Sunday, June 13, 2010

Murder and cover-up

It’s a too-familiar tale of Catholic Church
leaders hindering an investigation of one of
their priests. But this time, the victim had
been murdered, in a strangely ritualistic
way—and she was a Sister.
Pahl, a nun of the Sisters of Mercy order, was
found murdered on the chapel sacristy floor
at Toledo’s Mercy Hospital. She had been
stabbed 31 times, with nine wounds over her heart in the
shape of an inverted crucifix. Her head had been anointed
with blood, her half-naked body covered with an altar
cloth. It was the morning of Holy Saturday; had she lived
until Easter, Pahl would have been 72.
Father Gerald Robinson, a priest who served as a chaplain
at the hospital, presided over the nun’s funeral mass.
Twenty-six years later on May 11, 2006, Robinson—now
68—was convicted of her ritualistic slaying, and given a
sentence of 15 years to life.
After he was convicted, the Sisters of Mercy spoke of
grace, healing and forgiveness. “God’s love and the love of
others will heal our aching hearts,” the Sisters proclaimed.
“We trust that God’s mercy is extended to all of us as we
move forward with our lives.”
It was a kind, holy sentiment that couldn’t begin to express
the devastation of the brutal murder—nor the frustration
of so many years having lapsed between crime and
punishment. The story, sadly, has plot points all too familiar,
as the Catholic Church once again protected a priest
at the expense of vulnerable others. But the tale also contains
unfamiliar elements straight out of a horror movie: a
brutal murder, ritual sex abuse, an older female victim (instead
of the common stereotype of priest abuse involving
young males—see sidebar, page 51).
Finally, as with the nuns’ grace, there is also a hopeful
note to this story. It’s embodied in a few courageous
women who won’t stop pursuing cases against Robinson
and other abusive priests, and won’t quit fighting until justice
is finally served.
Although he was a prime suspect in 1980,
Robinson was never charged at that time. Due to
technological limitations, key forensic evidence
didn’t emerge until 2003. However, his trial also revealed
the likelihood that the original 1980 investigation was
hampered by the staunchly Catholic deputy chief of
police in Toledo.
And so the murder remained a classic “cold case” until
June of 2003 when a woman identified only as Jane Doe
asked the Catholic Diocese of Toledo to reimburse her for
the cost of therapy she had sought after allegedly suffering
years of childhood sexual abuse by a “cult” of Toledo
priests. She claimed in a letter that the priests had engaged
in Satanism, animal mutilation and the ritual murder
of small children. Jane Doe’s wide-ranging accusations
haven’t yet been substantiated, but one of those priests she
named in the letter to the diocese was Robinson.
nun’s story SUMMER 2006 | 49
A psychologist on the diocesan review
board investigating Jane Doe’s
claims informed the diocese that it was
legally obligated to give her letter to
secular authorities. He was quickly
sent a memo from a diocese lawyer
that was meant to keep him from moving
forward; it argued that Jane Doe’s
file had already been given to prosecutors
the previous year, thus fulfilling
the diocese’s reporting duties. The
psychologist backed off, but he was fired later that summer
anyway, supposedly over “confidentiality issues.”
Even though the diocese had a special written agreement
to share all information with
county prosecutors about claims of clerical
abuse, prosecutors say diocesan administrators
never gave them Doe’s
letter. And Jane Doe felt she was being
stonewalled. So she turned over the letter
to Claudia Vercellotti, an outspoken
leader in the Toledo chapter of Survivors
Network for those Abused by
Priests (SNAP).
Vercellotti, who says she was abused by
a church leader herself, came to her volunteer
role with experience in academic
research, law enforcement and as an advocate
for battered women. Perceived as
being either shrill or uncompromisingly
courageous—depending on who’s writing
the letter to the editor—she’s the sort of advocate who
used Monopoly money at a press conference to show how
much more the Toledo diocese had paid out over the years
to lawyers (big stack of bills) than to victims (small stack).
“It’s easy for people to tune out anyone who criticizes
the Church or points out how church leaders have sexually
abused kids or covered it up,” Vercellotti says. However,
she believes “when victims speak up there’s a chance
that crimes can be solved.”
Vercellotti herself was inspired by the efforts of Toledo
native Barbara Blaine, a 2002 Ms.Woman of the Year who
founded SNAP in 1988, long before the clerical abuse
scandal got widespread coverage in the press. Blaine had
been molested by a Toledo priest from the late ’60s
through the mid-’70s, and spent seven years lobbying the
Church to remove him from ministry. Meanwhile, she organized
thousands of others—SNAP now has more than
60 chapters—to support one another in their healing from
abuse, and pursue justice and institutional change “by
holding individual perpetrators responsible and the
church accountable.”
“Quite frankly,” says Vercellotti, “Barbara Blaine’s
courage and persistence have brought healing for thousands
of us victims who otherwise might still be thinking
we’re the only ones.”
Unlike church officials, Vercellotti didn’t let Jane
Doe’s letter sit on a desk. After convincing the
frightened woman that she would help others
by pursuing her complaint—albeit under a pseudonym—
she was allowed by Jane Doe to give the letter to the
Ohio Attorney General’s office. That office ultimately
forwarded it to the Lucas County Prosecutor in
December of 2003.
When detectives in that office saw Robinson’s name in
Jane Doe’s letter, a light went off. “I knew Robinson was
the prime suspect from 1980,” says Sgt.
Steve Forrester of the prosecutor’s coldcase
squad. That led police to take another
look at Sister Pahl’s murder.
Re-examining the altar cloth from the
murder scene, for example, investigators
noticed inverted crucifix punctures
in it—corresponding to the wounds
over Pahl’s heart. Later, in testimony at
Robinson’s trial, Forrester would report
that this discovery came after he interviewed
Jane Doe; she was the one who
suggested he look for such marks.
Robinson was arrested in April 2004.
During the investigation, prosecutors say
they asked the diocese to hand over
Robinson’s personnel file, but only three
pages were released. The diocese claimed that was all it
had, but when police served it with a search warrant in September,
they turned up 148 previously unreleased documents
from Robinson’s file.
Come May 2006, the totality of the prosecution’s case
was very convincing. Among other things, the prosecution
contended that a letter opener owned by Robinson left
distinctive blood markings on the altar cloth used to cover
Sister Pahl.
Father Jeffrey Grob of the Chicago archdiocese, an expert
in ritualism, exorcism and the occult, gave key testimony
that helped establish Robinson as the likely
perpetrator. Grob testified that the killer must have had
thorough knowledge of Catholic ritual in order to subvert
it so comprehensively. Another nun or seminarian might
have that kind of expertise, Grob said, but “certainly a
priest would have that kind of knowledge.” Considering
police otherwise accounted for all the priests and nuns at
the hospital on the day of the murder, that narrowed the
field down to Robinson.
Although perhaps not germane to this particular case,
two activists from Nova Scotia, Jeanne Sarson and Linda
50 | SUMMER 2006
“It’s easy for
people to tune out
anyone who
criticizes the
Church or points
out how church
leaders have
sexually abused kids
or covered it up.”
MacDonald, have pointed out that the metaphysical elements
of ritual abuse can be used to confuse, control and
silence child victims. For perpetrators, they say, it’s not so
much about a literal belief in, say, Satan, as it is about exploiting
a power dynamic that they believe provides the
abuser a sick thrill.
The jury voted Robinson guilty after just over six hours
of deliberations. As the judge read the verdict, the priest
appeared emotionally detached, declining to remark on
his conviction. In June, his lawyer filed notice that Robinson
plans to appeal the decision.
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates, who oversaw the
case but didn’t try it herself, says she didn’t hesitate to
prosecute a priest, having no fear of being labeled “anti-
Catholic.” She does admit, though, to
worrying about “how receptive a jury
would be” to convicting a priest because
of prejudice in favor of clergy.
Robinson’s conviction probably
would not have occurred were it not for
the work of Vercellotti. Not only did
she bring Jane Doe’s allegations to law
enforcement, but her advocacy with
SNAP since 2002 had generated uncommon
media coverage, exposing a
number of offending church officials
and undoubtedly making the climate
more favorable for prosecution. Most
notable, perhaps, is her work with the
makers of the 2005 Oscar-nominated documentary Twist of
Faith, which chronicled the anguish of Tony Comes, a
Toledo firefighter who claims a priest molested him in
high school.
During her time as a SNAP leader Vercellotti has seen
her share of adversity. Last September, Vercellotti’s small
apartment complex burned down in a still-unexplained
fire believed to have started in her unit. She left the apartment
just 43 minutes before the blaze erupted, but lost almost
everything she owned and most of the thousands of
records she’d compiled for SNAP.
In the weeks after Robinson’s conviction, victims of
priest abuse received other signs of hope from both
Toledo and Rome. In Toledo, Bishop Leonard Blair
deemed credible the abuse allegations against Father
Robert Yeager, a priest who had been allowed to stay in
the ministry even after the diocese made an out-of-court
settlement in 2004 to one of two men who had accused
him of sexual abuse. Yeager can no longer publicly present
himself as a priest or otherwise engage in ministry.
In Rome, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, 86,
founder of the conservative Legionaries of Christ order,
suffered a similar humiliation and removal from duty, this
time from the Vatican itself. For a decade, Maciel had been
accused of abuse by several ex-Legionaries, yet he enjoyed
strong support from Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger (now the pope), who headed the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger shut down
the Maciel investigation in 1999, but surprisingly reopened
it in 2004 (before John Paul’s death). As pope, he ultimately
approved the disgraced priest’s punishment.
These actions, even if little and late, provide inklings of
hope and further healing for those who have been abused.
Robinson still faces a civil suit from an anonymous
woman—not Jane Doe—who alleges he ritually abused
her. Bates declines to say whether she’ll go on and pursue
obstruction-of-justice charges against diocesan officials
who failed to turn over documents related
to Robinson.
Vercellotti, who praises Bates for prosecuting
the murderer, hopes that the pressure
against priestly abusers—and the Church
that has protected them—won’t ease up.
“If the Church will cover up and withhold
evidence in the murder of a Roman
Catholic nun,” Vercellotti asks, “What
real hope did any survivor of abuse ever
have?” n
BILL FROGAMENI is a freelance writer
based in Ann Arbor, Mich. He has written
extensively about the clerical abuse scandals
for the past few years in such publications as National
Catholic Reporter, Toledo City Paper and SUMMER 2006 | 51

1 comment:

Loyola_Alum said...

Jesuits priests involved in the death of a Jesuit?

The Jesuit Order said Fr. James Chevedden took his life (in a news release). The Jesuit Order compounded this by covering up information that could find that Chevedden was helped in his fatal fall from a building.

The last Jesuit to see Fr. Chevedden alive was Fr. Jerold Lindner, a friend of a Jesuit who Fr. Chevedden reported as an abuser, Br. Charles Connor. Lindner was the subject of a Los Angeles Times "Legacy of Pain" page-one article.

Jesuits involved in this case include Thomas Smolich (now the top Jesuit official in the USA), Alfred Naucke, Anthony Scholander, Jerold Lindner ($2 million in sex abuse settlements on his record) and Charles Connor (lead defendant in a $7 million sex abuse settlement).