priest’s murder case is not enough to declare a mistrial, a Texas judge ruled from the bench Wednesday.

John Feit leaves the courtroom during a break in his trial for the murder of Irene Garza on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, at the Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg, Texas.
(Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor/Pool)

Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry said Wednesday morning that he has no reason to believe that the witness, researcher Richard Sipe, acted in bad faith when he told jurors that he had reviewed the ex-priest’s 1960 polygraph.

“Although it was mentioned, I don’t know that it rises to the level where it’s harmful. I am going to deny the motion for a mistrial,” Singleterry said.

Sipe had been barred from bringing up anything not already entered into evidence. It was under these grounds that he was precluded from telling jurors about an account where Feit allegedly pulled another young woman from a confessional at a church in Falfurrias, Texas.

Feit, 85, is on trial in Hidalgo County for the Easter weekend 1960 murder of Irene Garza, whose partially decomposed body was found in a canal five days after she was last seen alive on her way to confession at Sacred Heart Church. Feit was the prime suspect in the McAllen schoolteacher’s killing but was not charged until February 2016, after a new district attorney launched a fresh investigation.

Prosecutors say Feit, then a 27-year-old visiting priest, suffocated Garza to death before fondling her breasts and dumping her body in the canal.

Sipe, 84, spent Tuesday, day four of the trial, testifying about his decades of research into the sexual behaviors of priests. He is known as the world’s foremost authority on the subject and his work in Boston was used to bring attention to sexual abuse allegations within the Catholic Church, highlighted in the Academy Award-winning movie “Spotlight.”

He told jurors that it was not unusual for people to possess urges of hostility and aggressiveness and added that “every once and a while, for reasons known and unknown, those impulses can break through.”

“The breakout of violence was evident in what I read and certainly was consistent with eventually moving into murder,” Sipe said of the files he reviewed on Feit.

He added that he found Feit’s fixation with the clicking of high heels on the church floor unusual, that his penchant for attacking women from behind fits a pathological pattern, and that an ominous comment he made about a church cook disappearing behind a cellar door was “under the area of creepy.”

But it was an internal church letter dated Oct. 1, 1960 that highlighted the depth of what prosecutors have called a Catholic Church cover-up in order to protect it “as an institution.” It sought to minimize any potential scandal that could threaten the election campaigns of then-Hidalgo County Sheriff E.E. Vickers, as well as then-candidate for president, John F. Kennedy – both Catholic.

Written by Father Joseph Pawlicki, a priest at a church located outside Austin, to Father Lawrence J. Seidel, provincial of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Southern province, the letter suggests that a private detective be hired to find “the loopholes that are so numerous in the case.”

“Once this is done, arrange a meeting with the police chief of McAllen, the prosecuting attorney, and the sheriff plus four priests,” according to the never-before-seen letter read for jurors. “It could also be brought to realize, in a nice way, that the church will not take this sitting down.”

The letter was introduced and read by Thomas Patrick Doyle, 73, an inactive priest with a doctorate in canon law who has experience working for the Vatican in Washington, D.C. Canon law is the Catholic Church’s legal system, the oldest continuing legal system in the world, according to Doyle.

“It pointed to an attempt to cover this up. To minimize the circumstances, to cover-up the case, to make it go away,” Doyle said. “One thing I did not see…was one word of compassion or concern about the young woman, Ms. Garza, and her family, not one word.”

“Strictly about protecting the church?” asked prosecutor Michael Garza.

“Strictly about protecting the church,” Doyle replied. “He had to be taken care of…he had to be put somewhere where he could get out of the public eye.”

Prosecutor have so far painted a sinister portrait of a “depraved” priest who had attacked another woman, Maria America Guerra, inside the sanctuary of a nearby church, , just weeks before he allegedly suffocated Garza to death and dumped her body in the canal “like trash.”

They claim Feit had a desire for attacking young women in high heels from behind while they prayed in church.

On Monday, jurors heard from Dale Tacheny, a former monk charged with counseling a young Feit three years after Garza’s death while the two were at a Trappist monastery in Missouri in 1963. Tacheny testified that Feit admitted he’d used a cellophane bag to murder Garza in a bathtub.

“As he was leaving, the young lady said, ‘I cannot breathe, I cannot breathe.’ And he left her there. When he went back, she was dead,” Tacheny said.

Feit, ordained in 1958, left the priesthood under a cloud of suspicion in the early 1970s after spending time in Trappist monasteries in Iowa and Missouri, and as a superior at the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. His duties there inexplicably included deciding when troubled and sexually abusive priests would be returned to duty.

Garza, a former Miss South Texas, was a devoutly religious 25-year-old elementary schoolteacher who had also been crowned homecoming queen at Pan American College before she vanished and turned up murdered.

Testimony on day five of trial resumed Wednesday with the county’s chief forensic pathologist taking the stand. Some 20 state witnesses have already testified. Prosecutors have about a dozen more to go.

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