Priest failed 1st lie detector test, documents say; other test was inconclusive

3/1/2005
BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Homicide detectives believed that officials at the Toledo Catholic Diocese intentionally misled them during their investigation into the slaying of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl last year, according to court documents unsealed yesterday.

The records show that during unprecedented police searches of the downtown church headquarters, investigators said they were looking for evidence of "obstructing justice," in their search for "secret files" that might lead to information about murder suspect and longtime cleric Father Gerald Robinson.

Police said they obtained 148 documents when they searched the diocese on Sept. 15 armed with a judge's order - documents the diocese had failed to turn over to them on an earlier request.

The papers also reveal that Father Robinson had twice taken a lie-detector test during the 1980 probe, and "failed" it the first time, according to investigators.


Sister Pahl was found strangled and stabbed in the Mercy Hospital chapel.

"The results indicated that Father Robinson was involved in the murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl," Sgt. Steve Forrester wrote in an affidavit requesting court approval to search the diocese's Spielbusch Avenue offices.

A second polygraph was inconclusive, records state.

Alan Konop, an attorney for Father Robinson, said the statements in an affidavit filed by police were false, but declined to elaborate.

Citing a gag order, Sergeant Forrester would not comment.

Father Michael Billian, the episcopal vicar and the diocese's top administrator, yesterday said no such secret files exist at the diocese, even though such practices violate Canon Law.

His office was singled out in a police search Sept. 17, 2004, after investigators alleged he was not forthcoming with documents they requested two days earlier or in December, 2003.

"Canon Law stipulates that there is to be a secret archive," Father Billian said.

But he added: "The diocese of Toledo does not have one of those."

He said keeping such files would violate the new policy of openness adopted after the priest abuse scandals of the past few years.


"I suppose technically you could say that [the lack of records breaks Canon Law], but really in the United States, this kind of stuff is not in keeping with our new policy of transparency," Father Billian said.

The local diocese, he said, has not kept secret files for decades, though police alleged they have been held as far back as 1917.

The affidavits supporting two police searches of the diocesan office were made public yesterday after The Blade recently revealed the existence of two sealed search warrants and how the murder investigation had become a tug-of-war between investigators and diocesan representatives.

The affidavits underscore that tension.

According to the papers, Sergeant Forrester and cold case detective Tom Ross asked for personnel records for Father Robinson and, on Dec. 15, 2003, Father Billian gave them only "bare-bones" information.

In the meantime, diocesan officials had made public statements about investigating Father Robinson on an unrelated sex-abuse allegation, and Bishop Leonard Blair had visited Father Robinson in prison to place the 66-year-old priest on leave, according to the 20-page affidavit that supported a Sept. 15 search of the church offices.

Investigators concluded that the diocese must have more information about the murder case, partly because Canon Law dictates the diocese investigate allegations of crimes committed by clerics and preserve those records.

Judge Robert Christiansen of Lucas County Common Pleas Court approved a search of the offices so police could seek "the Diocesan Secret Archives" and a key or combination to a safe that, according to Canon Law, might have been kept by Bishop Blair.

In the afternoon of Sept. 15, Bishop Blair told investigators who showed up with the court order that no such secret files existed.

The bishop then called Father Billian, who was out of town, and Father Billian, on a speaker phone and in the presence of investigators, "did not mention that there was a file concerning Father Gerald Robinson in his office at the time," according to the papers.

A short time later, diocesan attorney Thomas Pletz, who had been told about the search warrant, arrived at the diocese office and joined investigators in the archives room.

"At one point during the execution of the search warrant, attorney Pletz left the archives room and returned with a blue-hanging file folder that was approximately 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick," the record states. "Attorney Pletz was gone for approximately two minutes."

The file, which police said may have been removed from Father Billian's office, contained approximately 148 documents related to Father Robinson.

Suspecting more information might exist in Father Billian's office, investigators returned to Judge Christiansen and convinced him to give them another search warrant.

On Sept. 17, they returned to the diocese, and found a file stamped "privileged" and containing child-abuse allegations. But police never seized the records.

Father Billian said yesterday the documents contained names of alleged victims and abusers, but he said prosecutors had reviewed the files in 2002, and the statute of limitations had expired on the accusations.

Prosecutors have not commented on what they found.

Supporters for victims of priest abuse said the release of the affidavits validated victims' long-held claims of secret files.

Similar files have been turned over by other dioceses across the country, including in Boston, Cincinnati, and Detroit.

It's "incredulous" for the Toledo diocese to claim it doesn't keep "secret records," said Jeff Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney.

Mr. Anderson has filed more than 400 clerical abuse lawsuits around the country.

Under Canon Law, all Catholic dioceses are required to keep records of "any material that is scandalous."

In at least seven sex-abuse cases filed against the diocese since 2002, Mr. Anderson said he has been hard-pressed to get information from the diocese about alleged abusers.

"A search warrant is the only effective way to get their secrets and their secret documents," he said.

"I know the diocese of Toledo and they have been absolutely obstructionistic."

He said that any evidence of crimes by priests - child sexual abuse, homicide - is going to be kept secret under Canon Law.

And under the laws of the church and orders of the Vatican, only the bishop can see those documents or his designee.

"They can't be turned over to anybody. And so they stay secret,'' he said.

The Toledo coordinator of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Claudia Vercellotti, accused the diocese of carrying out damage control.

"Do they pick and choose what part of Canon Law they follow? How can they one moment follow Rome, and the next moment, they don't?"

Blade staff writer Mitch Weiss contributed to this report.

Contact Robin Erb at:

robinerb@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133