Depending on whom you believe, Gerald Robinson is either a quiet, somewhat remote, balding cleric who has faithfully served the Catholic Church for the past 40 years, or a sexual pervert and participant in bizarre Satanic rituals who killed a 71-year-old nun and covered up the crime.
Either way, the 66-year-old priest is the talk of the Rust Belt town of Toledo, Ohio, where he has been arraigned on murder charges and imprisoned in the county jail after his arrest last weekend.
His case is not only replete with details straight out of a Gothic melodrama, including one particularly lurid report of a ritual involving a teenage girl, a snake and a human eyeball. It is also once more throwing an unwelcome spotlight on the moral integrity of the Catholic hierarchy, which in this case supported Fr Robinson and allowed him to continue his pastoral duties even after he was formally placed under investigation for murder last year.
At the heart of the matter is the killing of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl in the sacristy of a church hospital on Easter Saturday 24 years ago. Sister Margaret Ann was one day short of her 72nd birthday when she was strangled and then stabbed between 27 and 32 times.
Police say that Fr Robinson was a suspect from the start – a factor that did not prevent him from officiating at Sister Margaret Ann’s funeral. They also believed some kind of ritual was involved, since the nun’s body was found covered with an altar cloth. At the time, however, the evidence trail went cold, in part because the murder scene had been scrupulously cleaned up before the police arrived. The authorities offered nearly $30,000 for information that could solve the case, but none was forthcoming.
Nothing new emerged until last year, when a woman whose identity has been kept secret testified before a diocesan commission in Toledo that she had endured years of sexual, physical and psychological abuse by a group of priests during her childhood and teenage years. Fr Robinson, she alleged, had sexually assaulted her and forced her to participate in Satanic rituals.
Some of her testimony seemed unbelievable – particularly when she described being placed in a coffin crawling with cockroaches, being forced to eat a human eyeball and be penetrated with a snake to consecrate her orifices to Satan. She said the priests had killed children, mutilated dogs and performed an abortion on her as part of their devil-worship.
Something about her testimony, however, stirred the interest of the Toledo police, and triggered the reopening of the inquiry into the murder of Sister Margaret Ann. Police officials have refused to discuss what it was they found that they had previously overlooked, saying only that a part of their evidence involves a criminological technique known as “blood transfer patterns“.
Grand jury hearings are expected soon, followed by a decision on whether to remand Fr Robinson for trial.
Challenged as to why they did not investigate the allegations of Satanic rituals, church officials have said that the claimswere not credible. They have not explained why Fr Robinson was not placed on leave after he was named as a suspect, in apparent violation of their own policies. He celebrated mass until last week.
“Their policy dictates that they step down the priest and launch an investigation,” Claudia Vercellotti of a local group called Snap, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told reporters. “Why was Father Gerald Robinson not stepped down, given the seriousness of the allegations?”
Fr Robinson was granted $20,000 (£11,000) bail, but was still in jail yesterday as supporters tried to collect the money.