Complicated cold case: Was beauty queen raped, killed by her priest (now an ex-priest)?

I have been thinking about the rather picky journalism issues raised in this post for quite some time now, so consider this a trip into my GetReligion "file of guilt."

What we have here is another argument about headlines. I find fights over headlines quite compelling, in part because (a) I spent several years on a copy desk writing headlines and (b) I know (the research has been around for decades) how many readers merely scan headlines and, at most, the top paragraph or two of most stories. Many readers see a headline and then react. That's the sad truth.

So what about that long, very detailed Washington Post headline the other day that proclaimed, "Break in ‘unholy’ cold case: Police arrest former beauty queen’s priest in her 1960 killing." And here is the top of the story:

Fifty-six years ago, a young schoolteacher went to church during Holy Week and never came home.
The next day, a few of her possessions were found scattered along the road outside the local Sacred Heart Church, as Texas Monthly recounted. One high-heeled shoe, a patent-leather handbag, a piece of crumpled white lace.
The following week, her body was found, fully dressed and badly bruised, retrieved from a canal in which someone had left her to decompose, her corpse washed clean of evidence. An autopsy found that she had been raped while comatose.
This was Irene Garza, a 25-year-old, dark-haired belle of McAllen, Tex., who was once named Miss All South Texas Sweetheart. She was her high school’s homecoming queen, the first person in her family to graduate from college and a teacher for disadvantaged children.
Above all, Garza was a devout Catholic. The last place she was seen was at Confession.

The priest hearing Confessions that night long ago was the Rev. John Feit, who was 27 at the time. The Post story notes that he was never indicted after her slaying and a grand jury looking into the case did not indict him in 2004.

But recently, 83-year-old John Feit -- no longer a priest -- was arrested in connection with the death of Garza.

This brings us back to that Washington Post headline, which drew a strong complaint from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. It stated, in part:

AP, CNN, NBC, as well as many other media outlets, accurately referred to Feit as an ex-priest. But not all were fair, the most prominent of which was the Washington Post. Its headline read, “Break in ‘Unholy’ Cold Case: Police Arrest Former Beauty Queen’s Priest in Her 1960 Killing.”
Notice that the victim is a former beauty queen, but her alleged victimizer is not a former priest. Indeed, the reader doesn’t learn of Feit’s former status until several paragraphs later.
Other instances of bias were evident in stories posted by KPHO/KTVK in Phoenix: its headline said, “Priest Suspected in 1960 Murder of Texas Beauty Queen Arrested in Scottsdale.” Two ABC affiliates, one in Scottsdale (ABC15), and the other in Sacramento (ABC10), were just as bad.

I agree that the Post headline is a bit confusing, in part because it tries to state the crucial relationship that existed between the victim and the accused at the time of the crime.

At the time of her death, Garza was a former beauty queen (or maybe a beauty queen is always a beauty queen, just not the CURRENT beauty queen holding that title). At the time of her death, Feit was the priest who was hearing her Confession. So, in the past, it is accurate to say he was her priest, not her ex-priest.

But the Post headline opens with a verb in the present -- "arrest." The police just arrested a man who WAS Garza's priest at one time, but now, at the time of the arrest, he is no longer a priest.

See the challenge facing the headline writer? Clearly, this editor's goal was to state the relationship that existed between these two people 56 years ago, because that's the reason -- like it or not -- that many people are interested in this cold case.

Contrast this with the headline in The New York Times, which stayed in the present: "Ex-Priest Is Arrested in 1960 Killing of Texas Beauty Queen."

This Times story is actually quite strong, connecting the case with some issues that remain sadly relevant today. Note, for example:

Mr. Feit’s arrest in what is perhaps the most memorable cold case in recent history in Hidalgo County came about through a mix of patience, persistence and political ambition. As suspicions against Mr. Feit mounted, the Roman Catholic Church moved him to a monastery in the tiny Missouri town of Ava, and from there to a home for troubled priests in tinier Jemez Springs, N.M.
Ms. Garza’s relatives never gave up, and the investigators in the case kept the pressure on — even as time passed, memories faded, and witnesses aged and died.

So who, in the church hierarchy, sent Father Feit to Jemez Springs? Might that have been to the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, a facility that has played a significant role in countless cases of clergy sexual abuse of teens and young children?

This raises an important question: How and why did Feit transition from being a priest to an ex-priest?

Another question: Why was it so hard for authorities -- secular or sacred -- to create a case against the young priest? Note these details:

When Ms. Garza disappeared, the police chalked it up to a case of a pretty young woman who had run off with a lover and fled the confining rules of her fervently Catholic family. Two days later, a passer-by found one of her high-heeled shoes on a road on the edge of McAllen, which sits across from Reynosa, Mexico. The next morning, someone found her purse.
By midweek, her body surfaced in the canal. Divers drained its waters, recovering a clunky slide viewer with a long black cord that the police presumed had been tied to Ms. Garza’s corpse so it would sink to the canal’s muddy bottom.

The slide viewer belonged to Mr. Feit.

Already, the young priest had admitted to hearing Ms. Garza’s confession, saying he had done so in the privacy of the rectory. And the parish’s priest, the Rev. Joseph O’Brien, told investigators that he noticed fresh scratches on Mr. Feit’s hands when they had coffee late that night.

This is quite a compelling story. The case, past and present, also represents a major challenge to headline writers. Be careful out there, folks.

FIRST IMAGE: From Facebook site for Justice For Irene Garza.

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