Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Police & Fire

Ex-officer: Priest was suspected early in case

Dave Davison was one of the first officers to see Sister Margaret Ann Pahl lying dead in a Mercy Hospital chapel, and he said Father Gerald Robinson quickly emerged as a suspect in her murder.

Now, 24 years later and retired, Mr. Davison wants to know why it took so long to arrest and charge the priest in connection with the 1980 murder. From the beginning, hospital employees told police they suspected Father Robinson, Mr. Davison said.

"They named him, and the ones who didn't use his name said 'the priest,' " he said.

He said he always felt that investigators didn't pursue Father Robinson as aggressively as they should.

Ray Vetter, a retired deputy police chief who oversaw the investigation, said insufficient evidence at the time prevented them from making an arrest. He said no one backed off the case because it involved a Catholic priest and a nun.

"I can't believe anyone with any sense, who knows us as investigators and us as people [would say] that we would cover this up. We just wouldn't do it," said Mr. Vetter, who at his 1986 retirement called the unsolved case the biggest disappointment of his career.

Meanwhile, Toledo Bishop Leonard P. Blair, speaking publicly for the first time about the investigation, defended the church's handling of the situation. He noted that police said this weekend that diocese officials cooperated fully with the investigation.

"Now that Father Robinson has been arrested, I'm as shocked and troubled as anyone," he said. "I'm shocked that anyone would commit such a crime. If it's one of your own, that's troubling."

Father Robinson last night was being held in the Lucas County jail pending arraignment today in Toledo Municipal Court. He is charged with murder; he cannot face the death penalty because it was not in effect at the time of the slaying.

Sister Margaret Ann was found in the sacristy of the hospital chapel on April 5, 1980. It was Holy Saturday, and she had wakened early to get the chapel ready for services.

She apparently was strangled, according to police reports at the time. Investigators since have said her slaying appeared to be part of a ceremony, in part, because an altar cloth had been placed on her body and she'd been stabbed up to 32 times.

Elaine Dudley, now a retired nurse who was working as an administrator for a government program at Mercy, said details were hardly a secret at the time.

In the days following the murder, she said there were suspicions about a ceremony.

When no one was arrested, she said people began talking about a cover-up. "It was a feeling of disgust among everybody," she said. "I've always felt bitter about this."

Those who know Father Robinson describe him as kind, gentle, and devoted.

More than 15 laymen met after Mass yesterday at St. Anthony Church at Junction and Nebraska avenues to discuss raising money for his legal bills.

Mary Ann Plewa, 68, a lifelong member of St. Anthony, said she expects hundreds of supporters will donate money to defend the priest widely known as Father Gerry. "You just mention Father Gerry Robinson and everybody knows him because he's been in so many parishes," she said.

Sally Oberski, director of communications for the Toledo diocese, said last night that the diocese is not paying Father Robinson's legal fees.

Father Robinson speaks fluent Polish and celebrated Mass at St. Anthony on the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil and on Christmas for the last six years, Ms. Plewa said.

When she heard the cleric had been arrested, "I thought I was going to pass out. He's just wonderful. You will never find another priest like him, I don't care what anybody says."

"We've got lots of people praying for him," said Bea Orlowski, 74, who was Father Robinson's secretary for 11 years. "He's there for them in time of need, no matter what time of night or day."

The murder case was reopened last year after a woman testified before the Diocesan Review Board and wrote a detailed statement alleging years of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse by Toledo diocesan and religious-order priests during her childhood.

She said she had been a victim of Satanic rituals, with its participants going as far as killing animals and children - charges that so far police have said they have neither substantiated nor dismissed.

After the allegations surfaced, a member of the review board, Dr. Robert Cooley, and Claudia Vercellotti of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, met with a representative from the Ohio Attorney General's Office, Ms. Vercellotti said. Dr. Cooley, she said, felt the diocese and the Lucas County prosecutor's office were not taking sufficient action on the woman's claim.

Dr. Cooley, who was removed from the board, could not be reached for comment.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates yesterday said when the allegations did reach her, prosecutors took them seriously and investigated.

After Dr. Cooley asked the review board to contact police about the allegations, the board's attorney told him he was not legally bound to report the accounts.

Eventually, the information was forwarded to local investigators who study unsolved cases.

The Rev. Michael Billian, episcopal vicar for the diocese, said the review board asked Dr. Cooley to step down. He didn't know all the details, but said he believed Dr. Cooley and the board had a disagreement about how the board should operate.

"The work of the board, until it is complete, is confidential. I think there were some issues about him doing that work confidentially," Father Billian said.

Frank Link, chairman of the review board, said he had no comment on why Dr. Cooley was removed.

In the days following Sister Margaret Ann's death, investigators pursued dozens of leads - tracking possible suspects within the hospital, on the street, and even behind bars. That may have happened, said former Officer Davison, but he said it was clear from the start that Father Robinson was a suspect.

Still, he acknowledged he was not part of the five-man team that conducted the investigation and was not privy to its details.

Mr. Davison said he'd been on the job about three years and he and his partner often would stop by the hospital cafeteria to eat or take a break. He had been in the middle of breakfast when a nurse rushed to their table and told them about Sister Margaret Ann. In the hours after the discovery, he said several hospital staff told him police should consider Father Robinson.

After he retired, he began requesting all the documents on the case, intending to write a book. But he said many documents are missing, including his own, detailed report. He began writing letters to the police, to city officials, to the diocese, and even to the Vatican, asking them to reopen the case.

Finally, he said, he gave up.

"I figured they were going to treat me like a kook," he said.

"It sounded so unbelievable."

Blade religion editor David Yonke contributed to this report.

Contact Robin Erb at or 419-724-6133.

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