Abuse, Murder in Troubled Toledo
Notre Dame Sister Joins Ranks of Those Accusing Priest of Sexual Abuse; Another Cleric Faces Trial for 1980 Killing of Mercy Nun

By Bill Frogameni
National Catholic Reporter [Toledo OH]
February 14, 2006

Like Catholics everywhere, the faithful in Toledo, Ohio, have become somewhat inured to persistent media reports about priests sexually abusing children. But a Nov. 9 story in Toledo's daily newspaper, The Blade, raised a few eyebrows. The headline read "Nun 'called' to support reforms of abuse laws: Sister said she was assaulted by priest."

Ann-Marie Borgess, 42, a longtime Sister of Notre Dame, voluntarily entered the spotlight with the claim that she was repeatedly abused as a girl by Chet Warren, a former priest of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. Borgess said she's now coming forward to support a bill pending in the Ohio legislature that would dramatically expand the statute of limitations for civil suits related to sexual abuse. The legislation, Senate Bill 17, would lengthen filing limitations from two to 20 years after the alleged victim turns 18 and it would establish a controversial "look back" period of one year that would allow suits to be filed on abuse claims as old as 35 years. The bill received recent support from Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit (NCR, Jan. 20).

The latter provision has drawn intense objections from the Catholic Conference of Ohio, overseen by the state's bishops, which claims the look back period is unconstitutional and could encourage frivolous lawsuits that threaten the church's welfare.

In speaking up, Borgess is at odds with Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair. While it may be unusual for a nun from a conservative order to publicly buck her bishop on such a contentious issue, Borgess does so with the support of her provincial superior, Sr. Anne Mary Molyet. The superior effects diplomacy in saying her "position is that I support Sr. Ann-Marie Borgess' decision to speak out." She said neither she nor the community wishes to take a public position on the bill. By her own admission, Molyet faces a thorny political problem, so it is striking that she supports Borgess at all. That support comes with her endorsement of Borgess as "a very courageous, wonderful religious woman" who is "deeply prayerful and discerning." Molyet said, "It was the needs of children that brought [the Sisters of Notre Dame] into being. [There's] a prophetic role to stand with the suffering, especially children."

Hornet's nest

If the sisters' defiance seems unusual even in the context of the larger abuse scandal, it's hardly the most sensational turn in the events that have traumatized this midsize diocese over the last few years. Toledo has been a hornet's nest shaken by a vigorous daily newspaper and an active chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. The city is, in fact, the birthplace of Barbara Blaine, SNAP's founder, who was abused as a girl in a local parish. A 2004 Oscar-nominated documentary was made about a Toledo abuse survivor. Reports of cooperation between the diocese and police to hush information about clerical abuse have surfaced. Most disturbing, perhaps, is the possibility of a ring of ritualistic abusers within the diocese. In one case, at least, it's clear the diocese initially withheld evidence in the investigation of a priest who will soon go to trial for the alleged murder of a nun.

The man accused of murder is Fr. Gerald Robinson, a diocesan priest who is scheduled to stand trial in April for the 1980 murder of the 71-year-old Catholic nun. Mercy Sr. Margaret Ann Pahl was strangled to death, stabbed up to 32 times and covered with an altar cloth in what many believe to be a Satanic/ritualistic killing. The murder took place in a Catholic hospital chapel on Holy Saturday 1980.

At the time, Robinson, the chaplain, was a prime suspect who took two lie detector tests and performed poorly on one. The cold case was reopened in December 2003 after events of byzantine complexity that eventually resulted in Robinson's arrest and indictment in spring 2004.

Then there's the story of Toledo firefighter Tony Comes, whose anguish is detailed in the 2005 Oscar-nominated documentary "Twist of Faith." The film takes a heartbreaking look at how Comes, now in his 30s, tries to cope with the abuse he suffered at the hands of former priest Dennis Gray in high school. On the verge of losing his marriage, health and sanity, Comes reluctantly entered into a $55,000 settlement with the diocese. One of the movie's most poignant scenes is when Comes returns to his new home only to discover that Gray, his former abuser, is living just four houses away. Comes takes his young daughter into his lap and tells her, with tears streaming down his face, what happened to him. Then he tells her never to go near Gray -- even if she's bleeding badly and he claims to want to help her.

Comes said the movie touches people because the tragedy is universal: "You could take me out of that movie and plug in just about any clerical abuse victim."

There was always someone

According to retired Toledo police detective John Connors, Gray's abuse was known to the diocese in the 1980s. In addition to his work with the police department, Connors volunteered many years investigating clerical abuse for the diocese. Around 1986, he said he received a call from Fr. John "Archie" Thomas, who was then superintendent of Catholic schools. Thomas was concerned that Gray was raping boys from Central Catholic High School and wanted to know what to do. Connors told Thomas to keep Gray away from kids. That was it -- no report was ever filed.

According to a July 31 investigation by The Blade, this kind of cooperation between the diocese and law enforcement was the norm for many decades. "I can tell you that there was always somebody [the diocese] could go to in the police department," retired detective John Connors said. "And I can tell you that, at one time, I was that man." To date, 10 alleged Gray victims have settled lawsuits with the diocese. Even so, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Donnelly gave Gray a positive recommendation before he left the priesthood to work as a probation officer, a youth camp counselor and until a 2002 news expose, dean of students at a Toledo high school. Gray was never criminally charged. Donnelly remains auxiliary bishop.

There are three people arguably most responsible for uncovering Toledo's extraordinary abuse scandals. All three identify the others as having done the most for change. They are Barbara Blaine and Claudia Vercellotti, both of SNAP, and reporter Michael Sallah, formerly of The Blade. Blaine is the founder and president of SNAP. The role the group has played in the clerical abuse crisis is well known. What's less known about Blaine is that she was raised in Toledo, where her activism was prompted. Starting just before the 8th grade, Blaine says, she was abused by Chet Warren, the same priest implicated by Borgess and several others. Blaine first confronted Warren's religious order with her allegations 21 years ago in 1985; Warren was finally removed from ministry in 1992. Her intimate knowledge of the diocese continues to make her an effective advocate for change, but Blaine has often been at odds with the Toledo church. Shortly after the clerical scandals swept the nation in 2002, the former director of communications for the diocese, Fr. Thomas Quinn, now deceased, reportedly told a Blade writer he wanted to "plant bombs" around Blaine at a speaking engagement. The diocese apologized for Quinn's remark shortly after that.

Claudia Vercellotti is Toledo's volunteer co-coordinator for SNAP. She helped start the Toledo chapter, the first in Ohio. Vercellotti has a background in criminal justice, social work and sociological research. She studied law until her involvement with SNAP overwhelmed her other interests. These pursuits strengthened her for SNAP, Vercellotti said, but she also claims "[SNAP] is the toughest advocacy I've ever done." In early September, Vercellotti's advocacy got that much tougher when her apartment building burned down, destroying her personal belongings and all the records she kept for SNAP. According to Toledo fire officials, the severity of the blaze made its cause indeterminate.

Along with reporters Mitch Weiss and Joe Mahr, Sallah authored an expose about a rogue combat unit in Vietnam that earned The Blade the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism. Just prior to his work on the Vietnam story, however, Sallah was the driving force behind The Blade's comprehensive series about the Toledo diocese that appeared in December 2002. The series, called "Shame, Sin, Secrets," was a six-month undertaking responsible for exposing dozens of perpetrators and the diocese's decades-old pattern of covering the crimes. Early this year Sallah led two more large investigations involving the diocese. The first piece, cowritten with Weiss, was prompted by the Gerald Robinson saga. It explored questions about Satanic/ritualistic happenings within the diocese's religious community. The second piece, published in July, detailed how the diocese colluded with local law enforcement to whitewash sex abuse stretching back five decades. Sallah edited the series, written by his partners Weiss and Mahr. "Without Mike Sallah," said SNAP's Vercellotti, "the diocese would still be saying 'There's no systemic problem here in Toledo.' "

For several reasons, the Toledo diocese strikes some as troubled. This goes back to the negative exposure it's earned through repeated missteps, high profile legal cases like Robinson's and what some see as a longtime aversion to transparency.

Bizarre letter surfaces

Diocesan officials are saying little about clerical sexual abuse these days and next to nothing regarding the Robinson affair. The diocese repeatedly cites the judge's gag order as a reason for the silence. Still, victim advocates like Vercellotti think the diocese's motivation to keep quiet might have a lot to do with the criticism it has received regarding its handling of Robinson's case. "They did everything they could to keep Robinson from coming under scrutiny," said Vercellotti.

According to the case's lead prosecutor, Dean Mandros, the murder of Pahl was reopened by the cold case squad when they came into possession of a bizarre letter wherein a woman alleges graphic acts of Satanic/ritualistic abuse and murder perpetrated by a number of Toledo priests. One of the names contained in the letter was Robinson. The alleged victim first presented the letter June 11, 2003, to the diocesan board that reviews sexual abuse claims. Contents of the letter have been printed in The Blade and elsewhere. The handwritten letter claimed the woman was abused for years as a child in horrific ways, sexually and otherwise, by a satanic cult.

This "Jane Doe" letter also names former priest Chet Warren, Barbara Blaine's abuser. On behalf of Warren, the diocese and the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales have paid Blaine and others monetary settlements. Blaine said she can't recall any ritualistic abuse from Warren, but both she and Vercellotti claim to know at least five alleged victims of Warren who identify such abuse. In fact, said the SNAP leaders, some of the alleged victims identify similar patterns, places and abusers as detailed in the Jane Doe letter, even though the victims would have no way of knowing one another. "With some of the things they talk about," said Vercellotti, "it's like they're reading each other's mail." In a Feb. 20, 2005, story Sallah and Weiss wrote for The Blade, the writers say four women told Toledo police about being ritually abused by clerics. Only one woman, Teresa Bombrys, was identified in the article by name. Bombrys also alleges abuse at the hands of Warren, for which she received a legal settlement.

Jane Doe's letter was presented to the diocesan review board on June 11, 2003. Robert Cooley, a licensed psychologist and review board member, took the position that there was a legal obligation to turn over this new information to the local prosecutor. However, Cooley was rebuffed in letters dated June 12 and June 27 from Tom Pletz, a diocesan attorney. Later that summer, Cooley was fired from the review board. Fr. Michael Billian, diocesan chancellor, was quoted as saying Cooley was dismissed for confidentiality issues.

Pletz's June 12 letter took the position that Cooley and the diocese didn't have a legal obligation to turn over the new allegations, in part because the woman's case file had been given to authorities in 2002. Pletz wrote, "I can report that this person's diocesan file was reviewed by the Lucas County prosecutor's office last year. Its contents thus have already been reported to the proper legal authorities." The lawyer also wrote that counselors -- whether or not they are review board members -- didn't have a legal responsibility to inform authorities about suspected child sexual abuse once the individual in question is older than 18. Jane Doe was beyond that age limit.

'Should have blazed a trail'

Pletz's letter said nothing about Jane Doe's murder allegations, a point that gets an angry reaction from Vercellotti: "The diocese should have blazed a trail over to the prosecutor's office with that letter in hand on June 11 the second they got it. That letter went beyond new sex abuse allegations, beyond satanic abuse allegations -- it contained murder allegations. I'd say that's something you should tell prosecutors."

Assistant prosecutor John Weglian, chief of the special victims division, said he recalls some information from the woman's case being turned over (as Pletz's letter states) prior to June 11, 2003, but cannot recall precisely what it contained. Weglian is unequivocal, however, in stating he never saw the infamous Jane Doe letter until December 2003, when detective Steve Forrester from the police department's cold case squad approached him.

Forrester said he first received the letter on Dec. 3 from the Ohio attorney general's office and showed it to Weglian shortly thereafter. The letter piqued Forrester's interest in seeing the Robinson investigation reopened later that month. "I knew Robinson was [the police's] prime suspect from 1980," said Forrester.

The Ohio attorney general got the letter, said Vercellotti, because she took it to them with Jane Doe's permission in September. She did so, she said, because she believed it was clear the diocese intended to keep the explosive letter away from secular authorities after their attorney sent the two letters to Cooley. "The letters they sent Cooley were meant to shut him up, plain and simple," she said.

Retired detective John Connors was brought in to work on an internal investigation of Jane Doe's allegations for the diocese. Strangely, said Connors, it was at least a month after they got the letter -- some time in July 2003 -- that he and another retired detective were asked to do the internal investigation. "Even then," said Connors, "I thought that was a long time to wait."

Pletz, the lawyer who advised the diocese on the Jane Doe letter, won't comment on his role in the affair. First, he claimed not to remember the woman's letter, despite the deluge of publicity surrounding the Robinson case. Pletz also cited the gag order in the Robinson trial and said he wouldn't comment even if he could recall the statement and his own subsequent advisory letters to the diocese. "Whatever letters I wrote -- if those are somehow public -- I'm just going to let them speak for themselves," said Pletz. The contents of the letters Pletz sent to the diocese showed up in news reports shortly after Robinson was arrested in April 2004.

At the time Jane Doe came forward with her letter in June 2003, the diocese was waiting for another bishop to be appointed in the wake of Bishop James R. Hoffman's death. Leonard Blair wouldn't be appointed to the role until December 2003, so the hierarchy consisted of Chancellor Fr. Michael Billian and Auxiliary Bishop Robert Donnelly. The chancellor is normally responsible for the day-to-day operations and, of the hierarchy, only Billian was "carbon copied" on Pletz's letters. Billian did not return phone calls requesting comments for this article. Spokeswoman Sally Oberski said the diocese would not speak about the Robinson affair, so NCR was unable to ask about Donnelly's role in the matter.

Earlier, in August 2002, Hoffman signed a legal agreement with the Lucas County prosecutor's office that dictated how the diocese would deal with allegations of sexual abuse. Julia Bates, Lucas County prosecutor, claims the diocese had a legal obligation to turn over Jane Doe's letter in light of the special agreement it had with her office. "That letter, I think, falls within the purview of the agreement and they should have forwarded that letter to this office," said Bates.

There are also questions about how the diocese behaved after December 2003 when Lucas county prosecutors finally got the Jane Doe letter and reopened the Robinson investigation. Authorities asked the diocese to voluntarily turn over the records it had on Gerald Robinson but received only three pages. "When we asked them if that was it," said Detective Forrester, "they told us yes." Then, on Sept. 15, 2004, authorities returned with a warrant, and the diocese gave them more than 100 documents bearing Robinson's name. Another warrant was executed two days later, but Forrester said he can't discuss the documents seized in that search.

'Could refute good image'

Robinson's trial, scheduled for mid-April, almost two years after his arrest, promises to be a media circus. He has entered a not guilty plea. One of his attorneys, Alan Konop, declined to comment on the case, citing the gag order.

Speculation about the trial increased in November when Borgess, the nun who recently came forward to support the victim protection legislation, was identified on a list of potential witnesses for the prosecution. On Nov. 10, The Blade carried this headline: "Prosecutor might quiz nun in priest's trial: Sister could be called to refute good image." Neither the prosecutor's office, Robinson's attorneys, nor Borgess would comment to NCR about her potential role in the trial. No comment about this matter was cited by The Blade, either, but the prospect of Borgess testifying against Robinson adds another element of intrigue to the already sensational proceeding. The Blade has reported that Warren is on the prosecution's list of possible witnesses.

It was reported Jan. 7 that Blair had named a new chancellor to replace Billian. The significance of this isn't clear, but Oberski claimed the personnel change has nothing to do with Billian's role in the Robinson case. She said she couldn't comment on the case and cited the gag order after being told that Lucas county prosecutors say no one from the diocese ever gave them the Jane Doe letter prior to reopening the murder case. According to a diocesan news release, Billian will retain his administrative functions as episcopal vicar and moderator of the curia.

Meanwhile, Borgess is standing with Tony Comes, Claudia Vercellotti and Barbara Blaine in their effort to see Senate Bill 17 passed into law. Blair now presides over the diocese with Donnelly. Blair and Ohio's other bishops oppose SB 17, based primarily on the controversial provision that would open discovery for abuse claims up to 35 years old.

This comes as no surprise to Blaine. "Aiding discovery of abuse is not something for which the Toledo diocese, or the church as a whole, deserves much praise," she said.

Bill Frogameni is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich.


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