May 13, 2006

Abuse Scandal Has Changed View of Priests

Filed at 1:50 p.m. ET

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) -- Few people dared to say anything bad about priests in 1980, when Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was found stabbed to death in a hospital chapel. Even when the hospital's chaplain emerged as the only suspect, witnesses were reluctant to implicate the priest.

But the sex abuse scandal that has since swept through the Roman Catholic Church has changed the way people view clergy.

''Times are very different in many ways,'' Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said after the Rev. Gerald Robinson was convicted last week of murdering the nun 26 years after her death.

Prosecutors reminded jurors of that in their final arguments, telling them it would have been difficult right after Pahl's death to convince a jury that a priest was capable of murder.

''All the scandals that have occurred have certainly changed the climate,'' Chris Anderson, an assistant prosecutor, said after the verdict. ''People still hold priests in high reverence, but this may change things.''

Robinson, 68, was sentenced Thursday to a mandatory term of 15 years to life in prison for murdering Pahl, 71, a day before Easter.

Jurors needed just six hours last week to determine that he choked and stabbed her in what prosecutors called a ''rage killing.'' They say he grew angry with her because she was a dominating, strict figure.

The two worked together at Mercy Hospital, where she supervised nurses before retiring to become the chapel caretaker.

Robinson became a suspect within two weeks of the killing. Some hospital employees pointed the finger at him right away, but others were hesitant.

Grace Jones, who testified at the trial that she saw Robinson leave the chapel with a duffel bag in hand, was hesitant to get involved in 1980, Anderson said.

''She told us that a black woman couldn't accuse a priest of doing anything wrong back then,'' Anderson said. Her account was a key moment because it placed the priest at the murder scene and contradicted his claim that he was in his room that morning.

The nun's nephew, Lee Pahl, said no one wanted to believe a quarter-century ago that a man of God could do anything wrong. ''If this was 1980, people wouldn't be nearly as open to believing that a priest could do this,'' he said.

Some studies suggest that people no longer view priests as being holier than themselves or better human beings than themselves, said James Davidson, a Purdue University sociologist who specializes in Catholicism.

''It's true that if you look back at the pre-Vatican II days of the 1940s and 1950s, Catholics did look up to priests. They occupied a higher status than lay people. Both priests and lay people understood this to be the case,'' Davidson said.

The sex abuse scandal has had a profound effect.

Clergy molestation cases first drew national attention in the mid-1980s, with the case of an abusive priest in the Diocese of Lafayette, La. New claims came to light over the next decade or so, but the scandal broke wide open in January 2002 with the case of a predator priest in the Archdiocese of Boston. Studies commissioned by the nation's bishops found that the total number of accusations against U.S. Catholic clergy now stands at more than 12,000 since 1950.

Now, some people automatically assume that an accused priest must have done it, said James Hitchcock, a history professor at St. Louis University who has written about the church.

''They might not have been so quick to say that in 1980,'' he said, adding that reverence for priests can cut both ways.

''If you think he did do something bad, the shock and anger could be greater,'' he said. ''So instead of giving him a free ride, people might be more inclined to say he should pay for it.''

Robinson's defense attorney, John Thebes, said he didn't think the verdict hinged on whether Robinson was a Catholic priest or on the sex abuse scandals.

''The two, to me, aren't similar,'' Thebes said. ''The only similarity is that he's a priest.''


Associated Press writer Matt Leingang in Columbus contributed to this report.