On November 7, 1969, 26-year-old Sister Catherine Cesnik vanished. Her body was found a few months later, discarded unceremoniously in a garbage dump. The investigation into her disappearance and death revealed rampant abuse at her place of employment, Keough High School, a prominent Catholic school in Baltimore, Maryland. Many believe a quiet cover-up orchestrated by the Catholic Church and local Baltimore officials allowed Sister Cesnik’s murderers to remain free.
The disappearance of Sister Catherine Cesnik
Sister Cesnik was a teacher at Archbishop Keough High School, an all-girls Catholic school located at 120 Caton Avenue in Baltimore, Maryland (the school later merged with Seton High School and is now known as Seton Keough High School). Only a month or so prior to her disappearance, Sister Cesnik had inexplicably requested a “period of exclaustration”, a time granted by the Church to test civilian life outside the convent. Her final months at Keough had been tumultuous. Silent rumors persisted, suggesting forbidden love interests inside the school – between Catherine and a priest – and between adults and the young girls attending the school.
After Notre Dame superiors granted her request for exclaustration, Sister Cesnik terminated her employment at Keough High School to take a new job at Western High School, a public school in Baltimore.
Wearing a navy-blue suit and an aqua-colored coat, Sister Cesnik left her home at the Carriage House Apartments on North Bend Road around 8:00 PM on Friday November 7, 1969. Records show she cashed her $255 paycheck at a bank in Catonsville, Maryland and drove to the Edmondson Village Shopping Center. When she did not return home by 11:00 PM, her roommate, Sister Helen Russell Phillips, called two priest friends, Jesuit Father Gerard J. “Gerry” Koob and Father Peter McKeon. Sister Phillips, who was also considering an exit from the Catholic Church, waited in her apartment for 30 minutes until the two priests arrived. The three discussed the situation and then called the police to report Sister Cesnik’s disappearance.
After enduring several hours of police questioning at the apartment, the two priests left for a walk to calm their nerves. At around 4:00 AM, they stumbled across Sister Cesnik’s new green Ford Maverick illegally parked awkwardly about a block from the apartment. The scene was unusual. The rear end of the car stuck out into the street. Although there were no signs of a struggle around the car, there were leaves scattered about in the front seat and a twisted twig hung from the turn signal indicator. The location of the abandoned car was odd too. Sister Cesnik had a reserved parking spot behind her apartment.
Police, church members, and members of the local community assembled and combed the area looking for her. It would be months before her body was found.
Who was Sister Catherine “Cathy” Cesnik?
Catherine Cesnik spent her youth at 23 Downlook Street in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, just one block off the Allegheny River. She was deeply religious, strikingly beautiful, and wonderfully exuberant. She attended St. Augustine Catholic High School in 1956 where she began thinking about entering sisterhood. On September 29, 1960, Cathy entered the Baltimore Province convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame as a candidate for sisterhood. She professed her final vows and became a nun on July 21, 1967.
Sister Cesnik began work at Archbishop Keough High School only two years after it opened. At Keough, she was a popular instructor. Described by students as the “Pied Piper” of teachers, she played guitar and wrote music for the girls to play. Students say the door to Sister Cesnik’s office was always open to them and that they would freely tell her their deepest secrets.
Nick Giangrasso takes the case
28-year-old Nick Giangrasso had been a detective for Baltimore City Police Department for five years when he was assigned Sister Cesnik’s case. For three months, he led search for her. One of his first tasks was to interview Father A. Joseph Maskell. Giangrasso felt that Cesnik’s disappearance was related to someone at the church. He would later recall he attempted to interview Father Maskell several times.
“He was always busy and never available. It got to the point that Maskell was the number one guy we wanted to talk to, but we never got a chance.”
At the time of the investigation, Father Maskell was in his early 30’s. He began working at Keough in 1967, around the same time Sister Cesnik began her tenure there. Maskell had an advanced degree in psychology from John Hopkins University, a title he freely and frequently boasted of. Giangrasso recognized that Father Maskell was charming, good looking, and intelligent – and that the young girls at Keough were terrified of him. His investigation revealed that like Cesnik, Father Maskell’s door was always open to the girls who were free to discuss with him their troubles at home, secret drug usage, and forbidden sexual encounters.
The discovery of Sister Cesnik’s body
On January 3, 1970, two hunters passing through a garbage dump off the 2100 block of Monumental Avenue in Lansdowne, Maryland, noticed something buried in the snow on the slope of a small hill. Catherine’s body was laying on its back, a purse and one shoe only a few feet away. Inside the purse was s prescription bottle with Catherine Cesnik’s name on it. The disappearance of Cesnik became a murder investigation.
Nick Giangrasso was taken off Cesnik’s case and it was reassigned to Baltimore County detective Louis George “Bud” Roemer. Like Giangrasso, Roemer would come to believe that the police department and Chief Donald Pomerleau knew more about the case than they were willing to share.
“The Catholic Church had a lot of input into the police department. A lot of power.”
Catherine’s body had choke marks on the neck, blunt force trauma on the side of her head, and a quarter-sized hole in the back of her skull. An autopsy confirmed that she had been killed by a blow from a blunt object. Investigators could not determine if she had been raped but the disarray of her clothing suggested something was amiss.
“I’d been working homicide for about 10 years when Sister Cathy was killed and I’d never heard of a ‘random killing’ where the stranger who kills you carefully returns your car to your apartment house. In that situation, the killer usually wants to get the hell away from there. The last thing he wants is to return to the area, where he might be spotted driving the victim’s car.”
Detectives questioned neighbors once more and found a resident who remembered seeing Cesnik leave her home around 8:30 PM, wave to the driver of a car that pulled into the parking lot, then driving off following it.
Father Gerard Koob is revisited
Roemer’s first person of interest was Jesuit priest Gerard Koob, one of the priests who went to Cesnik’s apartment after her roommate Sister Helen Phillips called for assistance. Roemer noted that Koob was also the one who called police to report Cesnik missing.
Roemer believed Koob had been in some sort of relationship with Sister Cesnik at the time of her disappearance. At first, Koob insisted that they were just good friends. Roemer was not convinced and asked, “But why would Sister Russell have called you instead of the police after Cathy disappeared that night?”
During a visit with Koob, Roemer noticed a letter on a desk. It was a romantic note from Cesnik written to Koob. He saw from the postmark that the letter had arrived days after Sister Cesnik’s disappearance. When Roemer confronted Koob with the letter, the priest broke down and admitted that they were having an affair (Koob now denies the affair). Roemer found that two years earlier, before Cesnik took her final vows, Koob had asked Cesnik to marry him. She said “no”.
Koob told police that on the night of Cesnik’s disappearance, he had eaten dinner with Father Peter McKeon (the other priest that went to Cesnik’s home the night she disappeared) and then attended a movie (Easy Rider). He produced receipts and ticket stubs as proof.
Still, Roemer felt Kook knew more than he was telling the police. As he tried to glean more information on Koob, church lawyers showed up at the station. According to Harry Bannon, a Baltimore City homicide investigator:
“We thought Koob was about to break and then the church lawyers stepped in at talked to the higher-ups at the police department and we were told to either charge Koob with a crime or let him go.”
Baltimore City Paper breaks a story
Years after Cesnik’s murder, Baltimore City Paper published details of their investigation into rumored illicit activity at the school. City Paper found multiple reports of sexual abuse at Keough (now called Seton Keough High School). According to some of the students, Father Joseph Maskell and another priest were the perpetrators of abuse and harassment. The paper also found another potential murder victim, 20-year-old Joyce Malecki who disappeared on November 11, just four days after Cesnik was reported missing.
Malecki’s body was found on Thursday, November 13 in a small creek (Little Patuxent River) in the Soldiers Park section of the U.S. Army’s Fort Meade military base. City Paper recognized that her body was found only a few miles from where Cesnik’s body was found.
Malecki’s hands were tied behind her back and she had been strangled and stabbed. Scratches and bruised were found on the body indicating she had struggled with her attacker. When they found that Malecki attended the same Catholic church where Maskell had served as parish priest, the possibility that the two murders were related grew stronger.
Malecki was a secretary for a liquor distributor in Baltimore and resident of Lansdowne, the town where Cesnik’s body was found. It was determined that Malecki had been abducted from the parking lot of an E.J. Korvette’s department store in Glen Burnie around 7:00 PM. At the time she was found, Cesnik’s case was still considered a disappearance and not a murder. Thus, no link between the two had been suspected. Like Cesnik’s case, Malecki’s murder has never been solved.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore’s record of abuse
Once Baltimore City Paper broke news of potential abuse at Seton Keough, reporters took a closer look at the school’s overseer – the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The Archdiocese of Baltimore is the oldest in the United States and the premier Catholic jurisdiction in the US. Half of Baltimore’s residents are Catholic and priests in the city are well protected. According to the Survivors Network, from 1980 through 2015, Baltimore City police have charged only three of the 37 Baltimore priests who have been accused of sexual abuse. Of the three, two were convicted. One of the two convictions was eventually overturned.
Father Joseph Maskell
Maskell’s ties to area police were renowned. At the time of Cesnik’s disappearance, Father Joseph Maskell served as the chaplain for Baltimore County police, Maryland State police, and Maryland National Guard. Locals knew Maskell kept a police scanner and loaded shotgun in his car and that he maintained close friendships with local police, often drinking beer with them after their shifts. His older brother, Tommy Maskell, was a lieutenant with the Baltimore Police and became a local hero after surviving a gunshot wound suffered during a robbery call.
Giangrasso had always suspected Father Maskell was somehow involved with Cesnik’s murder. Her body was found just outside of Maskell’s jurisdiction, in Baltimore County. Giangrasso felt that was not a coincidence.
Two decades later, two students come forward and confirm Baltimore City Paper’s report of abuse at Seton Keough
In 1994, two former students filed a lawsuit against the school claiming they were abused. In the suit, they say the abuse included “vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, vaginal penetration with a vibrator, administration of enemas, . . . hypnosis, threats of physical violence, coerced prostitution and other lewd acts, physically striking Plaintiff, and forcing Plaintiff to perform sexual acts with a police officer.”
Too afraid to reveal their names, in the lawsuit they were identified as Jane Doe and Jane Roe. They directly implicated Father Maskell claiming he raped them while they were students at Keough. Their lawsuit was filed against Maskell, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who ran Keough, and a Baltimore gynecologist named Dr. Christian Richter.
Judge Hilary Caplan dismissed the lawsuit under the Statute of Limitations. During the trial, the girls informed the court that at the time, Sister Cesnik was the only person who tried to help them. They felt certain that Cesnik was murdered because of what she knew.
A groundskeeper reveals a startling story
Years after the case, a Baltimore detective leaked details of an incredible story. Hiding behind the name “Deep Throat”, the detective says that shortly after the dismissal of the lawsuit, William Story, a groundskeeper at Holy Cross Cemetery, came forward with a startling account. Story told the detective that in July 1990, Maskell ordered him to dig a 12 by 12 foot hole in the graveyard “so he could bury a truckload of confidential files in it.”
Story say the hold was dug in a remote section of the cemetery surrounded by undergrowth. After the hole was dug, a pickup driven by a man he believed to be a relative of Father Maskell arrived and the two began throwing papers into the pit. Once the pit was filled, he was ordered to backfill the hole and seed the ground with grass so no trace of the pit could ever be found. Story says he rummaged through some of the papers before filling the hole. Indeed, most appeared to be student records. However, he claimed at least one box contained pictures of young girls – nude.
Deep Throat says police believed the man’s story. They arrived at the cemetery at 7:00 AM with a backhoe and exhumed the boxes. Most were filled with psychological evaluations of Keough girls and cancelled checks. However, at least one box did contain nude pictures of young girls.
Deep Throat says the discovery was covered up. He recalled one of his superiors calling him and saying,
“Listen kid, this is a career buster. We knew who the hell killed her back when it happened, and you’ll find out, and you’re gonna find out things you shouldn’t find out. Let it go.”
Victims breathe a sigh of relief after a priest dies
Deep Throat says he was unable to question Maskell about the pictures. During the exhumation, Maskell checked himself into a treatment facility for help “coping with stress”. A few weeks later, Maskell quietly checked himself out and fled to Ireland where he continued to work as a priest.
A few years later, in 2001, Father Maskell died. Lawsuit plaintiffs Jane Doe and Jane Roe were the first to reveal their identities. They were Teresa Lancaster and Jean Wehner.
Jean Wehner’s account of abuse at Keough
According to Jean Hargadon Wehner, in November 1969, 30-year-old Father Joseph Maskell, the chaplain of Archbishop Keough High School, called the 16-year-old student to his office and suggested he give her a ride home. Maskell was known to give rides to students so Wehner reluctantly accepted his offer.
Wehner says that instead of taking her home, Maskell drove her to a garbage dump on the outskirts of Baltimore. He led her across the dump to a green dumpster where she saw the body of Sister Cesnik on the ground.
“I knew it was her. She wasn’t that far gone that you couldn’t tell it was her.”
Jean was disturbed to see maggots crawling across the sister’s face. She attempted to brush them off. Maskell knelt behind her and whispered in her ear, “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?”
Jean would later tell investigators that a “man from the priest’s office” told her that he had beaten Sister Catherine to death “because of what she knew”.
Jean remained silent for more than two decades.
Teresa Lancaster’s account of abuse at Keough
Teresa Lancaster bolstered Wehner’s claims. According to Lancaster, (Jane Roe in the lawsuit), her abuse began after she approached Father Maskell about a problem at home. Teresa’s parents, stout Catholics, had found marijuana in her purse and she was concerned about what they may do. Maskell invited her into his office where she says he stripped off her clothes and demanded she sit on his lap. According to Lancaster, Maskell told her:
“I know I’m not supposed to do this but I find I can really help people when I have physical contact with them.”
During the months that followed, Maskell would frequently call her to his officer over the school’s loudspeaker.
“Teresa Lancaster, report to my office now for therapy.”
To keep her quiet, she says Maskell showed her a loaded shotgun in his school desk and threatened to expel her or send her to the Montrol School for Girls (a juvenile facility in Reisterstown, Maryland) if she told anyone about the abuse.
“He let me know that I either went along with whatever he wanted to do, or it was gonna be worse than I could ever imagine.”
Donna VonDenBosch comes forward and implicates the school’s gynecologist
“I remember being in class, just crying, ‘Don’t make me go, don’t make me go!’ And the teacher pulled me out in the hall and said, ‘We all know he’s a weirdo, but you have to go.’”
According to VonDenBosch, another priest, Father Neil Magnus, also participated in the abuse. Magnus was the school’s Religious Services Director. He and Maskell would her her into the office for “joint counseling sessions” where they would take nude photos of her and force her to perform sexual acts with them.
Donna also says a gynecologist, Dr. Christian Richter, would examine the girls to make sure they were not pregnant. A local auto repair owner recalls Maskell bragging about the girls he took to see Dr. Richter and how he participated in the girls’ “exams”.
“Me and the doctor, we take them back and we give them exams and check them.”
During the 1994 lawsuit, Dr. Richter confirmed the girl’s account.
“It’s possible he may have been in the examining room, in the absence of parents, I don’t know, to calm the girl. It’s very possible he might have come in the examining room. She was 16. She probably had a good deal of faith in him.”
Several more girls came forward claiming they were participants in what they considered to be mock gynecological exams and enemas.
Donna VonDenBosch says she became suicidal during the years of abuse at Keough but was too afraid of Maskell to report the abuse to authorities.
Wehner’s story in doubt – then evidence is confirmed and more victims come forward
Jean Wehner’s account of the events seemed far-fetched and fantastical. Initially, police were skeptical. Her claim that she saw maggots crawling on Cesnik’s body was questioned. It was November and police believed no maggots would have been present on the body so late in the year due to the cold weather. However, they reviewed the case files and found that the autopsy showed that in fact, there were maggots in Cesnik’s throat. The detail had never been revealed to the public.
After Teresa Lancaster and Jean Wehner came forward, eight more victims reported instances of abuse to the authorities. In 2015, Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said the church now acknowledged that Maskell was “credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors”. By then, Maskell had been dead for more than a decade.
Horrific accounts of abuse at Keogh emerge
In the end, more than thirty women came forward with details of sexual abuse at the school. Several women say their abuse was much worse than reported by the other women. In fact, according to more than a third of those who came forward, the abuse included an organized ring of sexual predators that, with cooperation from church officials, openly targeted the students.
Wehner says Maskell once drove her to St. Clement Church where he conducted weekly services. After the service, she says a string of men abused her in his office. She recalls their names seeming fake, “Brother Ed, Brother Ted, Brother Bob”. She remembers the men giving money to Maskell afterward as “donations”.
“He was prostituting us.”
Shockingly, the women recall uniformed police officers participating in the abuse. Two former Keough students and a third woman who attended St. Clement Church told Huffington Post in 2015 that they were abused by the priests and several other men. One recalled,
“I remember the back door light coming through and a policeman wearing dark pants, a white shirt and a badge coming in the back door.”
She says she then fell asleep and awoke in Maskell’s office. At the time, she was puzzled why her shirt was buttoned up differently than she had buttoned it that morning.
Sister Cathy Cesnik tries to assist the abused girls
All victims agree that Sister Cathy Cesnik was the only person who offered to help. Wehner recalled an instance in 1969 when Cesnik pulled her aside and asked, “Are the priests hurting you?” When Wehner nodded yes, Cesnik told her to go home, have a great summer, and not worry about it. Cesnik guaranteed her that the situation would be resolved when she returned.
Kathy Hobeck also recalls Cesnik protecting her on many occasions. When her name was announced over the school’s loudspeaker, Sister Cesnik would often “cover for her”.
“She would make excuses for me when he would ask me to come down [to his office]. She’d say, ‘She’s in a study, she can’t get away,’ or she’d make up a story.”
Hobeck and a friend remember visiting Cesnik at her apartment shortly after Cesnik terminated her employment at Keough to take the job at Western High School. Cesnik asked the girls if the priests were still bothering them.
“We told her no, and that was the end of it.”
A key detail surfaced when Huffington Post reported a student revealed she was with Cesnik the night before she disappeared. The woman recalled they were in the middle of a conversation when Maskell and Magnus burst into the apartment. Appearing angry and panicked, Maskell shouted that he knew why the girl was there. The woman fled the apartment. The next day at school, Maskell called her into his office and with a gun in hand, threatened to “kill her, her boyfriend, and her entire family” if she ever told anyone about the abuse. Sister Cesnik vanished that night.
1991 abuse report
In 2015, researchers found that Jean Wehner had approached the Baltimore Archdiocese in 1992 to report the abuse. By this time, Maskell had already left Keough (in 1975) and was reassigned to Holy Cross Church, about four miles from Keough. Church officials claim that Maskell was temporarily removed from service and forced to attend a psychological evaluation. According to the Huffington Post:
“Maskell was referred for evaluation and treatment over the next several months. During that time, the Archdiocese attempted to corroborate the allegation, which Maskell denied, by seeking out any additional victims on its own and through the attorney representing the individuals who initially came forward. After months of trying unsuccessfully to corroborate the allegation, the Archdiocese returned Maskell to ministry.”
The participants today
Father Magnus died in 1988.
Father Maskell died on May 7, 2001 at 62 years of age from a major stroke.
Dr. Richter died in 2006.
As of 2104, Father Gerard J. “Gerry” Koob is a 63-year-old married Methodist minister. He continues to insist he never had a physical relationship of any kind with Sister Cathy Cesnik.
Is one of Sister Cesnik’s murderers alive today?
In 2013, many of the women who suffered abuse at the hands of the Keough school priests started a private Facebook group where they could share stories and investigate the accustations on their own. They believe one suspect involved with Cesnik’s death is still alive.
The group found that police considered him a person of interest in the Cesnik murder in the 1990’s. The man’s wife, who chose to remain anonymous, told a local CBS affiliate,
“I instinctively felt that when Sister Cathy was murdered, that my husband at the time had committed the murder. The night that she was murdered sticks out in my mind so clearly because when my husband came in, I remember looking up at him in shock because he had blood all over his white shirt. And he said, ‘I got into a fight.”
It is theorized that the suspect may have been paid by the priests to operate the alleged organized sex ring.
Official list of suspects in the murder of Cathy Cesnik
Was a serial killer loose in Baltimore?
Police have looked into whether Cesnik’s death is related to the deaths of three other young women in the Baltimore area around the same time.
According to police, Joyce Helen Malecki, 20, disappeared from a shopping mall only days after Cesnik on November 11, 1969, in Glen Burnie, a suburb of Baltimore.
Pamela Lynn Conyers, 16, was last seen at the shopping mall in Glen Burnie on October 16, 1970, police said.
Grace Elizabeth Montanye, 16, met a stranger at a shopping mall on Sept 29, 1971 in south Baltimore, according to police.
“They were all young, attractive women, police said, who looked similar. They were last known to be headed to or last seen at shopping centers in the area, the same as Cesnik.”
Sources: Wikipedia, Who Killed Sister Cathy website, Huffington Post, WJZ CBS Baltimore, Fox News Baltimore, Netflix The Keepers, Baltimore Sun, Inside Baltimore, Netflix The Keepers, CNN