On 5 April 1980, a nun from the Sisters of Mercy who lived at Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio opened up the chapel sacristy with plans to prepare for the Easter Sunday services due to take place the following day. There lying on the floor was the body of 71-year-old Sister Margaret Ann Pahl. She had been stabbed multiple times with her clothing and undergarments in disarray suggestive of a sexual motive. It was a shocking murder that displayed frenzied violence that continued after the nun’s death. Who would murder a nun and so brutally inside her own chapel?
When police investigators arrived they set about talking with all the Sisters of Mercy based at the hospital and the resident priests, Father Gerald Robinson and Reverend Jerome Swiatecki. It was well-known amongst hospital staff that Father Robinson and Sister Pahl did not get on. In fact, just the day before her murder, the Sister had spoken down to Father Robinson in front of parishioners after he cut short his sermon, against the strict routines they normally followed.
Sister Pahl had become a nun with the Sisters of Mercy when she was 19-years-old. Also a registered nurse, she dedicated her life to helping others in Catholic Hospitals. By her 70’s she was traditional and took her duties in the chapel at Mercy Hospital very seriously. She expected others to be as meticulous and dedicated as she was and had no hesitation in scolding them if they did not meet her high standards. Over 20 nuns lived at the hospital, many still students there to learn from the experienced Sister.
Her death was exceptionally brutal. She had been strangled from behind before being stabbed 31 times. Many of the stab wounds were to her face with the others clustering around her neck and her chest. Nine stab wounds to her chest had been made through a piece of alter cloth laid over her and made up the shape of an inverted cross. The alter cloth had then been removed, investigators believed, before she was stabbed a further 22 times. Her dress had been pulled up exposing her chest and torso and her underwear pulled down to her ankles, leaving her in a most undignified pose. Some evidence suggested she had been sexually assaulted. The crime scene for such a violent murder was very clean with police unable to obtain much forensic evidence of use to help them catch the killer.
“You have a 71-year-old nun who would have been 72 the following day. People just don’t go around killing nuns in the sacristy of a chapel.”
The funeral of Sister Pahl was held on 8 April 1980 and Father Robinson was in attendance conducting much of the service. According to a report in the New York Daily News, the Reverend Swiatecki commented that the murder of the elderly nun was “not only blasphemous but patently absurd.”
Father Gerald Robinson was never going to be anything other than a priest. With a domineering mother heavily involved in the church, her son was to enter the clergy. At 26-years-old, after a life of religious schooling, Gerald Robinson was ordained as a priest. He was posted to Mercy Hospital in Ohio to provide last rites to the dying and comfort and prayer to patients and family with regular church services being offered at the hospital chapel. Known as a quiet man who generally kept himself to himself, his mild manner did not sit comfortably with Sister Pahl’s abrupt and abrasive attitude, with the pair often disagreeing leaving ill feeling in the air.
After the murder, Father Robinson’s accommodation was searched as was many of those who lived within the hospital in close proximity to the chapel. Police were aware of the tales being told of grievances between Father Robinson and the murdered nun and of the argument that had ensued less than 24-hours before her death. In his office, they found a letter opener similar in size and shape to many of Sister Pahl’s injuries leading police to wonder if they have found the murder weapon. Taken away for testing a small spot of possible blood was found just under the handle, however, forensic testing was unable to provide a conclusive result. As time went on, Father Gerald Robinson remained a person of interest in the case but with no evidence, the police were unable to move forward. The Church in response moved Father Robinson away from the Mercy Hospital and to another parish to allow him to continue his work uninterrupted.
In the early 1980’s, the Catholic Church was still in the habit of covering up unsavoury behaviours by their priests, most often by simply moving them on to a new location. The Church routinely interfered with any police investigations, most notably where there were allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse which, as we have seen in recent years, were practices much more prevalent than anyone could have imagined.
For the next 23 years, the murder of Sister Pahl remained unsolved and Father Gerald Robinson continued providing sermons to parishioners at various posts at the instruction of the Catholic Church.
In 2003, a publicly unnamed woman came forward among the growing number of women reporting historical sexual abuse. She claimed she had recently recovered memories of being sexually abused as a child and being involved in satanic rituals within the Catholic Church, naming a now 65-year-old Father Gerald Robinson as one of her abusers. Although her case was not taken forward, her statements renewed the interest in Father Robinson and a cold case detective team began looking into the murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl once again.
Retrieving the original evidence in the case, mainly the letter-opener found in Father Robinson’s office, modern forensic testing was carried out which still could not conclusively confirm the presence of blood on the object. New testing did, however, find a DNA profile from under the fingernails of Sister Pahl and from inside her underwear. The profile was male but it did not match Father Robinson. Undeterred, detectives re-interviewed the witnesses from that Easter Saturday in 1980, gathering a number of statements which placed Father Robinson at the scene of the crime around the time of the murder, statements which were not on file from two decades ago. With this evidence, in April 2004 Father Robinson was arrested and charged with murder.
After the testimony of Catholic expert Reverend Jeffrey Hob, said to be an expert on rituals, during the 2006 murder trial, many news outlets reported the murder as ‘ritualistic’ and ‘satanic’ often referring to nine stab wounds to her chest in the shape of an inverted crucifix. The theory was that the injuries inflicted on Sister Pahl had meaning and only a Catholic priest with that knowledge could have carried out the murder.
Another piece of evidence which would become a point of focus in the case was a piece of alter cloth with a stain which police believed to be a blood stain imprint matching the medallion on the handle of the letter opener. Renowned forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee testified at trial that although the letter-opener could have been the murder weapon, he could not be certain and that the killer may have purposefully laid out Sister Pahl’s body with her clothes in disarray to mislead police towards a sexual motive for the attack.
An elderly looking Father Gerald Robinson listened as the prosecution outlined their case against him. The evidence was circumstantial but with a possible murder weapon in his possession, a motive after the heated disagreement with the nun the previous day and various sightings of him at the scene of the crime in the right time-frame, they had built a case that he was the perpetrator of this horrific murder. “I think this was the final straw. He just snapped,” they told the jury referring the argument with the Sister the previous day. In his defense, his lawyers highlighted the inconclusive test results on the letter-opener as the murder weapon and the male DNA profile found on Sister Pahl that did not match Father Robinson. The jury was not swayed and they found Father Robinson guilty of murder. Sentenced to 15 years to life in prison at age 68, unless an appeal was successful, Father Gerald Robinson was destined to die in prison.
Despite numerous court filings highlighting the lack of evidence against him for this murder, Gerald Robinson was not granted an appeal. Eight years later, he died in July 2014 after suffering a heart attack and being moved to an Ohio corrections hospital. His death brings closure to many that the man who brutally murdered an elderly nun was brought to justice. For others, the DNA evidence that did not match Father Robinson and the lack of any other physical evidence against him, suggests someone else was the real perpetrator. The Sisters of Mercy order in which Sister Margaret Ann Pahl belonged said in a statement after receiving news of his death, “Though Sister Margaret Ann has been gone from our midst for  years, we do not forget her.”