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Miracles or Deception? The Pathetic Case of Audrey Santo

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 23.5, September / October 1999

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 (for example in the Bosnian village of Medjugorje, beginning in 1981), bleeding statues and crucifixes (e.g., in Quebec in 1985), and miraculously appearing images, such as the portrait of Mary seen in a splotch on a tree in Los Angeles in 1992 (Nickell 1993; 1997). Now there are reported healings and other “miraculous” phenomena attending a coma-tose teenage girl in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Pilgrims currently stream to the home of Audrey Santo who has been bedridden since 1987, when, at the age of three, a 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 Medjugorje affair a fraud.

Interestingly, a year after Audrey’s accident, her mother, Linda Santo, spent $8,000 to take her to Medjugorje in hopes of a miracle. As even a sympathetic priest admitted: “On a rational level, this was an extremely absurd idea. It was absurd. It should not have been done. It was medically wrong. And I think from all kinds of angles, sane people would say it was even spiritually wrong” (Sherr 1998). Expecting her daughter to be cured, Linda Santo bought her sandals so she could walk. But as it happened, instead of being helped, Audrey suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. She was revived but had to be returned home by air ambulance at a cost of $25,000-a bill her grandmother mortgaged her home to pay. Linda Santo’s response to the near-fatal incident was to blame it on the proximity of a Yugoslavian abortion clinic (Harrison 1998; Sherr 1998).

Skepticism of miracle claims is often warranted. For example, newsmen from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were able to borrow one of the Quebec "bleeding” statues 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 responsible. There seems, however, little incentive for Church prelates to adopt a critical stance. Clerics who debunked 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” (Nickell 1993, 67-68).

Nevertheless, in the Santo case, the Worcester bishop appointed a theologian and two psychologists to form an investigating commission. Their preliminary report was issued on January 21, 1999, and I appeared that evening on The NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw to offer a brief skeptical view of the case.

Among other things, the commission members showed skepticism toward claims that Audrey is a “victim soul” (one who suffers for others). Stating 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.” In fact, doctors say that Audrey exhibits “akinetic mutism"-a comalike state. Except for her eyes, which restlessly blink and wander, the tragic teenager remains virtually motionless. When ABC’s 20/20 reporter Lynn Sherr placed her hand in Audrey’s she received, she thought, a slight squeeze, but when she tried again there was no response (Sherr 1998).

Nevertheless, Linda Santo rejects the idea that her daughter is unresponsive: "She cannot speak, but she knows everything. She is not in a coma . . . she’s in that room with her Jesus seven days a week, adoring him, waiting on him, serving him, and he’s blessing her.” She even says that Audrey appears to people-"in person or in dreams"-and when she does so “is moving and speaking” (Harrison 1998).

Linda Santo believes Audrey has worked many miracles. She cites the case of a young man injured in a motorcycle accident whose doctors had reportedly said he would never be able to walk again; yet on the same day his mother had gone to see Audrey he began to walk without his crutches. Actually, according to his personal physician, there had been a good likelihood-a 75 percent chance-that he would indeed walk (Sherr 1998).

Another case cited by Linda Santo concerned a woman supposedly healed of liver cancer through Audrey’s intercession. In fact, however, the patient’s oncologist pointed out that she had already begun a new cancer treatment and that it had clearly begun to work even before she had gone to see Audrey. The woman continued to regard the remission as a miracle even when the cancer returned, spreading to her brain ("Desperate” 1999).

On the 20/20 segment, titled “The Miracle of Audrey” (first broadcast October 4, 1998), 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. On one anniversary of Audrey’s accident, she was exhibited at a Worcester stadium with some 10,000 people in attendance. At the Santo home a window was added to Audrey’s bedroom through which pilgrims could stare at the “miracle” girl and pray for her to intercede with God on their behalf. (The window is reminiscent of one in a mobile-home carnival exhibit through which spectators could view “Siamese” twins as they watched TV.) However, the practice was discontinued by order of the bishop.

In preparing the 20/20 segment a producer 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, judging by 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.

On an episode of CBS’s 48 Hours titled “Desperate Measures” (1999), a reporter asked Linda Santo how one would know whether someone in the household was simply applying the oil “in the middle of the night.” She replied, “You don't know.” “Are you doing this?” Linda was asked. “No,” she replied.

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 (1998). 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, which ordered the test (Weingarten 1998).

The commission’s report, while noting that the source of the oil was not yet explained, did correctly conclude, “One cannot presume that the inability to explain something automatically makes it miraculous.” (In other words, the commissioners were duly noting the logical fallacy of an argument ad ignorantiam-literally an appeal “to ignorance.”) 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 anoint the ill-and insisted it not be used or offered as such. Prior to this, the Santos distributed packets of oil-soaked cotton balls, often receiving money and other donations in return.

Taken together, the evidence relating to the oil exhudations raises strong suspicions. First, there is the lack of any scientific proof for the alleged phenomenon: not a single case of a weeping effigy has ever been scientifically verified. In fact the history of such reported occurrences is a litany of deception, including self-deception. In the Santo case there is no mere misperception, since the presence of copious amounts of oil-including the "spontaneous” filling of chalices-has been well established. Moreover, the fact that the oil has not been observed to flow strongly suggests prior application. And the varying test results seem less consistent with a genuine phenomenon than with an attempt to adulterate the oil in hopes of confounding the analysis. The presence of chicken fat-which, along with common vegetable oil, is readily available in a home kitchen-seems particularly telling. So does the observation of one volunteer that there tends to be an increase in oil on days pilgrims are expected ("Desperate” 1999).

Even the timing of the phenomenon is suspicious, beginning long after Audrey’s accident and following other traumas including her father’s several-years desertion of the family and her mother’s diagnosis of breast cancer. According to Lynn Sherr (1998), ” . . . [J]ust as it seemed that God wasn't listening, the Santos believe he sent them a sign. With no warning and no logic, they say oil suddenly coated a religious portrait in their living room.” This was a picture of the Image of Guadalupe-itself a faked “miracle” picture! (Nickell 1993, 29-34)-and it occurred after national media attention had focused on several other instances of “weeping” images.

The phenomena that accompany the Santo oil exhudations are also suspect, in part because cases of bogus weeping images have often been attended by other easily faked miracles (Nickell 1993). In this case there are “bleeding” pictures and communion wafers. Especially troubling are reports that stigmata-wounds imitating Jesus’ crucifixion-have “mysteriously” appeared on Audrey’s body, and on Good Fridays she has reportedly been seen to lie with her arms outstretched, as if crucified. According to one reporter, “Her parents say they cannot explain how their daughter, who cannot normally move herself, becomes positioned in this way” (Harrison 1998).

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, take place in the midst of Portuguese immigrant families.)

People seem to hunger for some tangible religious experience, and wherever there is such profound want there is the opportunity for what may be called "pious fraud.” Money is rarely the primary motive, the usual impetus being to seemingly triumph over adversity, 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 dishonesty.

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Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.