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Old Horrors Recast in Case of Slain Nun

Times Staff Writer

The scene of the killing has been cordoned off, even though the grisly crime occurred 24 years ago.

Many of the witnesses -- the doctors, nurses, police officers and nuns who saw the mutilated body of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl in the spring of 1980 -- are long dead. Others say they have tried to forget the events of that horrific day.

Early in the morning of April 5, Pahl was discovered inside the sacristy of Mercy Hospital’s chapel.

The 71-year-old nun had been strangled, stabbed 27 to 32 times, and then covered with a white altar cloth. Though police said there was no evidence of rape, they acknowledged that the killer positioned Pahl’s body to appear as if she had been.

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Until recent months, the evidence in this unsolved killing had remained untouched, collecting dust in the Toledo Police Department’s storage facilities.

But focus on the case was revived last week with a series of disturbing allegations surrounding the crime.

As a result, Father Gerald Robinson, a 66-year-old Roman Catholic priest who presided over Pahl’s funeral Mass, has been arrested and arraigned on charges of murder.

Evidence in the 1980 case was presented to a Lucas County grand jury Friday. The panel’s decision on whether to indict Robinson is expected on Monday.

Robinson has been detained in the Lucas County jail since his arrest on April 23. His bail has been set at $200,000.

Citing concerns over media leaks, police and prosecutors refused to discuss the investigation or detail the evidence shown to the grand jury Friday.

Robinson’s supporters have come to his defense , particularly those at St. Anthony’s Church in Toledo, where he was a priest for nine years. So many parishioners have come forward to offer their property for the bond that the defense legal team has started turning them away, said lawyer John Thebes.

As of Saturday afternoon, supporters also had donated $15,000 toward the priest’s defense fund, said Jack Sparagowski, president of the St. Anthony’s pastoral council.

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“This is a crazy situation,” Thebes said. “No one can believe this.”

That’s a common sentiment among many people in this Midwestern town. In the 19 counties encompassed by the Toledo diocese, there are nearly 323,000 Catholics among the region’s 1.4 million residents.

“Toledo is an incredibly Catholic town, and it’s always been that way,” said Catherine G. Hoolahan, a lawyer representing 12 plaintiffs in sex-abuse complaints filed against local priests.

Hoolahan, who grew up in Toledo, remembers what it was like after Pahl was killed. At the time, she said, people panicked. Hospital staff members were terrified to be alone.

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The Toledo Blade reported that police had dismissed robbery as the motive, as the chapel’s gold chalices and crucifixes, as well as Pahl’s purse, were not stolen from the sacristy.

“If someone would kill a nun, how bad would they have to be?” asked Hoolahan. “But then, it all seemed to disappear.”

Over the years, locals had not only remembered the mystery of Pahl’s death, but also said its fantastic nature had woven the tale into part of the town’s lore.

For generations, locals had spoken of it in whispers, embellishing their limited knowledge with rumor. The line between fact and fantasy has long been blurred or erased.

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Sitting in the grandstand of the local ballpark, sipping on sodas and cheering for the Toledo Mud Hens, residents still shiver when talking about the case.

“When I was a kid, I remember hearing that the nun’s arms were crossed over her chest,” said Thomas Kallen, 42, as he watched the Triple-A baseball game. “And there was something about a crucifix, right?”

His brother, Karl Kallen, nods: “Yeah. You told me that the stab wounds were in the shape of an upside-down cross.”

Thomas disagrees. “I never told you that.”

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“I don’t want to believe that this priest did anything wrong,” said Karl, 38. “He’s innocent until proven guilty. The police and the prosecutors are going to have to have a good excuse why they didn’t arrest him years ago.”

Last year, an unidentified woman approached a sex-abuse panel at the Toledo diocese. The woman, described by friends as in her 40s and well-regarded in the local Catholic community, alleged that local priests forced her into disturbing rituals.

The statement “described satanic ceremonies in which priests placed her in a coffin filled with cockroaches, forced her to ingest what she believed to be a human eyeball, and penetrated her with a snake ‘to consecrate these orifices to Satan,’ ” according to reports in the Toldedo Blade.

The woman also alleged the priests killed two children and mutilated dogs, among other things, the newspaper reported.

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Robinson was among the priests reportedly named in the statement.

Claudia Vercellotti, a leader of the local chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said she had read the letter and confirmed its contents.

The diocese commissioners declined to pursue the matter, thinking the accusations were too outlandish, say church officials. But one commissioner, a psychologist who lived in the area, approached the woman and recommended that she alert the police.

The woman turned to Vercellotti, who said she received the statement and other material. Vercellotti and the commissioner met with an investigator with the state attorney general’s office late last year.

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“No specific details were discussed. But we encouraged them to report the matter,” said Kim Norris, a spokeswoman with the Ohio attorney general. “After that, we received quite a bit of information, which we immediately provided to the Toledo police and prosecutor’s office.”

The Police Department reopened the case in December and began reexamining the evidence. DNA evidence was not used as part of Robinson’s arrest, police said.

Instead, investigators tied to the case say that there was evidence that involved “blood transfer patterns,” or the process of creating a mirror image when a bloody object comes into contact with another item.

The investigative technique dates back to the 16th century, said Herbert Leon MacDonell, founder of the Bloodstain Evidence Institute in Corning, N.Y.

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“If you wrap a cloth around a crucifix that’s bloody, for example, you would transfer a pattern of the crucifix to the cloth,” MacDonell said. “I might see the pattern, but you might not. Unless you see the pattern, you’re not going to recognize what the evidence is telling you.”


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