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Victims’ group faults reaction by local diocese

The Toledo Blade, USA
Apr. 27, 2004
Christina Hall
www.toledoblade.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Wednesday April 28, 2004

A priest accused of killing a nun 24 years ago continued to serve until his arrest, and a local victims’ group wants to know why the Toledo Catholic Diocese didn’t place him on leave last year after a woman accused him of perpetrating sadomasochistic sex or when investigators reopened the murder investigation.

Standing outside Toledo Municipal Court, the leaders of the Toledo chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) raised the question yesterday after the Rev. Gerald Robinson was arraigned on murder charges. He is charged with the April 5, 1980 slaying of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl in the sacristy of a Mercy Hospital chapel.

The 66-year-old priest was being held in the Lucas County jail last night in lieu of a $200,000 bond, though some of his supporters are trying to raise the funds to free him.

SNAP co-leaders Claudia Vercellotti and Jon Schoonmaker said the diocese didn’t follow its own protocol when it failed to place Father Robinson on leave after he was mentioned in an allegation of abuse against another priest or when the murder case was reopened.

“Father Gerald Robinson has been on the radar for over a year,” Ms. Vercellotti said.

SNAP leaders also called upon Bishop Leonard P. Blair to launch an outreach effort throughout the diocese -through such means as church bulletins, the diocese Web site and the diocese’s weekly newspaper – to notify area Catholics about abuse allegations against Father Robinson and clerics whose cases have not been made public.

Sally Oberski, diocese spokesman, said Father Robinson remained in his position for good reason after the woman’s allegation that ultimately led to the reopening of the murder case.

“There were no credible allegations on him,” she said.

When asked why Father Robinson was not placed on leave after the murder case was re-opened, Ms. Oberski referred the question to the Rev. Michael Billian, episcopal vicar for the diocese.

He did not return calls seeking comment.

Sister Margaret Ann was found in the sacristy of the hospital chapel on Holy Saturday. She had been strangled and was stabbed up to 32 times.

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.

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 and continuing into high school.

In addition to claiming she was an unwilling participant in satanic rituals, she also accused Father Robinson of sexually assaulting her when she was a teen.

Toledo police said they have thus far neither substantiated nor dismissed her claims.

Ms. Oberski said Father Robinson’s status did not change as a result of his arraignment, but she did not know if Father Robinson would be placed on leave.

Father Robinson’s attorney, John Thebes, said he is working to raise funds, through support groups and property, to post the priest’s bond. A defense account has been set up at KeyBank.

The diocese is not paying for Father Robinson’s legal fees.

Mr. Thebes told Municipal Court Judge Mary Grace Trimboli during the arraignment that Father Robinson is a respected priest in the community, where he has lived for 24 years, and that he is not a flight risk.

Father Robinson, dressed in a brown jail jumper, said nothing during the hearing. He declined media requests for interviews. A preliminary hearing is set for Monday, but the case may be presented this week to a county grand jury.

“[Father Robinson] thought this whole thing was behind him in 1980 when he cooperated fully,” Mr. Thebes said after the arraignment.

He said many people in the community support Father Robinson, who has his rosary with him in jail. Mr. Thebes, who has known Father Robinson since the attorney was in grade school at Christ the King, said he is a dedicated priest who has spent his life helping others.

Mr. Thebes said there are many things he will have to examine in the case, but refrained from speaking about them.

“Twenty-four years is a heck of a long time. Things happen to evidence and memories fade. The hospital is remodeled and is not in the same condition,” he said.

Mercy Hospital closed in 1995. Today, the facility is known as Mercy Healthcare Center and is the corporate headquarters for Mercy Health Partners.

The facility also houses a small outpatient clinic, various Mercy programs, and is the site of Mercy College. No inpatient care is performed there.

There is still a chapel in the building, but an access hallway was blocked yesterday by caution tape.

Because of the local and national publicity the murder case is receiving, the diocese, separately, and Toledo police and the county prosecutor’s office, jointly, released statements that no further interviews would be conducted with the media regarding the investigation.

“Out of respect to the legal and criminal investigation of Father Gerald Robinson, the diocese stands behind its cooperation with the civil authorities, and will continue to cooperate with the authorities in this investigation,” according to the diocese statement.

“It is imperative that the resulting publicity surrounding this case does not jeopardize either the successful prosecution of this matter or Fr. Robinson’s ability to receive a fair trial,” according to the joint release issued by police and the prosecutor’s office.

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