The Santos girl

James Randi --- Wizard (
Mon, 5 Oct 1998 20:25:22 -0400 (EDT)

ABC-TV's "20/20 Sunday" program last night was about 20/80. They
featured the case of Audrey Marie Santos, a comatose 14-year-old girl
of Worcester, MA, who is believed by thousands of persons to be
interceding with God to heal them. The coverage was, in my opinion,
biased and superficial, most kindly described as mildly skeptical.

This unfortunate little girl has spent ten years in a coma, following
a swimming-pool accident, and is now displayed in the family home
through a window for the faithful to adore. Seldom have I seen such a
callous, opportunistic use of misfortune. The state pays for the
three shifts of nurses who maintain Audrey's life support. She is fed
intravenously, has breathing tubes inserted, and a respirator pumps at
her body. Her only reaction to stimulus is that her eyes sometimes
follow movement, and she grasps a finger placed in her hand. These
are expected automatic reactions that newborn babies exhibit, and not,
as the exhibitors would have us believe, signs of recognition by
Audrey. Her legs and arms are grotesquely crooked due to
"contractures," an expected result of being bedridden without proper
therapy being applied. Audrey simply cannot manage without
24-hour-a-day care. It's such a heartbreaking situation, I'm not
surprised that those who flock there to see her, come away emotionally
affected. It was hard enough to take via TV.

The ABC interviewer oohed and aahed her way through an interview with
the girl's parents. When the "clincher" for miracles was described --
the presence of olive oil on some religious statues and holy pictures
in the display room -- she wonderingly turned a picture around to show
the back of it, and said to the camera that there was "nothing there."
Lest you think that's rather naive, I must tell you that I have been
receiving e-mail and calls all day from magicians -- who should
certainly know better -- asking me how this could possibly be a trick,
and if it is, how it could be accomplished! I have responded thus:
when an artist shows a completed canvas, no one expresses astonishment
about how the paint got there. The assumption is that the artist
simply applied it, with a brush or palette knife. That was done in
his studio, out of sight of the observer. Similarly, to get oil onto
a picture or an icon, you can simply put it there during the 16 hours
that the display room is closed and out of view. or during any of the
many periods during which Audrey is being attended to, and not on
display. A squirt of oil takes only a few seconds That should not be
any sort of mystery.

The ABC commentary said that the presence of the oil has "baffled the
experts." No, it hasn't. It's very simple to do. What "experts" do
they refer to? A committee of "psychologists and clergy." I'm sorry,
but I must ask: where is the expertise here? There is nothing here
that indicates anything but a parsimonous conclusion: while no one is
looking, someone puts oil onto the figures and/or pictures. Is there
any evidence that this is NOT the explanation? No, none.

More importantly, is there any evidence offered in this case to show
ONE healing as a result of Audrey's presence and/or intercession? No.
Not one example. ABC-TV did cite the case of an 18-year-old boy who
visited this shrine after serious leg damage, and showed him walking
quite well. But they also mentioned that his doctors had given him a
75% likelihood of recovering from that condition, so we end up with
zero supporting evidence -- except for reports of phone calls and
letters from persons who aver that they've been healed. No evidence.

Yes, the psychologists and clergy on that committee looked behind the
pictures and found nothing, too. I'm not at all surprised, but I fail
to understand their surprise. A report was made that a religious
figure the committee brought with them "suddenly oozed oil." Were
they there when this happened? No, they noticed it after it had
appeared. The local priest, apparently a devout, well-meaning, and
honest man, said that he has "not seen the slightest evidence of
fraud" in this case. I remind him that he's also not seen the
slightest evidence that the oil is not simply placed there.

I was interviewed here at the JREF for the "Inside Edition" program a
few weeks ago, on the same case. They brought along with them a
plaster figure purchased -- for an incredible sum -- from a local
religious store. During the interview, I was asked about how oil
could appear on such a figure. We examined the statue in detail,
close up, and found it unprepared in any way. We continued the
conversation, and then I asked the interviewer to look at the face of
the figure. Olive oil was running down the face, dripping from the
chin and from the hands of the statue. Without any closing of
curtains, turning out of lights, or other subterfuge, I had
accomplished something that appeared similar to the Audrey miracle. A
moment later, a religious print in a frame showed oil flowing down its
surface, too.

The oil that runs down the figures in the Santos home was analyzed by
ABC. It was declared to be "75% olive oil and 25% unidentifiable."
That's nonsense. A good forensic analysis would identify 100% of the

But what really got me in this case was that there was no mention,
anywhere, of how the Santos family supports itself and the poor little
girl they are exploiting. There were no questions about offerings or
fees asked of those who crowd the place daily. Nor of the very
substantial fees that the parents ask, to appear on camera. This is a
small industry, turning out a product that is of questionable merit,
and no track record at all. A family tragedy is being used to make
money, probably a very substantial amount, to judge from what could
have been a much more complete and penetrating examination of a
claimed miracle.

In closing, the ABC interviewer told the TV audience that their
request to set up a surveillance camera in Audrey's room -- to see if
anyone applied oil to any of the artifacts -- had been refused. The
reason? The family preferred to await the conclusions of the church
committee, which we are told may take "months or even years." I'm
sure it will. My question: why would a surveillance camera in any way
interfere with any investigation? In my opinion, that would aid
substantially in an investigation, and perhaps save "months or even
years" of time and expense.

Audrey Santos, my heart goes out to you. I wish you had been granted
the dignity of an anonymous life, such as it is, rather than the
circus that has been created around you.

James Randi.

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