Subject: Bishop Findings on Santo Case/Nickell to Appear on NBC Nightly News
Date: Thursday, January 21, 1999 1:37 PM



 For more information, contact Matt Nisbet at 716-636-1425 X219

 In a press statement this morning (Jan. 21), the Most Rev. Daniel P. Reilly,
Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcestor, MA, released preliminary findings of the
Bishop's commission appointed to investigate the alleged Audrey Santo
miracles.  The summary report can be found at:

 Bed-ridden and comatose, eleven-year old Audrey Santos has received
international media attention as hundreds of thousands have made the
pilgrimage to her home in Worcester, MA, believing that Audrey had the power
to heal.  Adding to the worldwide interest, the Santo home has also been the
site of icons that mysteriously "weep" oil.

 The commission's report, while noting that the source of the oil was not yet
explained, correctly concluded, "one cannot presume that the inability to
explain something automatically makes it miraculous."

 It insisted on "the need to have controlled tests performed involving some of
the religious articles and lab analysis of resulting oils or other secretions
since no two reports from past tests have come back with the same results."

 The report added, "We must be careful not to identify this oil as 'holy
oil'--that is, oil blessed by a Catholic priest and used to annoint the
ill--and should not be offered or used as such.  The report also noted that in
accordance with Catholic teaching, people should only pray for Audrey and that
therefore "the distribution of a 'Prayer to Audrey' should cease immediately."

 Among other things, the commission members showed skepticism toward claims
that Audrey is a "victim soul" (one who suffers for others).  Noting that this
is not "an official term in the Church," the report noted that "It was used in
some circles in the 18th and 19th century when there was a fascination with
suffering and death."

 It remained to be determined, the commission concluded, that Audrey
demonstrated "cognitive abilities" or "at the age of three was, and presently
is, capable of making a free choice to accept the suffering of others."

 ****CSICOP Senior Research Fellow and Skeptical Inquirer columnist Joe
Nickell will comment on the Bishop's findings this evening on NBC Nightly News
at 630EST.  Nickell is author of _Looking for a Miracle_, an investigation
into miracle claims.****

 The following is an overview of the Audrey Santo case by Nickell.  For more
information contact Matt Nisbet at 716-636-1425 X219.
 Joe Nickell

 As we near the next millennium, the media have been pointing to "millennial
madness" as the source for a wide range of divine claims. Yet the faithful
have been seeking miracles and finding them -- they believe -- in unlikely
forms and places for years. These include apparitions of the Virgin Mary (in
the Bosnian village of Medjugorje, beginning in 1981), bleeding statues and
crucifixes (Quebec, 1985), and the portrait of Mary seen in a splotch on a
tree (Los Angeles, 1992). Now there are reported healings and other
"miraculous" phenomena attending a comatose teenage girl in Worcester,

 Pilgrims currently stream to the home of Audrey Santo who has been bedridden
since a 1987 near-drowning left her in an unresponsive condition. Visitors to
the home chapel, converted from a garage, report healings after being shown
statues that drip oil and communion wafers that bear smears of blood.

 Skeptics may not be guilty of excessive doubt when they wonder how and why a
tragic figure who cannot heal herself is able to heal others. The Catholic
Church is often skeptical of such extra-canonical phenomena as well. It has
distanced itself from Medjugorje (where six children supposedly conversed with
the Virgin Mary), and the local bishop proclaimed the affair a fraud.

 Interestingly, a year after Audrey's accident, her mother, Linda Santo, took
her to Medjugorje. When Audrey suffered a sudden cardiac arrest, Mrs. Santo
attributed it to the proximity of a Yugoslavian abortion clinic.

 Skepticism of miracle claims is often warranted. For example, newsmen from
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were able to borrow one of the Quebec
effigies and to have it scientifically analyzed. The blood had been mixed with
pork fat so that, when the room warmed from pilgrims' body heat, the mixture
would liquefy and run like tears. A more innocent explanation was afforded the
tree-splotch "Virgin" in Los Angeles: A tree expert determined a fungus was

 There seems, however, little incentive for Church prelates to adopt a
critical stance. Clerics who investigated a perambulating and weeping statue
in Thornton, California, in 1981, for example, were denounced for their
efforts by religious believers who called them "a bunch of devils."

 In the Santo case, the Worcester bishop has appointed a theologian and two
psychologists to investigate, but in light of the past a team of magicians and
physical scientists would seem more appropriate.

 On a segment of ABC's "20/20" titled "The Miracle of Audrey" (October 4,
1998), host Lynn Sherr asked, "Is this 14-year-old child a miracle worker, a
messenger of God? Or is this all a cruel hoax, exploiting a sick and innocent
girl?" Elsewhere a spokesman for the bishop confessed to having qualms about a
disabled child being placed on public display. Especially troubling to
concerned skeptics were reports that stigmata -- wounds imitating Jesus'
crucifixion -- had "mysteriously" appeared on Audrey's body.

 In preparing the "20/20" segment a producer had called Skeptical Inquirer
magazine and discussed with me the phenomenon of weeping icons. Of those that
were not due to simple condensation or sweating, I said, approximately 100
percent were fakes, according to my experience. That includes oil-yielding
icons, which typically involve a non-drying oil (like olive oil) that can stay
fresh-looking indefinitely.

 We discussed the possibility of using surveillance cameras to monitor the
Santo statues, but I pointed out that if trickery were involved it was
unlikely that such an investigative technique would be permitted. As Lynn
Sherr would subsequently report on camera, "We wanted to do our own test with
a surveillance camera in the [home] chapel, but the family prefers to let the
commission finish its work first."

 Unfortunately, the commission members seem woefully ill-prepared to
investigate trickery. Sherr asked commission member Dr. John Madonna, "Did you
see any way that anybody was pouring oil or making the oil appear on those
objects?" He replied: "No. Especially after we did our examination behind the
pictures and under the statues and so forth and found that there was no way
that these objects were being fed the oil." Another member, Dr. Robert
Ciotone, stated: "We found nothing, no source of the oil."

 Actually, the conditions under which the statues and other objects yield oil
are consistent with the surreptitious application of a non-drying oil.
According to Sherr: "Although no one claims to have seen an object actually
start to spout oil" -- a very significant fact -- "the commissioners were
astounded when a religious icon they brought along oozed oil that night." Of
course no surveillance cameras were monitoring the icon during that time.

 Linda Santo did permit "20/20" to take a sample of the oil. It proved to be
75 percent olive oil, "the rest unidentifiable," according to Sherr. She
added: "Other independent tests have all yielded different results -- in other
words nothing conclusive." In fact, analysis of one sample by a Pittsburgh
laboratory revealed it to be 80 percent vegetable oil and 20 percent chicken
fat, according to The Washington Post (July 19, 1998) which commissioned the
test. The chemist said such a mixture could be prepared in any kitchen.

 Although we live in a scientific age, there has been a resurgence in magical
thinking, resulting in a revival of religious fundamentalism, the rise of the
"New Age" movement, and an increase in "miracle" claims. The appeal is
widespread, although it may be especially strong among the economically
disadvantaged, where human despair and superstition may coexist. (The Santo
phenomena, for example, takes place in the midst of Portuguese immigrant

 People seem to hunger for some tangible religious experience, and wherever
there is such profound want there is the opportunity for what skeptics call
"pious fraud." Money is rarely the primary motive, the usual impetus being to
renew the faith of believers and confound the doubters. An end-justifies-the-
means attitude may prevail, but the genuinely religious and the devoutly
skeptical may agree on one thing, that the truth must serve as both the means
and the end. Ultimately, neither science nor religion can be served by a
deceptive approach.


 Joe Nickell, Ph.D, is Senior Research Fellow of the international Committee
for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and
author or editor of sixteen books on investigation including Looking for a
Miracle (Prometheus Books).