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Priest was innocent, but underwent ordeal

Madera County Historical Society The original St. Joachim’s Church, shown here, was located on North C Street.


There has been a lot of talk lately about immoral behavior on the part of some members in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. It is not my intent here to address that issue; however, it does bring to mind a piece of Madera’s past that represents one of the saddest and most unjust episodes in our history. Over 100 years ago a local priest was the victim of a scurrilous defamation campaign that could have sent him to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

It was January 1917, and the priest sat quietly at the defendant’s table.

Considering the trouble he was in, he displayed a look of calm serenity. With his lawyers on both sides of him, the clergyman surveyed the crowd that had packed the Madera County courtroom on that day. Then he turned to face Judge William Conley, as the jurist called for order in the court. Father Thomas F. King was about to hear his fate.

Actually, Father King was relieved that his nightmare was finally coming to an end. He had been tormented for months by the charge that he had seduced a 16-year-old Madera girl and was the father of her baby. In September of 1916, young Margaret Haley, who had just given birth, explained her condition by accusing the local priest of having relations with her in the room behind the church sacristy. Sheriff Lewis arrested the priest, and his ordeal began.

The Madera clergyman’s trouble really started, however, in April 1915, when Margaret Haley’s mother died, and she became an orphan. Father King cared for her for the next seven weeks until relatives took the girl to live with them. This act of kindness turned sour and placed the good-hearted clergyman on the point of the spear as 1915 drew to a close.

The church was a beehive of activity on the day before Christmas that year. Father King heard 110 confessions. People were in and out all day long decorating for Christmas. Mrs. Susan Dean, a local schoolteacher; Miss Sigmund, Father King’s housekeeper; Miss Helen Wilkinson, another Madera schoolteacher; Ralph Wilkinson, and Annie Barsotti all dropped by to lend a hand. Then there was Margaret Haley, who was seen coming and going, too.

Christmas 1915 passed; New Year’s came, and Madera settled in to establish the good life in 1916. Father King went about his parish duties; everything seemed fairly routine until Sheriff Lewis paid that call on the priest. The lawman told the clergyman that Margaret claimed that she had become pregnant on Dec. 24, 1915. While others were busy decorating the church, she alleged that Father King had had his way with her in the room behind the sacristy.

The priest vehemently denied the accusation, pointing out that the number of confessions he had heard that day would not have allowed him the opportunity to commit such an act. Lewis acknowledged that it would have been difficult, but he did have some circumstantial evidence. Annie Barsotti had given a statement to the effect that she had come to the church at 4 o’clock on the afternoon of Dec. 24, 1915, and the decorating had been completed. She thought that no one was at the church until Father King came out of the room behind the sacristy — the one in which the offense was alleged to have occurred.

Had that been all the ammunition Sheriff Lewis had with which to charge Father King, the priest probably would never have gone to trial. However, Margaret Haley was supported in her claim by the testimony of two teen-aged friends, Josie Del Porto and Mary Welch, both of whom claimed that they had personal knowledge of overtures made toward Margaret by the priest in 1915.

Now here in January 1917 sat Father King, dressed in his clerical regalia and accused of a terrible crime. It was really his word against Margaret’s, and whom would the jury believe? His attorneys’ final arguments gave him cause for hope.

Joe Barcroft was first, and he appealed to the logic of the jury. “The evidence showed that there was a bed in the room behind the sacristy where the crime was alleged to have been committed, despite the fact that the Haley girl said there was no bed there,” intoned Barcroft.“ The girl said the act was committed while she was lying on the floor. Do you think Father King would have laid her on the floor if there was a bed there,” he asked?

In addition Barcroft stated, “When a virgin is raped, she makes an outcry. She tells someone. Yet the Haley girl did not tell of the alleged crime until months after it had been committed.” As for the testimony of Josie and Mary, the attorney pointed out that they both had a motive for harboring ill will against the priest because his housekeeper, sensing that they were a bad influence on Margaret, had ordered them to stay away.

The attorney ended the defense by dropping a bombshell. He suggested that the father of Margaret Haley’s baby was Pete Cardoza, with whom it was alleged she had been intimate. Barcroft pointed out that Margaret had first named Pete Cardoza as the father but then changed her mind and accused Father King.

It took the jury just 20 minutes to find Father King “Not guilty.” The priest went back to his parish, and they took Margaret Haley and her baby to a home for unwed mothers in Fresno. As for Cardoza he continued to graze his dairy cows on the public right of way and ride into Madera on his horse for the next 50 years.

After all was said and done relative to the paternity of Miss Haley’s baby, one question remained. Who was the real father?

It is too bad they didn’t have DNA tests back in those days.

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