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