Priest accused of murdering nun in 1980

4/24/2004
BY ROBIN ERB
AND CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Twenty-four years after an elderly nun was killed in the sacristy of a Mercy Hospital chapel, the priest who presided over her funeral service was arrested and charged last night in the slaying.

The Rev. Gerald Robinson faces a charge of murder in the death of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl. The 71-year-old woman, who belonged to the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, was found dead April 5, 1980. It was Holy Saturday.

Sources described her death as part of a ritual slaying in which Sister Margaret was strangled, then covered with an altar cloth, and stabbed several times along the neck and torso.

Police yesterday said she was stabbed 27 to 32 times, with most of the wounds inflicted after she died. Her body had been posed and it initially appeared that she had been sexually assaulted, though authorities offered no details last night.

"We're very saddened by the whole experience," said the Rev. Michael Billian, Episcopal vicar of the Diocese of Toledo. "It certainly saddens the diocese that any one of its ministers would be in this situation."

The human condition is sinful and priests are human, Father Billian said.

Father Robinson, 66, was arrested at the Scott Park district police station after officers served a search warrant at his home at 2401 Nebraska Ave., which is next to the station.

Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was found dead April 5, 1980. She was strangled and stabbed as part of a ritual slaying.
Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was found dead April 5, 1980. She was strangled and stabbed as part of a ritual slaying.

Police Chief Mike Navarre declined comment on Father Robinson's interview with police.

Father Robinson was being held in the Lucas County jail pending arraignment Monday in Toledo Municipal Court. The case is expected to be presented next week to a county grand jury. The death penalty was not in effect at the time of the slaying, said Gary Cook, an assistant county prosecutor.

Father Robinson is semi-retired and has been serving in light assignments at Flower Hospital and nursing homes, according to the diocese.

The Easter weekend slaying stunned the hospital and the community. It occurred the day before Sister Margaret's 72nd birthday. Her slaying was one of 60 in the city that year.

More than 200 people attended her funeral. Father Robinson was the principal celebrant of the Mass.

Then-police Chief Walter Scoble assigned a five-man detective team to the case.

"I'll be damned," said Ray Vetter, a retired deputy Toledo police chief who was in charge of the detective bureau, after hearing about the arrest.

He said he has mixed feelings about Father Robinson's arrest, partially because he is Catholic.

"I'm happy an arrest was made. If he's the right man, I hope they get a conviction," he said. "I hope they have more evidence than we had."

Mr. Vetter heard inklings that authorities were looking at the case again and is wondering what evidence they now have. He said he would think about the case "every once in a while" after he retired.

"The victim gave her entire life to the Catholic Church and she was in the sacristy when she was killed," he said. "To me, that's a terrible outrage."

It appeared that Sister Margaret had been preparing for Holy Saturday services early that morning after arising about 5 a.m. She picked up some papers, went to the dining room, and left about 6:45 a.m.

Her body was found about 8 a.m. in the chapel's sacristy, an area where sacred vestments and vessels are kept, by a sister who went to the chapel to pray.

Police had been baffled, in part, because valuables such as her purse and several gold chalices and crucifixes were still in the sacristy, according to reports at the time.

Still, they focused their investigation early on Father Robinson, who at the time was a chaplain at the hospital and whose office was around the corner from the scene of the killing.

Police took a blade from him. It was described as a letter opener, but forensic tests offered nothing definitive at the time.

The case was further complicated because of the rescue efforts. When medical staff rushed to save Sister Margaret, they disturbed the crime scene, possibly destroying critical evidence.

Police said the Toledo Diocese cooperated in the case since it was reopened about five months ago by the Lucas County prosecutor's cold case squad after new information was received.

"We received full cooperation from the Toledo Catholic Diocese through this investigation," Chief Navarre said, adding the diocese provided authorities with records they needed.

Police declined to discuss specifics yesterday about the motive in the slaying or offer details on new evidence in the case. But they said they consulted with several forensic experts.

Chief Navarre said new technology and expert witnesses gave authorities probable cause in the case.

Father Robinson will not be defrocked. He will remain a priest, albeit one with no duties.

"You're a priest for life, whether you have responsibilities," Father Billian said.

Bishop Leonard Blair stands in prayerful support, Father Billian said.

"Whenever this kind of event happens, it's a blow to the church," Father Billian said.

Blade staff writer Elizabeth A. Shack contributed to this report.

Contact Robin Erb at:

robinerb@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.