Did a Priest Murder a Nun, and Did the Catholic Church Cover it Up?

Book review: Sin, Shame & Secrets, by David Yonke

On Holy Saturday in 1980, the day before Easter Sunday, elderly nun Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was found murdered in the sacristy of Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio. She’d been strangled with an altar cloth and her body bore stab wounds in the shape of an inverted cross. Blood on her forehead appeared to mimic anointing. These and other elements led some investigators to think the murder was part of a satanic ritual, a so-called “Black Mass” meant to mock Catholic tradition. At the very least, they suspected that certain facets of the crime scene indicated religious significance and a perpetrator to whom such symbolism mattered.

In the murder’s immediate aftermath, when detectives interviewed nuns at the hospital about who might’ve had motive to murder Sister Margaret, several immediately responded, “Father Robinson”. Gerald Robinson was one of two priests working in the hospital chapel. But any reason why the nuns thought this or what was made of it in the investigation is never explained. In any case, the trail went cold until 2003.

That’s when another nun revealed that she’d been abused as a child by Father Robinson and other priests in the satanic ritual ceremonies of a local cult, which allegedly involved the murder of multiple children and a number of horrific, obscene abuses. If you’ve read anything about the stories from the so-called Satanic Panic, you’re familiar with the types of abuses. And the priests were dressed in nun drag during the rituals. This is a story rife with bizarre details from beginning to end.

Her accusations were made on the basis of recovered memories, a controversial possibility that gets better treatment in Lawrence Wright’s excellent Remembering Satan. These allegations were ultimately dismissed due to statute of limitations, but got the cold case unit looking into Sister Margaret’s murder and the priest’s involvement. Her body was exhumed and further testing done with a letter opener that had murder weapon potential, among other forensic evidence. Robinson was ultimately arrested and convicted, “the only time a Roman Catholic priest in the United States has been charged in the murder of a Roman Catholic nun.” Investigators believed Sister Margaret Ann had been killed in a ritualistic, satanic ceremony similar to what the woman described.

David Yonke, religion reporter for the Toledo Blade newspaper, writes about the case from the murder through the conviction, detailing the side story of the satanic ritual abuse claims along the way. Much of the book, especially the trial coverage, reads like straightforward newspaper reportage. That’s not the worst but neither is it the most compelling. I would’ve minded less if the coverage in general was better, but it bothered me that points like why some had immediately suspected the priest weren’t addressed. We can assume this was part of what was lost in the alleged police coverup, but I wanted more from the reporting.

What ends up being a much more interesting thread, especially considering the evidence that exists, is the idea of coverups ordered by the church. A devout Catholic police chief interrupted interviews with the priest and had close connections within the church’s hierarchy. He’s alleged to have been involved or orchestrated the coverup in 1980, apparently shooing investigators away from the priest’s trail.

We’ve heard so many news stories of church coverups, especially recently, and documentaries like The Keepers have shown how far and deep they can go. The additional such stories told here, not only of the obstruction of the murder investigation, serve to underscore that and it’s a subject I think deserves a lot of underscoring. This was released a decade or so before The Keepers and stories here, of mothers taking their children to the diocese and alleging abuse only to be ignored and later abusers told no one else had ever come forth, are identical to the church’s actions depicted there.

“You took care of the Catholic Church,” said Bill Gray, a retired Toledo police officer. “There was no negotiation. If you were a Jewish rabbi, a Baptist minister, or an Episcopalian priest, you’re shit out of luck. But the police had to take care of the priests. It was an absolute.”

Gray also said he “knew it was department policy not to arrest priests“, but arrested one he caught engaging in a sex act with a teenage boy in a public restroom. Department policy?! Again, this echoes the close relationships between law enforcement and the church in Baltimore that were unearthed in the docuseries. It’s not a stretch to see the connections here and they’re similarly enraging.

This element, including the influence the church has over law enforcement, is the highlight of the book, We saw it in The Keepers and it’s explicit in Toledo as well. No matter how much I read about police corruption in favor of protecting certain institutions or figures for their reputation, supposed morality, etc., I’m floored anew.

But actually, I didn’t see how the priest could’ve been convicted. The evidence seemed circumstantial and flimsy at that – mostly a few eyewitnesses who saw him near the chapel, which is suspicious but doesn’t indicate the leap to murder, motive, or the extreme nature of the crime scene. There were those statements that it must’ve been him but no followup so we don’t know why those colleagues thought so. There’s some indication there may have been blood on a letter opener he owned, but it didn’t seem like the most solid forensic evidence.

As much as I sometimes enjoyed reading just to learn what happened, it was ultimately unsatisfying. I still don’t understand how he was convicted and didn’t see much evidence of a motive, I’m skeptical of the Satanic ritual abuse/recovered memory side story that takes up a big chunk of the book (review coming of Remembering Satan on this), and the Satanic “Black Mass” that may or may not have been behind her killing is also iffy. The prosecution didn’t even use it as their argument because there wasn’t evidence, but it seems to be believed.

Robinson did tell police, when asked why anyone would’ve wanted to kill the nun, “She was a dominant woman”. Prosecutors would use this to establish a power dynamic between the two that led an angry man to take out his rage on a woman he viewed as beneath him or acting out of her place. That’s not unbelievable, but it also wasn’t the most convincing. It’s not the fault of the book or author, but everything felt ultimately unsatisfying.

Then there’s some uneasiness about making excuses for the Catholic Church. Yonke’s religion seemingly colors some of his reporting. He writes that “Sin, Shame and Secrets is not a blanket condemnation of the Catholic Church, but a factual account of the horrific deeds of a few lone wolves who hid among the sheep.” This was written in 2006, and much more has come out since then, but as we see here, abuses in the church were rampant and no secret decades before. Of course not every priest is a predator, but I wouldn’t characterize the abusers as “lone wolves” either. That seems like willful blindness and  excuses from the church machinery.

Still, some compelling reportage on coverups that can’t be denied and a very bizarre, at least still partly unexplained, and undeniably very unusual murder. almost 3/5

Sin, Shame and Secrets:
The Murder of a Nun, the Conviction of a Priest, and Cover-up in the Catholic Church
by David Yonke
published 2006 by Continuum
Sin, Shame and Secrets on Book Depository

17 thoughts on “Did a Priest Murder a Nun, and Did the Catholic Church Cover it Up?

    1. Thank you! And yes, such a horror story! The possibility of there being this dark, evil element is intriguing, I just didn’t quite see the connection to the priest. Although to be fair there’s not much of a viable alternative. It’s an eerie, chilling story to be sure.

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  1. Excellent review and I understand your rating based on your unresolved questions, many that should have been a minimum expectation. I watched The Keepers and was so discouraged about the Catholic Church and law enforcement. Given what’s going on today, I’m questioning its survival and that’s astounding even for me, a non-Catholic married to a former Catholic who abandoned them many years ago because of their apparent hypocrisy.

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    1. My husband and I were both raised Catholic and grew out of it thanks to various factors we got older. Seeing the stories of abuse and hypocrisy and just the sheer magnitude of it in things like The Keepers reaffirms for me it was the right decision. It’s downtight horrifying and like you I question their survival. I can’t even believe they thought these abuses could stay covered up for so long! The arrogance of it all! And that they’ve obviously considered themselves above the abuses and torments inflicted on people. It’s sickening.

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  2. You are so right….sickening! I will never understand how a human being can hurt another human being and in the eye of God. I had so much respect for the Catholic Church growing up and it has really changed!

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  3. This sounds right up my street. The cover ups the Catholic church has form for and so on and the satanic panic bizarreness, as well as all those regression cases that seem dodgy.

    One of my wife’s aunties in the U.S. is Catholic and sticks to the claim that it is just a few priests who are to blame for the child abuse (but the church itself is still infallible, oddly), I’m to polite to point out all the people who knew that and did nothing are as guilty as those who actively covered it up.

    Rant over, shame the book didn’t live up to expectations but seems like a read, I would pilfer off a friend’s bookcase.

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    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts, I really appreciate hearing your rant! 🙂 Isn’t it such madness?? My family in the U.S. are also Catholic and this isn’t even a subject I’d dare discuss with them, but everything I’ve read, including in this latest wave to hit the news, is just denial and laying blame on a few villainous priests while ignoring how widespread and for how long this has been going on. They get defensive over it so I think your politeness tactic is best there!

      But even with all that I’m just not sure THIS one was an abuser, the satanic panic/recovered memory story is predictably wild and mirrors the exact details of others that have been proven false (the book I mentioned, Remembering Satan, is an absolute must-read if you’re interested in that topic) and I just didn’t see such clear-cut evidence that this priest was guilty of any of these things. He seemed a weird guy, but it was a stretch to murder.

      It’s definitely worth reading for some of the further info about other priest abuse cases that are mentioned and the whole book is quite a quick read. If you’re an ebook reader, you can borrow it like I did from openlibrary.org. Just make a free account and you can download it as a PDF or epub and it works like a library loan for 2 weeks 🙂

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      1. I published a Facebook post, telling Catholics to stop giving their money at services, once I found out a percentage goes to legal costs the priests may incur (I forget the term used). Needless to say in an 85% Catholic country I didn’t get many likes. I mean by all means they should keep their faith but question this rich church. Many in Europe have left and I believe it is going the same way in the U.S. as well.

        I may have to look into it. Thanks for the link, when I clear down my to read pile I will look into it!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well that’s exactly the problem, if you remain with the church then you’re tacitly approving of what they’re doing, like it or not, because whatever you tithe is absolutely going to cover those costs and they’re paying (and have been for quite some time) small fortunes in order to settle these cases. And then shuffling the priests around between parishes for the most part instead of taking greater action against them! Sure, that’s a painful truth for people who are devoted to the church to reckon with, but pretending it’s not the case isn’t helping anything! I really don’t understand that thinking.

        But I’ve heard the same, attendance and membership is dwindling and hopefully that sends a strong enough message…only took decades, after all. Ugh! I really respect your posting something about it, I’m pretty sure my family would go nuts if I tried to discuss it! Also not helpful, I know, but the only way to preserve relations thanks to religion and politics at this point.

        And I forgot to mention that Open Library isn’t anything sketchy or illegal, it’s a legitimate library service not tied to your location, and I’ve borrowed from there for years. Just so you know I’m not guiding you towards anything nefarious! 🙂

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      3. From my point of view, if I don’t say something and tell people where the money goes then I am just as complicit for my silence.

        The world sometimes seems like a sewer but I would rather be calling out anything I see as bad, even if it affects relationships. I refuse to hide my head in the sand, and no matter the beliefs of a person they should be able to use their own common sense to see that enough is enough. Although religion is a different matter to most things.

        I checked out Open Library and I am sure when the current review copies and such have been conquered I will be enjoying the delights it has to offer. I trust you for you are a book reader.

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    1. So true, right? I saw there’s another book about this case called Forgive Me, Father but it’s by an author who writes the kind of breathless, tabloidy true crime I try to avoid. I would love to know more about the story though, maybe that one’s worth a try instead!

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