|Imprisoned Priest Breaks His Silence: "I Didn't Do This"
By Mike Wagner
October 18, 2009
NELSONVILLE, Ohio — Convicts sit on a footlocker in the prison dormitory whispering details of their darkest sins to the Rev. Gerald Robinson.
To the inmates locked inside the Hocking Correctional Facility, meetings at the blue box with the diminutive priest are like confessions. Except that this Roman Catholic clergyman wears a faded blue prison uniform, not the white collar he donned for more than 40 years.
Some inmates seek out the man they call “Father” for prayer, even salvation. Others just want to chat with Gerry, their fellow inmate who sleeps on a bottom bunk and helps clean up after chow time.
“They know what I am,” Robinson said. “They know why I am here. My case is no secret. It never was.”
Robinson has never spoken publicly about the day Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was killed in the chapel of Toledo’s Mercy Hospital.
Even during his trial for the slaying — believed by church historians to be the first U.S. case of a priest being convicted of killing a nun — he didn’t speak.
After three years in southeast Ohio’s Hocking Correctional Facility while serving 15 years to life, the 71-year-old Toledo priest, recently talked with the the Dispatch in an exclusive interview about his relationship with the victim, the investigation, the cold case, the trial, the intense scrutiny of his case, and his relationship with God.
Robinson was convicted of killing Sister Margaret Ann in 1980 by strangling her and then stabbing her 31 times.
His conviction came on May 11, 2006 — 26 years after the killing. The trial received worldwide attention, was viewed on national television, and rocked the Catholic Church from Toledo to the Vatican.
“I didn’t do this,” Robinson said. “I have no idea why anyone would do it.”
Robinson has supporters who believe he is innocent.
But many who followed his case believe the prosecutors convicted Sister Margaret Ann’s killer. “I believed he was the killer then at the trial, and I believe it now,” said Lee Pahl, the victim’s nephew. “And, yes, it bothers me that he hasn’t been defrocked by the Catholic Church. As a convicted murderer, he shouldn’t be allowed to keep his title as a priest.”
Prosecutors said Robinson’s public claim of innocence now rings empty.
“For him now to come out and say he didn’t do it, I would say to him you missed your chance to say that when it counted,” said Dean Mandros, the lead prosecutor in Robinson’s case. “He didn’t take the stand because he knew he couldn’t answer the [critical] questions.”
In their appeals on Robinson’s behalf, attorneys John Donahue of Perrysburg and Rick Kerger argued that the 24-year gap between the killing and charges against Robinson prevented a fair trial because evidence was lost and memories faded.
Alan Konop, Robinson’s lead attorney during the trial, declined to comment for this story.
A small amount of DNA discovered on Pahl’s fingernails has prompted several rounds of testing.
The DNA doesn’t match Robinson, and recent comparison tests didn’t produce a match to the Rev. Jerome Swiatecki, the late priest whom Robinson’s attorneys believe should have been a suspect in the case. The DNA also didn’t match a Michigan-based serial killer, as some of Robinson’s backers had hoped.
Robinson officially retired as a priest in 2004, but he was not defrocked by the Catholic church and remains a priest.
As part of an agreement with his bishop, he is prevented from presiding over Mass, even in prison, and can’t administer sacraments.
Sister Margaret Ann, 71, was strangled from behind, breaking two bones in her neck. She was barely alive when her attacker began stabbing her 31 times.
Word spread quickly around the hospital as other nuns and staff members shrieked in horror and disbelief.
Father Swiatecki, the other hospital chaplain, soon arrived to administer last rites.
Robinson was summoned, and as he entered the sacristy, Father Swiatecki turned and pointed at Robinson.
“Why did you do this?” he demanded. “Why did you do this?”
Robinson was shocked. He described the day:
“It was Holy Saturday, and we don’t have to have Mass in the morning, so I slept in that day. The director of the hospital called me and told me sister was dead, she was murdered. I was stunned, absolutely stunned with the whole thing. I didn’t think I heard it right. She asked me to come to the sacristy and anoint her. I put my cassock and collar on and went right away. When I got there, Father Swiatecki was already there. He said what he said to me, but I just looked at him and just left. I have no idea why until this day. I have no idea. Sister [Margaret Ann] and I got along real well. Sister was much to the demeanor I have. She was quiet, reserved. She did her job and did it well. I never had any conflicts with sister.”
Robinson, who was asked by the Pahl family to preside over her funeral, drove with Father Swiatecki to the burial site in Fremont. He still had not asked Father Swiatecki why he had accused him of the killing. And the gregarious Father Swiatecki — who was 6 feet 1 and about 260 pounds and towered over the slender Robinson — didn’t bring up the subject again.
Robinson said he was dazed and saddened:
“Presiding over that funeral was very difficult for me and Father [Swiatecki]. It was emotional to say good-bye to sister. I don’t remember the storm or the doors blowing open or anything like that. I remember it was a nice day when we walked out to the cemetery. There wasn’t any tension between me and Father [Swiatecki]. I didn’t like giving orders at the hospital, and he liked to do things his own way, so our relationship was OK. I talked to sister that day and I do quite often. I visited her grave site many times over the years.”
In the two weeks after Sister Margaret Ann Pahl’s death, Toledo police detectives conducted several hundred interviews at the hospital.
They could confirm the alibi of all but Robinson, according to the Arthur Marx, the case’s lead detective.
“He became a suspect when no independent person could account for where he was. And then he lied to me,” Mr. Marx said.
Robinson told Mr. Marx that someone had confessed the killing to him. Then a short time later, he told the veteran detective that he made up that statement.
After the first interview, Mr. Marx and Lt. Bill Kina, who supervised the investigation, searched Robinson’s room with the priest’s permission. They found an 8-inch letter opener and considered it a possible murder weapon.
Robinson said it was an unlikely choice for a weapon:
“I got it as a souvenir from the Boy Scouts I served in 1964. I went with them to a trip to Washington, and they got me that as a souvenir. You couldn’t use it; it was just something to look at. It would rip up letters because it was dull, heavy, thick. It just sat in my desk. I was surprised when they said [it was the murder weapon]. Anyone could look at it and see you couldn’t do the damage with it that they said was done to Sister. Somebody said if that was the alleged weapon, why would I leave it in my room?”
Mr. Marx also interviewed Father Swiatecki as part of the investigation but said he was “satisfied with his answers.” Father Swiatecki died in 1996 at age 82.
Robinson said he was perplexed by the police interest in him:
“For some reason, they locked on to me back then. I cooperated with them in every way. I told them all that I knew. I answered all of their questions and I let them search my room. The people at the hospital were supportive, and except for the one comment from Father [Swiatecki], no one there accused me of anything. I couldn’t believe the attention it was getting.”
A cold case
In December, 2003, while investigating new, unsubstantiated allegations of abuse against Robinson, the Toledo Police Department cold-case unit asked Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates to reopen the Sister Margaret Ann homicide case.
A few days later, Detective Steve Forrester and Detective Tom Ross were carefully reviewing evidence from the 1980 case, including Robinson’s letter opener and a 10-foot-long altar cloth that the nun’s attacker had placed over her before stabbing her repeatedly.
They compared a blood stain on the cloth to the letter opener and were convinced that it was a virtual match.
On April 23, 2004, after questioning by cold-case detectives — and 24 years after Sister Margaret Ann was found in the hospital chapel — Robinson was charged with the nun’s murder.
He said that nothing had changed in all those years:
“To my knowledge, they just wanted to have a case — a name. I don’t have any reason why. I was at their service for 24 years next to the police station. They could have walked over to my house and talked to me at any time. I cooperated whenever they asked for anything.”
The jury spent a little more than six hours deliberating. On May 11, 2006, they found Robinson guilty of murder.
Through it all, Robinson sat in his dark suit and white clerical collar with a blank, almost lifeless expression. He showed not even the slightest hint of emotion, even when the verdict was announced.
Robinson was stunned by the decision:
“The newspapers said it was my demeanor — that’s what they based it on. I was quiet, reserved, and I didn’t look at the jury. The jury thought I was on drugs. I was not on medication at that time. I was stunned what came out in trial. I couldn’t believe it, the dramatics at what came out in the end by the prosecutors. I was surprised by a lot of the things those witnesses said at the trial. But no, I don’t have any animosity toward anyone.”
Life in prison
Robinson now has daily talks with God early in the morning, before lights flicker on and the other 213 inmates in the prison dormitory begin stirring.
Sometimes, Robinson asks God to simply get him through the day. Sometimes, he asks for guidance to continue his ministry in prison.
Again professing his innocence, Robinson says that he has never blamed God or anyone else for what could be a death sentence for him.
“I hope to be exonerated one day, whether it’s by DNA testing or something else,” he said.
“I believe in truth. I believe this is all part of his plan — my salvation for me. Somehow, this is going to work out.”
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