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Monday, December 22, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 7/19/2014

COMMENTARY

Robinson’s funeral a sign: Church protects its priests

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST
Johanek Johanek
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When the worldwide scandal of pedophile priests tore a hole in the robes of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, hypocrisy was starkly exposed. The perception that the church cared more about its clerics and institutional preservation than the mortals it was meant to serve and save was reinforced.

The church tried desperately to keep a lid on the sexual abuse perpetrated by its priests. Victims were not a priority.

Accused clerics frequently were reassigned by diocesan dictate. Their alleged sins remained secret until they abused again.

The scars they left are lasting. The shame of that chapter in church history is still being written.

But the church is still protecting its brotherhood of priests, still reluctant to condemn its own for molestation and even murder. Last week, the Toledo Catholic Diocese buried a convicted murderer who wore a Roman collar for most of his adult life.

Gerald Robinson, who was ordained a diocesan priest in 1964, died serving a sentence of 15 years to life for killing a nun. According to police, prosecutors, and a jury of his peers, the circumstantial evidence tying him to the 1980 slaying of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was strong.

The murder weapon was found in his possession. He lied to police, by his own admission. He gave contradictory accounts to investigators. Robinson’s alibi, at the time of the murder, was refuted by several eyewitnesses.

Yet he maintained his innocence while losing appeal after appeal. He hadn’t exhausted all of them before his death, so the diocese still considered Robinson a priest in good standing.

At a public funeral, conducted by the diocese and attended by fellow priests, Robinson was given a dignified farewell befitting a man of the cloth.

“If a priest was convicted of molesting a child, he would never be given a funeral with full diocesan protocol and honor,” said David Yonke, a former Blade religion editor who covered Robinson’s trial and wrote a book about it.

“But because Robinson was convicted of murder, and there’s no precedent for that, they decided to go ahead and give him a priestly burial,” Mr. Yonke said.

“A lot of people don’t want to believe this, but he [Robinson] was convicted and the legal system pretty much upheld the verdict,” Mr. Yonke said. The diocese chose to give “special treatment to a convicted murderer.”

It was offensive to those who seek new sensitivity from the church after years of criminal cover-ups and indifference to victims.

But the hierarchy circled the wagons to lift up a brother priest, to eulogize a colleague who “celebrated his first Mass in this very sanctuary,” said Rev. Thomas Extejt in his funeral homily at St. Hyacinth Catholic Church in Toledo.

Father Extejt briefly acknowledged those “who still grieve the death of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.” But he was ambiguous about her killer, and whether Robinson was “justly or unjustly” suspended from priestly ministry, convicted, and incarcerated.

Father Extejt extolled the virtues Robinson showed in prison, where “God gave him the grace to be present to prisoners young and old, to counsel them, to pray with them, and to be a support to prison staff ... One can sense the prisoners’ regard for him when you understand that the younger inmates called him ‘Pops.’”

Robinson was in prison for choking Sister Margaret Ann and jabbing her with his letter opener. She had 31 stab wounds. Punctures over her heart formed an inverted crucifix. She was defiled with a cross.

The Rev. Charles Ritter, Toledo’s diocesan administrator, lamented that Robinson had to live for years “under a heavy burden.” He implied Robinson’s innocence by questioning whether it was a “burden of guilt or the burden of a miscarriage of justice.” Moreover, he said, “it is not for us, in retrospect, to judge him.”

But we can judge the response of the Catholic Church to a gruesome crime and the priest who committed it. A large diocesan funeral, rather than a private family affair, sent a clear message about church priorities.

It said church bonds and clerical brotherhood still supersede compassion and due process.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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