John Feit is dead, and his fate is now in the hands of his maker. His case will now join thousands that are sent to the dark crypt of criminal files that are considered closed.
That closure was six decades in coming, and we hope it extends to the family of the young woman he was convicted of killing, his own family, who dealt with half a century of unresolved questions and accusations, and for the family of the Catholic Church, in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond, that was mired in a hushed but deep scandal that tested the faith of many of its most devout members.
Feit, who died Feb. 6 in Huntsville, was convicted in December 2017 for a murder he allegedly committed in 1960 while he was a priest in McAllen.
Irene Garza, a 25-year old schoolteacher and former Miss All South Texas Sweetheart, disappeared after she had gone to confession on April 16, 1960. Her body was found five days later in a canal in Hidalgo County. The investigation raised interest in Feit, a McAllen priest who had heard Garza’s confession that night.
Church officials resisted efforts to interrogate Feit and reassigned him to a monastery in Missouri. Garza’s case grew cold, but it wouldn’t go away; instead it festered, like a wound that wouldn’t heal.
In 2014, longtime Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra was challenged by Ricardo Rodriguez, who pledged to bring Feit to trial and put the case to rest. Rodriguez won, partly on that promise.
He honored the pledge and Feit, who had left the priesthood and married, was arrested and brought to trial. He was convicted of murder, and was still appealing his conviction when he died last week.
Evidence in Feit’s trial revealed that the church had conspired with law enforcement officials to keep the case from advancing, in order to avoid a scandal.
Much has happened since 1960, including the more recent scandal in which hundreds of people reported being molested or assaulted by members of the clergy.
The church has acknowledged its past efforts to avoid the negative publicity that such allegations would bring if they went to court. That’s unfortunate, because like that old wound, it just wouldn’t heal. The victims, the community, and in a sense the church itself never were able to put the matter behind them, and find resolution — and closure.
Catholic Church has committed itself to being open and allowing that closure to take place. In a message to the Diocese of Brownsville made upon the release of local priests who had been accused of molestations, Bishop Daniel E. Flores perhaps said it best: “…(I)t really isn’t possible for us to move forward … if we don’t have an honest accounting of the past,” he said. adding that the “acts of reparation, the acts of prayer and the acts of penance … contribute to the healing of the body of the church.
“It’s a painful purification, but one that I believe we need to face so that we look forward to the grace of renewal.”
May all those involved in these cases finally find resolution, healing, and renewal.