TOLEDO, Ohio -- When Gerald Robinson, a Roman Catholic priest for 50 years, died on July 4, two factors were unresolved.
The appeals process after his 2006 conviction in the nationally publicized 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl had not been exhausted and, with his death, the courts will not take further action, so officially and legally, he died a murderer who was convicted by a jury of his peers.
And, because he did not publicly confess to the crime, his life ended without good or evil being determined definitively, according to Catholic doctrine.
Because his appeal of the criminal conviction was ongoing, he remained a priest, according to church officials, even though he had been barred from giving public ministry. He was buried as a priest Friday in Toledo.
In a statement from the Diocese of Toledo, the Rev. Charles Ritter, administrator of the diocese until Pope Francis names a new bishop, said: “Whether in the eyes of God Father Robinson was or was not guilty of this crime, I do not know. I do know that he is the work of God’s hands, as are we all. He was a sinner, as are we all.
“He was a baptized member of the body of Christ, and he was, and remains an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic Church,: he said . And that was the ”context“ for the funeral.
But according to the beliefs of the Catholic Church, what is the state of Father Robinson’s soul? Did he commit a sin that damned him to hell? Or was he innocent and is now in heaven?
The doctrine of his church says that if he killed another human but did not confess it, he committed a grave sin and eternal salvation is not possible.
Murder is “gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator,” says paragraph 2261 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and paragraph 1857 says a mortal sin is “grave matter ... committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”
Attorneys for Father Robinson presented documents alleging that another person, serial killer Coral Eugene Watts, strangled and stabbed Sister Margaret Ann.
If Father Robinson was indeed innocent of the crime and continued to live in an appropriately Christian way during his incarceration, then the church would consider his soul to be bound for heaven.
If Father Robinson confessed privately that he killed Sister Margaret Ann, but continued publicly to assert his innocence, that would not be seen as repentant.
“The sacrament of penance requires full contrition of every sinful act,” noted Peter Feldmeier, holder of the Margaret and Thomas Murray and James J. Bacik Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo.
In an email, Mr. Feldmeier continued: “The very nature of the sacrament is the joining of the fully repentant sinner with a loving God. It is morally and religiously inconceivable that one would privately concede a sinful act, be truly repentant, and then publicly lie about it.
“To falsely declare one’s innocence and to imagine that one’s guilt could be addressed privately would be the height of religious hypocrisy and, in fact, it would make the sacrament invalid for that person.”
If he was innocent, though, earthly legal actions — such as his murder conviction — would presumably have no effect in divinity.
In the Catholic Church’s view of an afterlife, “at the very moment of his death” Father Robinson received “his eternal retribution in his immortal soul,” according to paragraph 1022 of the catechism. That retribution, it states, is heaven now, heaven after purifying time in purgatory, or hell.
In Catholic beliefs, only God knows the state of Gerald Robinson’s soul.
The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. TK Barger is religion editor at The Blade.