Sister Christian: The Murder of Catherine Cesnik

This case has fascinated me the second I learned about it, and it’s a case that I’ve been wanting to bring to light for a while now. This unsolved murder served as the basis of the Netflix documentary ‘The Keepers’ which premiered in 2017. This blog is about the still unsolved murder of Catherine “Cathy” Cesnik. 

Catherine Anne Cesnik was born on November 17th, 1942, in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was the eldest child of Joseph and Anna Omulac Cesnik. Her paternal grandparents, John and Johanna Tomec Česnik, were Slovenians who emigrated from Yugoslavia, while her maternal grandfather, Joseph Omulac, came from Yugoslavia and maternal grandmother, Martha Hudok, came from Austria. Catherine had three siblings. 

Catherine attended St. Mary’s School on 57th Street and at St. Augustine High School, both in Lawrenceville. She was the valedictorian of her Catholic high school class in 1960, where she had also been the May Queen and the president of the senior class and student council. While attending St. Augustine’s Catholic High School, she contemplated becoming a nun. 

After graduation, Cathy moved to Baltimore to enter the Baltimore Province of the SSND in 1960 and took final vows on July 21st, 1967. Her professed name was Sister Joanita. (But seeing as her real name was Catherine, or Cathy, I’ll only refer to her using those names, and not as Sister Joanita.)

She began her teaching career at Archbishop Keough High School on Caton Avenue (renamed Seton-Keough) when the school opened its doors in 1965. She taught English literature and oversaw the school’s drama club. She was an energetic, enthusiastic and dedicated teacher. More importantly, she was supportive and alert to her students at the all-girls school. 

Sister Cathy was looked at (by her students) as a big sister. She exemplified a spirit of compassion and kindness. Some of her students have said that they felt seen by Sister Catherine- that she opened up to them, and them to her. Her students blossomed under her leadership. Students looked forward to going to English class. 

Sister Catherine was 25 years old while she worked at Keough High School. Although many of the Sisters were older, there were some that were Catherine’s age. But Catherine was the stand-out of them. She was beautiful. Many of the students at Keough wondered why Sister Catherine would want to devout herself to the religious life when she was so gorgeous. 

Then… some things started to happen at Archbishop Keough High School that really bothered Catherine. Many believe that Catherine had learned that sexual assaults were happening to students by a priest. Because of this, Sister Catherine requested permission to take a sabbatical from the Order, which was granted. Meanwhile, Catherine moved in with another nun- Sister Russell; into an apartment in the Edmondson Village area of Baltimore. (The apartment complex was called the Carriage House.) She also decided to teach at Western High School beginning in the fall of 1969.

That priest who was allegedly sexually abusing the girls at Archbishop Keough High School was Father Joseph Maskell. Prior to accusations of sexual abuse against female students at Keough High School, Maskell was first accused of forcing an altar boy at St. Clement Church – Charles Franz – to drink wine before sexually abusing him. Franz and his mother came forward in 1967. The next year, instead of charging or removing Maskell from the ministry, the Archdiocese of Baltimore simply removed him from St. Clement and sent him to a neighboring parish, Our Lady of Victory. There, his duties included acting as the moderator of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). During CYO dances, Maskell frequently left a BCPD auxiliary officer to act as security while he went on ride-alongs with other BCPD officers. When sent to Our Lady of Victory, he was also assigned the position of chaplain/counselor at the all-girl Keough High School. While there, his abuse continued and became progressively worse.

Archbishop Keough High School was the jewel of the Archdiocese, and was a prestigious school. Girls from all over the area begged to be accepted. The school had labs and state-of-the-art equipment. It had a large gym, and a large field outside for the girls to play sports. The school tried to brand itself “Women Of A New Age”, and it was all about women trying to reach their full potential. It was supposed to be a safe place. 

Jean Hargadon Wehner, a student at Keough, alleged she first confided to Father E. Neil Magnus in 1968 about sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her uncle when she was a child, beginning at the age of 14. Father Magnus then sexually abused Jean and blamed her for being promiscuous. Later, Father Maskell joined in the abuse of Jean. Jean stated she was far more frightened of Maskell, who she found to be more intimidating and threatening. Father Maskell repeatedly called her a “whore” and forced her to swallow his semen, claiming she was “receiving the Holy Spirit.” 

Many students of Keough state that there were many girls coming and going out of Father Maskell’s office, all the time. Some girls learned that Maskell was letting girls smoke in his office, as long as they had “conversations” with him. 

After one such assault in Maskell’s office, Jean left, but was disoriented as she walked down the hallway to her class. It was Sister Catherine who stopped her, and asked her where she needed to be and if she needed help. During another occasion, as Jean waited outside of Maskell’s office, Sister Catherine walked by and addressed her. Once Father Maskell opened up the door, Sister Catherine acknowledged Maskell, and asked him about Jean and said, “I didn’t know Jean needed these services.” Father Maskell told Sister Catherine that it’s been “effective” and he immediately shut the door. 

Father Maskell would page students to his office via the sound speaker. Because he was a “counselor”, it wasn’t odd for him to request students to his office on a frequent basis. However, anytime he paged someone, a silence would fall over the room, and the nuns would lower their heads while other students would give sad looks to the student who was being paged. It was like everyone knew something was going on, but no one was willing to do or say anything about it. 

But, perhaps, maybe there was someone who had said something. Or maybe, threatened to. I’m talking about Sister Catherine.

On Friday, November 7th, 1969, Sister Catherine left her Baltimore apartment for Edmondson Village Shopping Center in the early evening, according to her roommate, Sister Helen Russell Phillips. It was around 7:30pm. Sister Catherine then cashed a paycheck for $255 at the First National Bank at 705 Frederick Road in Catonsville. She also made a purchase at a bakery in Edmondson Village. According to Sister Russell, Cathy was also planning to go to Hecht’s to buy an engagement gift for her sister.

Early in the morning of November 8th, 1969, Sister Russell grew concerned for Catherine and how she never returned home from her errands the night before. Sister Russell called two friends, Rev. Peter McKeow and Rev. Gerard J. Koob, who drove to Baltimore from Beltsville to comfort her.  After hearing Sister Russell’s story, the three called city police to report Sister Catherine missing. At 4:40am, Rev. McKeow found Sister Catherine’s unlocked car, a green 1970 Maverick, in the 4500 block of Carriage Court. (Other reports have Sister Russell and Rev. Koob also finding the car with Rev. McKeow). The vehicle was towed to the city’s Southwestern District station. 

The car was processed by the crime lab. In the vehicle, police found a box of buns purchased at the bakery, along with leaves and twigs. Branches had been caught in the car’s radio antenna. A twig hooked with yellow thread was found on the turn-signal lever. Police theorized that Sister Catherine may have left the car and gone into a wooded area. The car was found a mile from sprawling, wooded Leakin Park. Police, aided by K-9 dogs and civilians, searched the Leakin Park and Irvington areas of the city without a trace.

The missing nun was described as 5 feet, 5 inches tall, 115 pounds with green eyes, blonde hair and a fair complexion. She was wearing an aqua coat, navy blue suit, yellow sweater and black high-heeled shoes.

By Sunday, November 9th, 1969, thirty-five city police officers and 5 dog teams scoured a 14-block area of southwest Baltimore from dawn until dusk. Police knocked on doors, searched alleys and deserted buildings, and sent men and dogs through rain-soaked park areas from Athol Avenue to the Baltimore County line. They were aided by many civilian searchers.

On Monday, November 10th, 1969, police continued to check tips and leads but didn’t resume large-scale searches.  Captain John C. Barnhold Jr., head of the city’s homicide squad, said there was “no evidence of foul play” in Sister Catherine’s disappearance. “We could find no evidence of violence of any kind,” Barnhold said.

The following day, Tuesday, November 11th, 1969, city homicide detectives said they had no reason to believe that Sister Catherine was kidnapped. Police said they were trying to piece together what happened during a two-hour period on November 7th, when Cathy went missing. (At 8:30pm, residents saw Cathy’s car drive into her reserved parking spot, however the car was later spotted illegally parked about a block away at about 10:30pm.)

There was something else that happened on November 11th, 1969 though. Joyce Helen Malecki, aged 20, went missing. She had left her home in Baltimore to go shopping in Glen Burnie for a date with a friend stationed at Fort Meade Army base. Police begin searching for Joyce. Joyce was described as 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 112 pounds. She had brown hair and brown eyes.

On Wednesday, November 12th, 1969, Joyce’s abandoned, unlocked car was found parked in a lot of a vacant gas station in an area of Odenton called Boom Town. Her car, with the keys still in the ignition, was found by her brother. Her glasses and groceries she had purchased in Glen Burnie were found in the car. (The reason why I bring up Joyce Malecki is because her disappearance resembled Sister Catherine’s. It was established pretty early on that there could be a connection.) 

The following day, on Thursday, November 13th, 1969, Joyce’s body was found floating in the Little Patuxent River by two deer hunters on the western edge of Soldiers Park, a Fort Meade training area. The FBI and military police immediately closed the site. City police continued to check leads in the disappearance of Sister Catherine.

On November 14th, 1969, an autopsy of Joyce’s body revealed that the victim was stabbed and choked and her hands were bound together behind her back with a cord. She had a number of scratches and bruises indicating a struggle. The cause of her death was either choking or drowning — further tests were needed to determine the cause. Baltimore homicide detectives reported that Sister Catherine was still considered a missing person with no new leads.

Two days later, on November 16th, 1969, police investigated whether a pair of black high-heeled shoes found near Joyce’s watery grave belonged to Sister Catherine, who was said to be wearing black shoes at time of her disappearance. “We have no indication that they are Sister Cesnik’s shoes, but we will check it out,” Capt. Barnold said at the time.

For nearly a month and a half, there were no new leads into Cathy’s disappearance. She simply vanished into thin air. But then suddenly, on January 3rd, 1970, Sister Catherine’s partly clad body was found by two hunters- a father and son, in a remote area in Lansdowne in Baltimore County. The body, partially hidden by a snow covered embankment, was discovered about 100 yards from the 2100 block of Monumental Avenue. Police said it was probable that Cathy had been carried to the area or forced to walk there. (A car could not have been driven from Monumental Avenue to where the body was found.). An autopsy revealed a skull fracture caused by a blow to Sister Catherine’s left temple by a blunt instrument. Baltimore County Police took over the homicide investigation. (Which remains open to this day.)

Investigators learned that Joyce Malecki attended the same Catholic church where Father Maskell had served as parish priest, which meant that the possibility of Catherine’s murder and Joyce’s murder were related grew even stronger.

Between 1970 and 1977, in accordance with a timeline provided by Baltimore County Police, the Sister Catherine case was extremely active during this period. Detectives conducted numerous interviews and polygraphs. Physical evidence from the scene was collected and preserved, however, relatively little physical evidence was found at the crime scene. Because of the poor condition of the body, detectives were unable to determine if Sister Catherine had been sexually assaulted. 

After 1977, the case went dormant. Detectives received little new information. They received no calls from witnesses nor from victims alleging sexual abuse from associates of Sister Catherine’s in the Catholic Church. Or, so they claim? 

First you’re probably wondering. Um.. what does Sister Catherine’s murder have to do with the girls being sexually assaulted by Father Maskell? Well… Joan Wehner alleges that, two months before Sister Catherine’s body was discovered, and only a day or two after she disappeared, Father Maskell drove her to a wooded site near Fort Meade and showed her the body. Joan claims to remember trying repeatedly to brush off the maggots crawling on Sister Catherine’s face while frantically repeating the words, “Help me, help me.” Her account has been brought into question by some that state scientific evidence shows that it would have been impossible for maggots to be alive at that time of year. However, a detective who worked on the case later confirmed that there had in fact been maggots in both the victim’s mouth and trachea when she was found. Meteorological records also reveal that temperatures during the week in question were warm enough for maggots to hatch. It is alleged that Father Maskell reportedly told Joan, “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?” 

Joan obviously took this as a warning, and a confession. In her mind, she figured that Father Maskell murdered Sister Catherine because either he thought that Cathy was going to go to authorities about the sexual abuse, or Sister Catherine had told him as much. Joan also knew that Father Maskell was well connected. As well as being chaplain at Keough, Father Maskell also served as chaplain for the Baltimore County Police, the Maryland State Police and the Maryland Air National Guard. Father Maskell’s brother, Tommy, served 20 years with the Baltimore City Police, making lieutenant. Retired Baltimore County Police captain James Scannell (now deceased), who was the first officer on the scene when Cathy’s body was discovered, described Father Maskell as a friend and fellow officer. He told ‘The Keepers’, “He used to come in ride-alongs. He used to come down and I’d let him shoot when I was working. We’d have a little target practice.” 

In 1970, the first sexual abuse allegation against Father Maskell was made public by Joan. Father Maskell was removed from the ministry that year, and was sent for evaluation and “treatment” at The Institute of Living. Father Maskell was reinstated in August of 1993 after the Archdiocese claimed it was unable to corroborate the allegation through an internal investigation. However, on September 8th, 1993, criminal charges regarding Joan’s allegation were filed through Maryland Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III. The lawsuit was dropped after the court rejected repressed memories as a scientifically proven memory mechanism. 

In 1994, another lawsuit was filed by Joan, this time with Theresa Lancaster (another student) and four others, including allegations against gynecologist Christian Richter, who engaged in abuse with Father Maskell. In this lawsuit, Joan admits that Father Maskell took her to Sister Catherine’s body before it was found. Police noted inconsistencies in her story, and lawyers representing the Archdiocese were able to have the second lawsuit dropped due to the statute of limitations.

Father Maskell was removed from the ministry on July 31st, 1994. Maskell left his parish at St. Augustine’s in Howard County to seek therapy in the face of mounting allegations of sexual abuse. At least a dozen women alleged that Father Maskell abused them while they were students and he was a counselor at Archbishop Keough during the late 1960’s and 1970’s.  His departure came after the Archdiocese interviewed two more Keough students, who said Father Maskell sexually abused them.

That same year, following the abuse allegations, Maskell fled to Wexford, Ireland, and was placed on “temporary leave”. He was ordered not to perform any of his priestly duties. However, Maskell continued to practice psychology. According to Theresa Lancaster, “We do have word that there are two victims coming forward in Ireland.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Ferns was not made aware of Maskell’s presence in Ireland by the Archdiocese, and it was only discovered after Maskell performed Mass without approval. On June 25th, 1996, the Ferns Diocese requested information from Baltimore regarding Father Maskell, and was informed that he was placed on leave following accusations of sexual abuse and that his whereabouts were unknown to the Archdiocese. The Ferns Diocese kept a file on Maskell dating from April 19th, 1995, to September 22nd, 1998. 

From 1994 to the 2000’s, DNA profiles were taken from a half-dozen suspects, and were developed and compared to the known crime scene sample, with negative results, according to Baltimore County Police. It’s been noted that Cathy’s case was placed back in the cold case unit in April of 1995. 

Maskell returned to the United States in 1998. (Cardinal William H. Keeler’s permanent revocation of Maskell’s priestly duties was made public in February 1995.) Maskell claimed his innocence of sexually assaulting the students, and his innocence of Sister Catherine’s murder, until his death due to a stroke on May 7th, 2001. 

In 2016, Baltimore County Police reassigned the Sister Catherine case due to the retirement of detectives. According to a timeline provided by police, activity on the case intensified as victims of sexual abuse discussed information from Sister Catherine’s circle, including Maskell. Numerous interviews were conducted. One living suspect was reinterviewed. 

Maskell’s body was exhumed on February 28th, 2017, prior to the release of the Netflix documentary series ‘The Keepers’, for DNA testing involving the murder of Cathy Cesnik. Maskell’s DNA did not match the forensic profile from 1970, although investigators noted that this did not definitively rule him out as a suspect. Though never formally charged, the Archdiocese of Baltimore had settled with sixteen of Maskell’s possible victims for a total of $472,000. 

In July 2017, the Health Service Executive (HSE) in Ireland opened an investigation into the employment of Maskell. As of October 2019, the HSE refused to offer any timeframe for the investigation.

So who exactly murdered Cathy? Here are my three theories. 

  1. Father Maskell either hired someone to murder Sister Catherine, or he did it himself. I think because his DNA wasn’t on her body when it was finally found, he hired someone to move her body after he had already murdered her. His motive would be because he either thought Sister Catherine was going to go to the police, or to the Archdiocese, or because she told him she was going to do so.
  2. Cathy was murdered by the same person who murdered Joyce Malecki. She was probably at the wrong place at the wrong time and was abducted as she was returning home from her errands. This person was either apprehended shortly after Joyce’s murder, and his DNA just hasn’t been matched yet, or, he’s still out there. Or, maybe he’s deceased himself which is the reason why the DNA has never been matched.
  3. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but Cathy and Sister Russell lived across the hall from an eccentric man- Billy Schmidt. According to Billy’s former sister-in-law, Billy and his brother came home covered in blood around the same time that Cathy had disappeared. Billy was also a known smoker and smoked the same brand of cigarettes that matched a butt found near Cathy’s body. Following Cathy’s murder, Billy suffered a mental breakdown and even kept a nun’s habit on a mannequin and babbled about, “the woman in the attic.” Billy committed suicide a few months after Cathy’s death, so if he was responsible, he took that information with him to the grave.

If you would like to check out Netflix’s ‘The Keepers’, the seven episode documentary is still streaming.

Sister Catherine Cesnik.
Cathy Cesnik, without her habit.
After Sister Catherine left Keough, she got a job at Western High School, where she didn’t have to wear her habit. This picture is likely taken shortly before her murder.
The prestigious Keough High School.
Jean Hargadon Wehner’s senior picture. She alleges that Father Maskell and Father Magnus sexually assaulted her numerous times at Keough, and claims that Maskell took her to Cathy’s body.
Jean Wehner, today.
Father Joseph Maskell.
Father Magnus, another one of Jean’s abusers. He was Keough’s Director of Religious Studies. He died in 1988, before Jean came forward with allegations of abuse.
Sister Russell, Cathy’s roommate & the one who initially reported her missing. After Cathy’s murder she left the convent, got married and had two children. Throughout her life she refused anyone around her to discuss Cathy’s death, claiming that was her life before and she’s now moved on. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1997 and died two days after Maskell’s death in 2001.
Crime scene picture of how Cathy’s car was left.
Billy Schmidt, the neighbor who lived across the hall from Cathy and Sister Russell.
Joyce Malecki, the other woman who disappeared and was found murdered around the time that Cathy was abducted.
Crime scene photograph of where Joyce’s body was discovered.
Crime scene photograph of where Cathy’s body was found. The blurred spot at the bottom right is Cathy.
A map showing you where Cathy’s body was found in relation to the area.
Cathy’s grave.

Published by caitiejobug

I’m a SAHM of one, a loving wife, daughter, and sister. Reading and writing are my favorite hobbies, along with watching true crime documentaries.

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