Loading…
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Current Weather
Loading Current Weather....
HomeA&EBooks
Published: Sunday, 10/8/2006

The Blade s religion editor grapples with issues surrounding priest s murder trial

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Defense attorney Alan Konop, left, hangs his head as the Rev. Gerald Robinson is found guilty on May 11 of the 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl. Defense attorney Alan Konop, left, hangs his head as the Rev. Gerald Robinson is found guilty on May 11 of the 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Late one Friday afternoon in April, 2004, The Blade s police reporter, Christina Hall, came over to my office cubicle and asked if I knew anything about Father Gerald Robinson.

A little, I said. He s a priest in the Toledo Catholic Diocese. He s a quiet man, fluent in Polish. Mid-60s. Why do you ask?

Because, she said, I have a tip he s about to be arrested for murder.

That statement jarred my faded memories of the then-66-year-old priest having been a suspect in the 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.

It seemed almost unimaginable that an arrest would be made now, after 24 years, and that a priest would be charged in that notorious slaying. Sister Margaret Ann had been strangled and stabbed in the sacristy of Mercy Hospital on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter

But Ms. Hall s tip proved accurate. Father Robinson was arrested by cold-case detectives on April 23, 2004, and charged with murder.

I had no idea then that 2 years later, the case would lead to the publication of my first book, Sin, Shame, & Secrets: The Murder of a Nun, the Conviction of a Priest, and Cover-Up in the Catholic Church.

Covering religion for a mainstream newspaper, I have a chance to meet countless people who are striving to make the world a better place. Whatever their faith may be, they are usually pure of heart and sincere in motive, something that has been made clear to me since I became The Blade s religion editor in 2000.

But the headlines have also shown that religion can be a devastatingly negative force. While faith and values generally bring out the best in people, there are cases where they bring out the worst suicide bombings, terrorist attacks, sexual abuse, financial theft, bias, and discrimination.

It disturbed me to consider the possibility that a Catholic priest could be responsible for murdering Sister Margaret Ann Pahl on Holy Saturday, the day before her 72nd birthday. But I have learned through painful experience that no one is immune from temptation, not even a priest.

As fate would have it, the day after Father Robinson s arrest I was scheduled to work an overtime shift covering the police beat. At the Safety Building, Sgt. Steve Forrester and Investigator Tom Ross, both of the Lucas County cold-case team, met with reporters for a brief news conference.

The veteran investigators were tight-lipped about most of the details surrounding the case, but one thing they said was significant: They believed Sister Margaret Ann had been the victim of a ritual slaying.

Suddenly, an already extraordinary story had risen or sunk, depending on one s point of view to a new level of interest.

The national media, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Court TV, pounced on the story, as well as local and regional newspapers and television.

Almost immediately after reporting the allegations of a ritual slaying, I was called by several New York publishers asking if I would be interested in writing a book about the case.

My first reaction was to say no.

Writing a book about a priest being charged in the ritual killing of a nun seemed like a long road down a dark and harrowing path. As a person faith, I did not relish the prospect of digging into the details of a gruesome murder or the related allegations of occultism.

But Diane Higgins, then an editor with St. Martin s Press (now a freelance editor), had an answer for each of my objections. Someone would be writing a book about this case, so why shouldn t it be written by a Toledo journalist instead of someone who flies in or phones in from the coast? Indeed, at least two veteran true-crime authors from New York are now working on books about the case due for publication next year.

Ms. Higgins, who also helped me find a literary agent, ultimately was overruled by her senior editors at St. Martin s, who decided against committing to a book with an uncertain ending written by a first-time author.

By then, however, the gears were in motion I had an agent, a book proposal, and a story that was so bizarre, it was stranger than fiction. About a year after Father Robinson s arrest, I signed with Continuum International Publishing Group, a London-based firm with offices in New York and Pennsylvania.

As the three-week trial unfolded, casual observers would tell me they were sure there was too much reasonable doubt to convict the priest. On the surface, that was a logical argument. The crime occurred 26 years ago. People s memories fade. There were no witnesses who actually saw the murder. There was no DNA to link Father Robinson to the crime.

And the priest was defended by a crack team of four attorneys with a wide range of experience and expertise.

But as assistant Lucas County prosecutors Dean Mandros, Chris Anderson, and Larry Kiroff interviewed witnesses and introduced the physical evidence, they methodically built a convincing case that Father Robinson was the murderer.

It was a complex and thorough presentation, but, to me, there were two key points: the physical marks left at the crime scene, in bloody prints and puncture wounds, indicating that Father Robinson s saber-shaped letter opener was the murder weapon, and three witnesses who said they saw the priest near the chapel around the time of the murder, contradicting his alibi that he had not left his hospital apartment that morning.

The fact that Father Robinson did not take the stand to defend himself did not help his case, and some courtroom observers said the priest s cold, dark eyes and lack of emotion worked against him.

After closing arguments May 10, I told my editors that I believed the jury would find Father Robinson guilty. I was convinced, after listening to the testimonies and reviewing the evidence presented to the jury, that if I were on the panel I would have had no choice but to convict.

It took the 12 jurors only six hours of deliberations to reach a verdict. On the morning of May 11, the courtroom was packed as Judge Thomas Osowik pronounced Father Robinson guilty of murder. The priest is appealing his conviction.

The judge immediately sentenced the priest to 15 years to life in prison. Court deputies handcuffed the elderly cleric and whisked him out of the courtroom, down the elevator, and through a tunnel to the Lucas County jail.

The verdict gave me the shocking ending to my book. And it turned my worst fears into reality. A court of law had convicted a priest in the brutal murder of an innocent, elderly nun.

My editor at Continuum, Henry Carrigan, scheduled the book s release for Oct. 6, and when the publication was pushed back for production reasons, I thought the one-week delay was insignificant. Then I took another look at the calendar.

Sin, Shame & Secrets will be published on Friday the 13th. I couldn t have picked a more fitting day.

Contact David Yonke at yonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154



Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. If a comment violates these standards or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box to report abuse. To post comments, you must be a Facebook member. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.