Mea Maxima: Voices Unheard, 12

y kendall
7 min readMay 17, 2022

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Messing with Texas

On and on the complaints from parents, children, and pastors poured in. Over and over doctors declared Becker noncompliant and untreatable. Again and again the Church found positions for him. In 1993 he wanted to be a cruise chaplain but needed a “certificate in good standing.” The Church supplied it.

All of this drops me back to a childlike gut-level word like “creepy.” As a writer, though, the part that specifically tops out at ten on my creepy Richter scale concerns the edits that Church officials made on reports they planned to deliver to the public by means of a pastoral letter from then-Archbishop Dolan. Of course, there was the normal proofing for typos and smoothing out of stylistic infelicities, but changing “police” to “civil authorities” really caught my attention, as did the change from “victims” to “plaintiffs.” “Police” sounds much more serious, more powerful than “civil authorities”; “police” shouts “crime” much more loudly. “Victims” reminds us that innocents, children, are involved; “plaintiffs” sounds like grownups who can choose to take legal action.

One other linguistic point appears in a letter of July 13, 1998 from CDF secretary Tarcisio Bertone to Archbishop Weakland. I noted that the opening letter was in clearly idiomatic English, but the enclosures, dealing with the real substance of the decision, were in Italian or Latin, languages not commonly studied in the U.S — seems like Navajo code 2.0. Bertone was equally inconsistent in his advice.

When Weakland complained in March in 1997 about a lack of response from Ratzinger about Fr Murphy’s potential church trial, he asks for a waiver on the statute of limitations. One week later, Bertone replies with a torrent of Latin instructing the Milwaukee archbishop to use the “Instructio de modo procedendi in causis sollicitacionis [Instruction on the procedures for solicitation cases]” secrecy protocols. One year later, Bertone contacts Murphy’s church superiors not to have a trial toward defrocking, but Bishop Fliss insists a trial is needed to repair the damage done. No response. Weakland gives up.

Steve Sack, Star Tribune cartoon of John Clayton Nienstedt, Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis
Steve Sack for Minneapolis Star Tribune, John Clayton Nienstedt, Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis

One of the creepiest examples in the Wisconsin documents concerned Fr. Bruce MacArthur. In one draft, the phrase “from 19xx to 19xx, and during that time, no incidents of abuse were reported” was changed to this: “from 1965–1970, and during that time there is no record of reports of abuse.” This is huge. It was typical of many local dioceses not to document abuse complaints, so while this change might seem to be purely semantic, what it originally said was “there were no complaints.” What it actually ended up saying is that “there might have been complaints but we chose not to keep a record of them.” This is the kind of casuistry that makes people hate lawyers and the people who think like them. The change probably results in a statement that is literally true, but to the normal moral person, it is dishonest. Reading this stuff makes me want to smear hand sanitizer on my computer screen, and on my memory.

In my perusal of Catholic canon law, I noticed that TITLE VII. GENERAL NORM (Can. 1399) says:

In addition to the cases established here or in other laws, the external violation of a divine or canonical law can be punished by a just penalty only when the special gravity of the violation demands punishment and there is an urgent need to prevent or repair scandals.

This told me what I wanted to know. As mentioned earlier, the rape of children comes with a statute of limitations, but “an urgent need to prevent or repair scandals” has no time limit. If I, a layperson, know this, what are the odds that the actual bishop of a parish like Antigonish where actual abuses had occurred didn’t?

The survivors’ network, Bishop Accountability sees a “moment of resurrection” coming out of the previous silence in the deaf community featured in Mea Maxima Culpa, the “unbelievably loud and deafening cry for justice.” I hope so. The film ends with Gary placing his left fist flat against his left ear and the right fist strongly thrust forward, almost like a Black Power salute. Deaf Power!

Gary Smith doing deaf power symbol in ASL

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On the night I thought I was finishing this essay, which seems to be turning into a book, comfortable in my Houston bungalow, the TV happened to be on. Coincidentally, 48 Hours was telling the story of Irene Garza, a young Latina elementary school teacher apparently raped and murdered in 1960 by her priest John Feit (ironically, pronounced “fight”), after he heard her confession in McAllen, Texas. Prior to this incident, the same priest had pled “no contest” to the charge of assaulting another young Latina, yet he was still assigned to a heavily Latino parish. A senior priest, Joseph O’Brien, who noted scratches on his fellow priest’s hands after the murder apparently occurred, assured the family that the Church would provide greater punishment than secular authorities ever could. Right. This can only be true if by punishment you mean doing damn-all.

Irene Garza was not a child, but Church treatment of her case is eerily similar to their behavior with the boys at St. John’s and Mt. Cashel’s. Clearly, the Church felt Feit was guilty. Their punishment was to remove him from Texas and then, just as they have done for so many child abusers, send him to various monasteries, including one in Missouri, trying to find out if he could “fit in” as a Trappist monk; this is according to an ex-monk, Dale Tacheny. The monk who served as Feit’s counselor finally reported this 1960s murder confession in 2001. He thought forty years was long enough for the woman’s family to suffer. Good gracious. Forty years. Long enough. You think? (Interesting that “tache” means “stain” in French)

At the same time, Fr. O’Brien, the priest who had lied originally to shield Feit, decided to speak out. This is rather uncommon in my research. I expected him to keep quiet and get a promotion. Monsignor? Bishop? Cardinal? Instead, he decided to do the right thing.

Rodolfo “Rudy” Jaramillo — the Texas Ranger who located crucial evidence in this cold case with the help of the monk, the sheriff of McAllen, and family members of the victim — is now in the Hispanic Texas Rangers Hall of Fame. His name, by the way, represents a little piece of the jaramago or hedge mustard plant (sisymbrium officinale) , an herbal remedy against poison. This ranger was certainly a remedy against the poisonous conspiracy of silence surrounding this murder. He found that the cord tying Irene Garza’s hands together belonged to Feit; Feit failed a lie detector test.

One priest and one monk from different states were willing to testify that he’d admitted the crime to each of them. But the Catholic district attorney, supported by a mostly Catholic electorate, balked at pressing the case, even though the victim and her family are Catholic, but then Ms Garza was an elementary school teacher; Feit was sacerdos in aeternum. Eventually, D.A. Rene Guerra bowed to growing pressure and convened a grand jury, but he refused to subpoena the priest to appear. Fr. O’Brien and Dale Tacheny (formerly Brother Emmanuel), and Texas Ranger Rudy Jaramillo waited outside the courtroom, ready to testify. They were never called. The grand jury refused to indict.

O’Brien is dead. As of this writing, Tacheny is 86, and has left the priesthood to become a tax advisor in Oklahoma City. According to CNN, authorities of the Brownsville Diocese say it all happened a long time ago, so none of them have any direct knowledge of the case (“Direct knowledge” sounds like casuistry to me. Have they no records?). Based in part on fallout from his inaction in the Garza case, Guerra’s thirty-year reign as D.A. was challenged and he is now in private practice. Garza is dead; Feit, 83 and no longer a priest, married and lived on in Arizona, working for a Catholic charity in Phoenix. But that was then.

The 48 Hours episode “The Last Confession,” was particularly striking in its tastefulness. Against a recurring backdrop of the muted sights and sounds of a church handbell choir, white gloves, undulating arm movements, rang a gentle tolling. Rudy Jaramillo, Dale Tacheny, Pamela Colloff, an executive editor from Texas Monthly, and Ricardo Rodriguez, Jr., the new district attorney for Hidalgo County told their stories.

Fifty-six years, broadcasts on 48 Hours and CNN, plus an extended Texas Monthly feature, later, Feit was finally arrested and extradited back to South Texas. This was three years after I started writing about this case for an independent study for my MFA in writing at Columbia. This time as Tacheny, et al, sat outside the Edinburg Texas in December 2017, their wait was not for naught. According to the Dallas Morning News, former Father Feit says the whole thing “makes no sense,” not because he’s innocent, but because “the crime in question took place in 1960.” Too bad he doesn’t watch more Law and Order. There’s no statute of limitations on murder. Feit was convicted.

Meanwhile, Murphy lived as a priest until his death; the boys of St. John’s — Gary, Arthur, Pat, and Bob (now deceased) — lived a lifetime of nightmares, but Mea Maxima Culpa, Unholy Orders, Betrayal, and their fictional counterparts finally shine the light of justice on their plight.

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y kendall

A Stanford-trained musicologist who recently took a career swerve after 20 yrs in TX. With a Columbia MFA in writing & translation she moved back home to TN.