Irene Garza

Religious privilege causes priest to get away with murder.

When police found the lifeless body of former Miss South Texas, turned school teacher Irene Garza, face down in the canal in her hometown of McAllen, Texas in 1960, all signs pointed to Catholic priest John Felt.  Garza had last been seen going to Sacred Heart Catholic Church for confession and various objects were found near her lifeless body, including several objects that belonged to the church and a metallic Kodak slide photo viewer that belonged to Felt. The autopsy showed that Garza had been beaten and raped while she was unconscious, then strangled and dumped into the canal.  When Felt was questioned by authorities, he failed the lie detector tests.  More damning, Felt had just been charged with aggravated assault on another woman at a church about 10 miles outside of town, for which the judge fined him $500, but gave him no prison time because he was a priest.  Felt was never convicted of the crime and today lives in a good neighborhood in Phoenix, but investigators have never forgotten their suspicions, or the fact that it was religion that helped Felt get away clean.

For people growing up in McAllen at the time, the thought that a priest could ever commit such a crime was unthinkable.  According to Lynda De La Vina, a cousin of Garza who was 9 years old at the time, “We were accusing a priest that — in those days priests were infallible.”  Another cousin, Noemi Sigler, said “It was impossible for a priest to do such a deed. I mean, if you thought of it, that would be sacrilegious.”  Authorities at the time clearly protected Felt, Sigler reported, “I don’t know whether it was out of respect for the church or anger or fear, I have no idea.”

In any case, almost immediately after the murder, Felt was transferred to a distant monastery and then several more times in quick succession until he came to land at Our Lady of Assumption monastery in Ava, Missouri.  With both the police and the church protecting him, interest in the case waned, but no one ever forgot.  Noemi Sigler took it upon herself to play detective and interview witnesses and look for evidence and surprisingly, she found some.  When talking to former priest Joseph O’Brien, who had worked closely with Felt, he told her “We knew he was dangerous, so we shipped him off to a monastery.”  She asked him if he thought Felt had murdered Garza and he responded “Yes.”  The other witness was even more shocking.  Dale Tacheny, who had been Felt’s spiritual advisor, described a secret he had kept for 40 years.  Felt came to him and said that he had heard the confession of a young woman and afterwards, he had taken her to the Rectory where he had sexually assaulted her and put a plastic bag over her head.  He left her in a bathtub and, after struggling, she died.  Felt described having dumped the body near the canal.  Felt was proud of having gotten away with it.  He is quoted as having said “The church protected me, the people in the church, my superiors, protected me.”

Asked if Tacheny believed that Felt had murdered Garza, he said “I believe he killed her, I had no doubt about it because he said he did.”

It was an uphill battle to charge Felt with the crime, the police department desperately tried to sabotage the case in 2004 and refused to call either O’Brien or Tacheny to the stand.  They didn’t even force Felt to attend.  As such, the jury failed to convict.  A year later, O’Brien died and the case has since gone nowhere.  It’s clear that in a religious state like Texas, putting an aging ex-priest in prison, even for murder, is just not going to fly.

It’s bad enough that we have dozens and dozens of cases of priests molesting children and getting away with it, but to have a priest rape and murder a school teacher in cold blood and get the same kind of protection from the church?  That’s too much!

This is yet another cautionary tale that shows that criminal behavior hasn’t just started in recent years, it’s been something the Catholic Church has dealt with, known about and actively protected for many, many, many decades.  Once again, it’s a clear reason the Catholics belong in the Religious Horror Show.

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