EDINBURG — Fearing bad publicity that would trigger political ramifications extending from the Rio Grande Valley to the White House, witness testimony in the John Feit murder trial Tuesday painted the Catholic Church as a conspirator working closely with the local sheriff during the 1960s to avoid bringing the then-priest to justice.
Feit, now 85, is on trial for the murder of schoolteacher Irene Garza, whose body was found in a canal in April 1960. The former Miss South Texas, who investigators believe was abused and suffocated by her attacker, died at the age of 25.
Then-Hidalgo County Sheriff E.E. Vickers’ re-election chances and the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy — both of whom were Catholic — would be at stake if Feit, who was 27 at the time, was charged in Garza’s death, according to a letter sent between clergy officials in October 1960.
The letter was read to jurors by Thomas Doyle, 73, an inactive priest who is considered an expert on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Rev. Joseph Pawlicki, a pastor at a church outside Austin, wrote to Rev. Lawrence Seidel, the head of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate order to which Feit belonged, urging him to hire a private investigator to find “loopholes” in the state’s case against Feit. The sheriff described the case as “quite weak for the prosecution.”
Pawlicki also tasked Seidel with arranging a meeting with the church’s private investigator, the police and four priests so local authorities would “realize the Church will not take this sitting down.”
“I believe I found in every paragraph some element — that I found very unusual — that pointed to an attempt to cover this up; to minimize the circumstances … to make it go away,” Doyle testified about the letter, which prosecutors recovered through subpoenaing the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the Diocese of Corpus Christi in order to obtain clergy files on Feit.
“One thing I did not see in any of the documentation I read, including this letter, was one word of compassion and concern about the young woman, Ms. Garza, and her family,” Doyle said, noting that he viewed the church’s actions as threatening. “(It was) strictly about protecting the church.”
Doyle testified that no files on Feit were recovered in either San Antonio, where Feit was trained in seminary, or Corpus Christi, of which McAllen’s Sacred Heart Church was a part in the 1960s, despite ecclesiastical law requiring the church to keep files on all members. He added that he was aware of instances in which ecclesiastical files were tampered with or disposed of entirely.
The prosecution brought Doyle and Richard Sipe, another expert on the church, to the witness stand Tuesday to further illustrate the church’s long history in hiding abuse among its clergy.
“This is a 57-year-old case and I think the question that’s in everybody’s mind is, what took so long,” Assistant District Attorney Michael Garza said.
Pawlicki’s letter recommended that Feit be moved to another part of the country, which Doyle testified has long been the church’s “geographic solution” to addressing priests who displayed violent or abusive tendencies.
Feit was moved to monasteries in Iowa and Missouri before finally joining the Servants of the Paracletes in New Mexico, an order dedicated to treating troubled priests who struggled with psychological, psychosexual and substance abuse issues. Along the way, Feit was sent to mental health hospitals operated by the church, Doyle told jurors based off clergy documents he was asked to review by the prosecution.
Feit became a superior at the order — where many priests who have been “criminally charged for violating children” spent time — before leaving the church in 1972, Doyle testified.
Sipe, 84, also reviewed documents on Feit. His testimony was of notable interest considering his research on sexual abuse stemming from the Catholic Church’s celibacy requirements, which was featured in “Spotlight” — the film that dramatized the Boston Globe’s investigation into child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests.
“It’s not really a natural kind of thing. … It’s very hard to live by,” Sipe said of the requirement that priests live a celibate life marked by the absence of sexual thoughts, words, desires or actions. “We have great empathy for people who try very hard and cannot accomplish that.”
The former monk, who incidentally began his research on priests’ sexuality the same year Garza was killed, testified that celibacy can manifest itself in violent or sexual behavior, and believes Feit displayed “immature psychosexual development and also a psychopathological tendency in terms of sexuality.”
“All of us have a sexuality … a sexual identity … and sexual urges,” Sipe explained to the jury. “Most people do not act upon their sexual urges.”
Other witnesses have testified that Feit admitted to feeling anxious at the sound of women’s heels on the church floor, as well as harboring an urge to attack women who were kneeling to pray, which Sipe called a “pathological red flag.”
Sipe was the most pensive and empathetic witness thus far in a trial that has seen nearly 20 witnesses take the stand within four days.
“There is in everybody urges for hostility, urges for aggressiveness,” he said. “There are people who can be very good people, and every once in awhile, for reasons unknown and known, those impulses can break through — those urge impulses.”
He also described Feit as a smart and clever young man based on reading his thesis and analyzing a psychological test given to the priest in 1960.
At one point, Sipe briefly mentioned having reviewed the results of polygraph tests investigators gave Feit in the 1960s, with which defense attorney O. Rene Flores took issue.
Flores asked state District Judge Luis Singleterry to consider the defense’s motion for a mistrial on the grounds that Sipe could only testify to evidence already entered into record, according to a previous ruling.
It was for this reason Garza was precluded from questioning Sipe about an instance that occurred in Falfurrias in which Feit allegedly pulled another young woman from the confessional to the rectory — the same scenario the prosecution alleges led to Garza’s death.
In response to Flores’ motion, Garza argued that the witness brought up the polygraph in response to a question from the defense, noting that it was a “harmless error” and that Sipe only addressed the existence of a polygraph, not the results.
Singleterry is set to rule on Flores’ motion for a mistrial before testimony resumes Wednesday.