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  In Stunned City, Priest Is Arraigned in Killing of Nun

By Stephen Kinzer
The New York Times [Toledo OH]
April 27, 2004

TOLEDO, Ohio, April 26 A Roman Catholic priest was arraigned here today on a murder charge in the killing of a nun 24 years ago. She was strangled, then stabbed at least 27 times.

The priest, the Rev. Gerald Robinson, 66, is a Toledo native who has worked in this area since his ordination in 1964. Prosecutors said they would present evidence against him to a grand jury this week and hoped for an indictment by the weekend.

Ohio has a death penalty, but it could not be applied in this case because the punishment was not in force at the time of the murder.

Early this morning, Father Robinson was taken from his cell and escorted through an underground tunnel to Toledo Municipal Court. Unshaven, looking haggard and dressed in a brown prison jumpsuit, he said nothing during the brief proceeding.

The victim, Margaret Ann Pahl, who belonged to the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, was killed on Holy Saturday in 1980, one day before her 72nd birthday. Her body, covered with an altar cloth, was found in the chapel of Mercy Hospital in Toledo, where she and Father Robinson had worked for several years. Father Robinson celebrated her funeral Mass.

Investigators said they discovered new evidence against Father Robinson by analyzing "blood transfer patterns," which they described as an unusual new technology that is based on analyzing patterns left when objects are laid down. They would not give more details.

Father Robinson's lawyer, John B. Thebes, said that if his client was indicted, he would plead not guilty. Mr. Thebes said he was uncertain what sort of evidence the investigators had found.

"It's not DNA," he said. "It's not blood spatter, which is blood you find on walls or other surfaces. It's an imprint of some kind. Something happened that changed the nature of this case, and I don't know what it is."

A spokeswoman for the Toledo diocese, Sally Oberski, said Father Robinson was "a pretty low key guy and is very revered." Ms. Oberski said the diocese would not pay his legal fees, "because it is something that happened outside the church."

She added: "The Catholic Church is just under fire for so many things right now. It's difficult to say what kind of effect this will have."

The case has been the talk of Toledo since Father Robinson was arrested on Friday night. Groups of his parishioners met over the weekend to discuss ways of raising money to pay his $200,000 bail and his legal fees.

At lunchtime today, patrons at Coney Island Hot Dogs, a diner near the courthouse, repeatedly used the words "shock," "shocked" and "shocking" to describe their reactions. Mark Michalski, who works for the country auditor's office, said the case "has upset a lot of people."

"I'm a Catholic myself," Mr. Michalski said, "and it just has to chip away at your faith every time something like this happens."

The Toledo Blade reported that the case was reopened last year after an unidentified woman told a commission of the local Roman Catholic diocese that years ago she was subjected to bizarre rituals at the hands of Catholic priests here.

"She described satanic ceremonies in which priests placed her in a coffin filled with cockroaches, forced her to ingest what she believed to be a human eyeball, and penetrated her with a snake `to consecrate these orifices to Satan,' " the newspaper reported. "She also alleged that the group of clerics killed an infant and a 3-year-old child, performed an abortion on her, and mutilated dogs during the rituals, according to a copy of her statement obtained by The Blade."

The commissioners apparently concluded that these accusations were too far-fetched to be taken seriously. One commissioner, however, notified the authorities.

Claudia Vercellotti, a leader of a group based in Toledo called Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the Toledo diocese had failed to live up to its rules covering accusations against priests.

"Their policy dictates that they step down the priest and launch an investigation," Ms. Vercellotti said. "Why was Father Gerald Robinson not stepped down, given the seriousness of the allegations? Why was he still saying Mass as late as last week?"

In the days after the killing, rewards totaling $28,000 were offered and investigators interviewed dozens of people, but without success. The coroner said the room in which the killing occurred appeared to have been wiped clean before the police arrived. Detectives attributed this to overzealous hospital employees. They found no fingerprints, handprints or fabric remnants.

Robbery was evidently not the motive, since several gold chalices and other valuable objects were left undisturbed. Two weeks after the murder, the police chief said his detectives were "getting down to the bottom of the pile of things to do."

A retired Toledo police officer, Dave Davison, recalled today that he had been one of the first officers to reach the crime scene and that Father Robinson had been an early suspect. Mr. Davison was very critical of the way his superiors had handled the case.

"I didn't think anybody was interested in justice," he said.

Gary Cook, a county prosecutor who is working on the case, said today that people in Toledo were wondering why it took the police 24 years to make this arrest.

"New sets of eyes saw something that hadn't been seen before," Mr. Cook said. "That's what these detectives do. That's why we have cold case units."

Jo Napolitano contributed reporting from Chicago for this article

 
 

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