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Satanic Sex Abuse Claims Reopen Old Murder Case

By Seamus McGraw, Crime Library

TOLEDO, Ohio — It was cold that morning in April, 1980, but it always is on Holy Saturday, that twilight in the Roman Catholic calendar between the most solemn of days, Good Friday, and Easter, the most joyous, the time when Catholics, according to their creed, believe to Jesus descended into Hell before rising. As was her practice, Sister Madelyn Mary Gordon, the organist for the chapel at Mercy Hospital arrived early at the sacristy to prepare for Mass.

Instead, she was met by an image that was so horrifying and macabre that at first as she would later say, she believed it had to have been some sick prank played with one of the mannequins the hospital used to help train its workers. It was no prank.

There on the marble floor, laid out with almost ritualistic precision was the body of another nun, Sister Margaret Ann Pahl. Authorities would later determine that she had been strangled, her killer exerting enough pressure to break tiny bones in her neck. Her panties were dragged down to her ankles, but her killer had apparently taken great care to pose her body. Her arms and legs were laid straight; her head was in perfect alignment, and near her body was a blood-stained altar cloth. Through that makeshift shroud, authorities would later conclude, her killer had stabbed her 31 times. But most chilling of all was the fact that nine of those wounds, surrounding her heart, had formed a kind of cross.

Sister Margaret Pahl
Sister Margaret Pahl

It was, by all appearances, an almost ritualized murder, shocking enough in its gruesome detail, but made even more horrific by the fact the victim was, by all accounts, a devout and dedicated woman who had devoted her life to God and spent her days ministering to the sick.

The murder of Sister Margaret was perhaps one of the most shocking crimes in recent Ohio history. And yet, despite all the media attention paid to it, despite the efforts of the Toledo police, it remained a mystery for almost a generation. Though even at the beginning, authorities had suspected that perhaps the hospital’s chaplain, Father Gerald Robinson, might have known more about the case that he was saying, there was at the time, too little evidence to pursue him, and so, as the years passed, the case went cold.

It might have remained that way, a bizarre and unsolved mystery. But in late 2003, a woman, who by then was in her forties, delivered a four-page letter to the Toledo Diocese. In it, she outline a series of graphic allegations, involving sexual abuse, Satanic rituals, and, as it turned out, Father Robinson.

Crucifix Used As Template for Stabbing

As seemingly bizarre as the woman’s allegations were, they were not easy to ignore, particularly after other alleged victims came forward with similar stories of how they had been ritually abused by Catholic clerics decades earlier, though few if any of the other alleged victims identified Robinson as their attacker. But the Diocese apparently tried. According to published reports, a psychologist on the Diocese’s payroll had listened to the first woman’s complaint, and, ignoring a directive from the Diocese’s attorney, he contacted authorities. Investigators were never able to confirm her allegations, though in the years since, the Diocese has settled out of court with several of the alleged victims of the alleged Satanic coven, says Catherine Hoolahan, a lawyer who represented several of them. And since that settlement, more alleged victims have come forward she said.

Fr. Gerald Robinson
Fr. Gerald Robinson

But while the woman’s allegations did not result in a prosecution for sex crimes, it did lead to Robinson.

Based in large part on the woman’s story, Authorities, who had long suspected Robinson, reopened the case. In early 2004, after months of investigation, Robinson, by then a retired cleric was arrested and charged with Sister Margaret Ann’s slaying.

Last week, more than 23 years after her body was found, Robinson’s murder trial — the first even for a priest accused in the death of a nun — began in a Toledo courtroom.

In what observers have described as chilling detail, the prosecution outlined it’s case, alleging that the priest first strangled the nun, perhaps with his bare hands, and then, in a move that seems to echo those depraved and esoteric practices that the alleged victims of the sex assaults years before had detailed in their complaints, performed a kind of ritualized attack.

In testimony on Tuesday, Detective Terry Cousino, a member of the Toledo Police Department’s Scientific Investigation Unit demonstrated, using a mannequin, how after the nun’s death, the killer apparently shrouded her body with the altar cloth, and, then, perhaps while using a crucifix as a template, stabbed her nine times, forming a cross shaped series of wounds around her heart. Then, authorities allege, he removed the cloth and stabbed her 22 more times in the head, neck and chest.

And prosecutors also introduced what they believe to be the murder weapon, a small saber shaped letter opener. Prosecutors have alleged that the diamond shaped blade of the letter opener fit the wounds "like a key."

Robinson’s defense attorney has insisted the evidence is inconclusive, arguing among other things that Sister Margaret Ann’s wounds could just have easily been inflicted with a set of scissors, and in fact, the defense argues, a pair of scissors did turn up missing around the time of the slaying. The defense also notes that there were no eyewitnesses who could place Robinson at the scene of the crime. In fact, under cross examination, Sister Madeline Marie Gordon, the same nun who had found Sister Margaret Ann’s body 23 year ago, acknowledge that as she approached the chapel that day she had seen a man in work clothes, and that to her, it looked as if "the man was in big hurry."

Testimony in the case, which is expected to last up to three weeks, resumes today.

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