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Ex-priest accused of murder had ties to New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. — An 83-year-old former priest extradited to Texas this week to stand trial in the 1960 murder of a teacher and former beauty queen was an administrator in the 1960s at the Servants of the Paraclete facility in Jemez Springs, where he oversaw priests sent there for counseling.

Several of the priests John Feit supervised at the Jemez Springs compound in northern New Mexico were later accused of sexually abusing New Mexico children while serving in parishes here, according to court records.

FEIT: Left the priesthood in December 1971

FEIT: Left the priesthood in December 1971

Among the priests Feit oversaw was James Porter, who pleaded guilty in 1993 to molesting 28 children during his time as a priest in the 1960s and early 1970s in the Fall River (Mass.) Diocese.

Porter was sent to the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs in 1967 and, from there, was transferred to St. Alice Church in Mountainair, N.M., where he allegedly abused more children. Porter died in prison in 2005.

Texas authorities allege that Feit, when he was a 27-year-old priest, killed 25-year-old teacher Irene Garza on April 16, 1960, after hearing her confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas.

Her body was found days later. An autopsy determined that Garza, who was named Miss All South Texas Sweetheart 1958, had been raped while unconscious and was beaten and suffocated.

The now-frail Feit, who uses a walker, was arrested Feb. 9 in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, where he has lived for years. He was turned over to Texas authorities Wednesday.

Feit told New Mexico attorneys in a 1994 deposition that he took his vows in 1967 as a member of the Servants of the Paraclete, a Roman Catholic religious order, and became the superior of Via Coeli in Jemez Springs in 1968.

Via Coeli was a retreat house the Servants operated for decades in the Jemez Mountains that accepted troubled priests sent from dioceses across the U.S., including priests accused of sexually abusing children.

The Servants closed the retreat house in the early 1990s as the first of hundreds of lawsuits were filed against the order and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe alleging their complicity in sexual abuse cases by priests.

Feit remained superior at Via Coeli until he left the priesthood in December 1971, he said in his deposition. Feit gave the deposition in a lawsuit filed by the Servants against three insurance companies in U.S. District Court of New Mexico.

Brad Hall, an Albuquerque attorney who has filed 58 lawsuits on behalf of alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests, said Feit participated in decisions to assign known abusers to New Mexico parishes.

Hall said he canceled a scheduled Feb. 22 deposition with Feit after Feit’s attorney said his client would decline to answer questions.

Most of Hall’s lawsuits identify the Archdiocese of Santa Fe as a defendant, and 13 identify the Servants of the Paraclete as co-defendants. Of the 58 lawsuits, 37 have been settled and 21 remain active, including six that name the Servants.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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