Sister Cathy and her Keepers
"The missing nun was described as 5 feet, 5 inches tall, weighing 115 pounds, with green eyes, blonde hair and fair complexion," according to The Baltimore Sun ("Missing Nun"). An extensive search turned up only her car, parked near her apartment, and its contents. Two months would pass before a father and son found her body.
The case remains unsolved.
Like most people, I remained unaware of Sister Cathy Cesnik, the 1969 murder that shook Baltimore, and the later, disturbing allegations against one suspect, Father Joseph Maskell, until I caught Neflix's 2016 true crime series, The Keepers. Director Ryan White and the activists he profiles get full credit for bringing attention to an unsolved cold case and putting pressure on police to pursue the investigation. In the process they directed and, arguably, misdirected the public perception. Read an article about these events now and, more often than not, you will encounter an uncritical restatement of claims made in the documentary series. Occasionally, you will find a response to the show's central working theory. Either way, it is impossible in 2020 to write about this case without addressing The Keepers: its influence, its claims, and its omissions.
Sister Catherine Cesnik, a nun from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a teaching order, began her career at Archbishop Keough High School, a private, all-girls Catholic School. She taught English and ran the drama club. A young, conspicuously attractive woman,1 she connected with her students.
In 1969, she and her colleague, Sister Helen Russell Phillips, became part of an experiment of the sort typical of the post-Vatican II era. They took leaves from their regular jobs and moved out of the convent into an apartment. Wearing regular clothing rather than their habits, they taught in the public system: Russell at North Bend Public School and Cesnik at Western High School.
On Friday November 7, 1969, Sister Cathy left her apartment after 7:00 pm for Edmondson Village Shopping Center. She planned to buy a wedding present for her sister. She cashed her pay-cheque and stopped at a bakery.
A witness reported seeing Cesnik's car returned to its designated spot around 8:30 pm (Nawrozki and Erlandson, "With new lead"). She did not return to her apartment that night-- or ever.
As Friday became Saturday, Sister Russell called the Reverends Peter McKeon and Gerard J. Koob, friends of the nuns. They came immediately. While walking around the neighborhood between four and five am, McKeon noticed Sister Cathy's car parked nearby. The next day they reported the situation to police. They learned that nearby residents had noticed the car at 10:00 or 10:30 pm that night ("City Police Search for Missing Nun, 26"). The tires were muddy. Leaves and twigs were found inside, along with buns from the bakery and a broken umbrella.
The police investigated, and searched the area for several days without success. On November 11, Joyce Helen Malecki, age 20, who lived a short distance from Cesnik, went shopping and then to meet a friend stationed at Fort Meade Army Base. She also failed to return home. Her car was found abandoned, with her groceries still in it. Her body was found in a river on the edge of a Fort Meade training ground on November 13. She had been stabbed. Due to this location, the investigation fell to the military police and FBI, rather than the Baltimore police who were investigating Sister Cathy's disappearance. However, the similarities of the two incidents could hardly have been missed, and speculation on the connection appeared in the press (Nugent).
A week after Sister Cathy's disappearance, her sister, Marilyn, received a letter posted the day after Catherine disappeared. This date need not portend anything sinister. Sister Cathy was running errands the evening she vanished, and quite plausibly could have mailed the letter along the way. In that case it would not have been picked up and postmarked until November 8. We do not know what the letter contains. Showing more restraint than many people could muster, Marilyn left it unopened before turning it over to the police investigating her sister's disappearance. They apparently lost the letter.
On January 3, 1970, the father and son found Sister Catherine Cesnik's body near a wooded embankment in Lansdowne, Baltimore County, a ten-to-fifteen minute drive from where her car had been found. The effects of decomposition, exposure, and animals made it impossible to determine if she had been sexually assaulted, but "the body's position and arrangement of clothing pointed to that conclusion" ("Missing Nun's Body Found in Lansdowne"). One of her shoes was found nearby.
According to the autopsy, she "had died from a 2-inch circular fracture of the left temple that was inflicted by a heavy blow with a blunt object, probably a brick. Marks on her neck indicated that she also had been choked" (Nawrozki and Erlandson, "With new lead").
The car had been parked a block away from her apartment. Its placement seems unlikely to be a coincidence. If the witness who saw her return at 8:30 is correct, then the killer may have accosted her near her apartment, and returned the car to the same general location. Otherwise, we must assume the killer knew Sister Cathy, or found her address on her identification. It is also possible she had already been abducted or killed and one of the killers returned her car at 8:30, though that scenario requires the killer or killers to have acted within a very short time-frame.
Many later articles and media investigations ignore the car's sighting at 8:30, but I have read nothing that discredits that next-day report by a witness who knew Sister Cathy as a neighbour.
The case remained active for the next seven years. The police performed hundreds of interviews and preserved physical evidence from the body that almost certainly came from someone involved with the killing. Eventually, the case went cold.
In 1992, a former student came forward with a shocking story. She claimed to know the identity of the killers. According to her account, a priest and counsellor from Archbishop Keough showed her Cesnik's body shortly after her disappearance and more than a month before it was officially discovered. Another man, she says, then confessed details of the crime to her.
The woman, initially referred to as "Jane Doe" but later self-identified as Jean Hargadon Wehner, claims that a priest at Archbishop Keough High School, Father Joseph Maskell, sexually abused her when she was a student there. In fact, she claims, multiple people-- police, priests, and other staff-- abused her at Maskell's encouragement, typically in his office. Sister Cathy, she alleges, became aware of the abuse in the Spring of 1969, and was killed because she planned to report it. Marian Weller, formerly Sister Mary Florita, confirms that students told Sister Cathy about the abuse of "three or four girls" at Bishop Keough, though she places the disclosure in the autumn of 1969 (Nugent).
Soon after Sister Cathy disappeared, Maskell supposedly took Wehner to see the body. Afterwards, a mysterious man identified only as "Brother Bob" raped her and explained to her that he had only attempted to hurt Sister Cathy Cesnik, but accidentally killed her instead.
All of this information she recovered in 1992 as a result of then-popular but highly controversial repressed memory therapy.
Police reopened the investigation.
Suspect One: Father Joseph Maskell
We must first note that many parishioners recall Joseph Maskell as an "exemplary priest." After the Chase-Amtrak crash of January 4, 1987, he rushed to the scene, where "he administered last rites and tried to comfort those still alive, including a woman who had been carried from the wreckage without one of her legs" (Mendelbaum). Maskell also served as a chaplain with the Baltimore Police (of which his brother was a member), and many people held and hold him in the highest regard (Nugent).
Maskell was ordained a priest in 1965, and assigned to Sacred Heart of Mary in Baltimore and then St. Clement Church in Lansdowne. In 1967, while still at St. Clement, he began working as a counsellor at Archbishop Keough High School, a position he held until 1975. He served in three other parishes until 1992. After the allegations of abuse surfaced, the Archdiocese of Baltimore sent him for treatment-- reportedly, for depression, although the facility that treated him had treated priests accused of molestation on other occasions (The Keepers, Episode 4, "The Burial"). In 1995, the Baltimore police investigated him in connection with the murder. He next spent time in Ireland before being prohibited from serving as a priest by the Roman Catholic church. He died as the result of a stroke on May 7, 2001.
The 1995 investigation into Maskell occurred as a direct result of Jean Wehner's allegations. The police ultimately dismissed him as a serious suspect (Baltimore Police Department 1, Mandelbaum). Further evidence emerged in 2017, when police tested a DNA sample from Maskell with tissue preserved from the original investigation into the murder, tissue presumed to belong to her assailant. These did not match, nor has a match been found thus far with anyone in the FBI database (Boyette, Jackman).
The 1990s investigation did, however, find evidence of troubling behaviour by Maskell.
Police learned that, in the early 1990s, Maskell ordered a significant number of boxes and bags of documents buried, at night, at the cemetery at Anne Arundel County, which was associated with Holy Cross Church. The investigation had these exhumed. The police maintain the boxes contained only records and documents. A video taken by a local TV station made it possible to identify one exposed document as a standard psychology test (Schaffer). An anonymous informant, allegedly working with the police department, claims he saw, briefly, photos of half-naked teenage girls during the exhumation (The Keepers, Episode 4, "The Burial"). No one else has corroborated this particular observation. It is impossible to state anything about these papers with any certainty, as they were never made public, and may no longer exist2. Clandestinely burying large numbers of documents at night in a cemetery is, it must be stated, both unorthodox and suspicious.
As for allegations of sexual abuse, significant and credible evidence supports the claim that Maskell was a sexual predator. Since 1992, more than a dozen former students from Archbishop Keough have came forward with stories ranging from grossly inappropriate comments to attempted (but rebuffed) sexual advances to sexual assault (Mendelbaum). His frequent transfers certainly suggest the kind of behaviour that organizations have used in the past to avoid investigating uncomfortable allegations against personnel3. Attempts to bring charges on the abuse allegations failed because, by the time anyone tried, the Statute of Limitations had run out. An attempt to extend the Statute of Limitations for this case failed. Testimony offered was deemed not credible-- a point which will be addressed shortly.
Between 2011 and 2016, the Diocese of Baltimore paid settlements to at least a dozen individuals who brought complaints of sexual abuse against Joseph Maskell (Baltimore Police Department 2).
The priest's apparent guilt of sex crimes lends credence to Wehner's allegations. As the only real link between Maskell and the murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, however, her claims on that point must be given the greatest scrutiny.
The Key Witness Against Father Maskell
Jean Wehner began recovering memories of abuse in the 1980s, culminating with her alleged knowledge of the murder, in 1992. Before becoming involved with recovered memory therapy, she read, by her own acknowledgement, several books on recovered memory and ritual abuse (Doe v. Maskell 3). The methods used by therapists in the 1980s and 1990s have been called into question and even repudiated by many psychiatrists and psychologists (Loftus, et al, Schacter, et al). At the very least, evidence indicates that the techniques used in recovered memory therapy can elicit both true memories and constructed fantasies, and it can be difficult if not impossible to distinguish between the two (Stocks).4 Wehner herself has made statements that she later retracted, claiming they were false memories (Doe v. Maskell 2-4).
Among the many people she says abused her with direction and approval by Maskell, she includes police officers, a local politician, at least ten members of the school staff, a handful of unidentified, nameless men, and two nuns, including Sister Helen Russell Phillips. Sister Catherine Cesnik's apartment-mate. She also at one point recalled participating in the murder of a nun-- an unidentified and unknown nun, and not Sister Cathy. She has since declared her claim of having participated in a murder a false memory (Doe v. Maskell 2-3). She has called her previous claim of sexual abuse by nuns "absurd" (Doe v. Maskell 4). She maintains her claim that earlier childhood molestation by an uncle5 are true, but she initially claimed that he also abused each of her ten siblings. Her siblings unanimously deny that this is the case. She also initially claimed that he directed others to abuse her in the manner she would later attribute to Maskell (Doe v. Maskell 3). She has refrained from repeating some of the more extreme claims about this earlier abuse. Other inconsistencies and changes in her testimony are documented in Doe v. Maskell.
This testimony, ignored by The Keepers, led the Baltimore Circuit Court to declare her testimony unreliable. One has to consider the implication of a witness acknowledging that some of her earlier claims are false. Without additional evidence, how does one determine which of her claims are true?
The role of recovered memory therapy in Teresa Lancaster, a victim who has been most supportive of Wehner, makes for an interesting comparison. Lancaster reports memories of abuse by Maskell all of her life. At times, she reportedly disclosed this information to third parties (Doe v. Maskell 7-8). However, when she went, in the 1990s, into therapy to help with her memory, she added new details which were in keeping with the now-publicized claims made by Jane Doe/Wehner. In particular, she began speaking about abuse by other men, facilitated by the priest.6 She stands by many of these and relates them in The Keepers and elsewhere. The Circuit Court found these newer allegations, unlike her long-term recollections, to be "confused and inconsistent" (Doe v. Maskell 6).
Indeed, Maskell's other accusers make more compelling witnesses. Their accusations, while certainly heinous, fall short of those made by Wehner. Most of these describe the more typical and all-too-commonplace cases of sexual abuse by predators in positions of power. More to the current point, these other accounts do not implicate the priest in a murder.
Abuse notwithstanding, Wehner's account of the murder of Sister Cathy strains credulity. Someone, involved in a murder, takes one of the teenage girls he has been sexually abusing to the body, as a warning, despite the considerable danger this creates for him. He then introduces her to the actual killer, a man unknown to the priest's other victims. This new man then confesses some of the circumstances surrounding the murder. Maskell continues to abuse her and involves a significant number of other people in her abuse, all of whom keep silent and remain mostly unidentified to the present day. All of this occurs while Wehner's father serves on the police force.
With regards to Wehner's reported visit to the site where Cesnik's body was dumped, the police claim that she both included at least one detail not in the public record and erred in her description of the site (Mandelbaum, Nugent). I do not know what specific details they deemed accurate or inaccurate, so further assessment is not possible.7
At this point it might be worth noting the case of George Franklin, accused and initially convicted of murder in 1990 of a different 1969 murder based on memories recovered by his daughter during therapy very like that undergone by Wehner. Franklin's conviction was later overturned in 1995 and, in 2018, DNA evidence led to the conviction of the actual killer ("George Franklin"). Marika Sturken, among others, has noted that evidence does exist of abuse in the Franklin home. Possibly, she argues, Franklin's daughter, under hypnosis, transformed actual memories of abuse into a narrative that cast her father as a killer (234). Given the compelling evidence of abuse by Father Maskell, perhaps we are looking at a similar process here. This is only speculation.
The theory that Maskell killed Sister Cathy Cesnik or had her killed because she was going to reveal the truth about abuse at Archbishop Keough packs a powerful dramatic punch. It's a compelling and disturbing story. For all I know, supporters of the theory may one day be vindicated. A fair assessment of the evidence currently available nevertheless suggests that, for now, the sexual abuse of students at Bishop Keough and the murder of the nun should be treated as separate cases that may or may not be connected.
Suspect Two: Edgar Davidson
Edgar Davidson lived in the same neighbourhood as Sister Cathy. He was, in 1969, a young man with a history of violence. His then-wife states that he returned home on the night of November 7 with blood on his shirt. He claimed it was the result of a fight, which did not surprise her. When the report of Sister Cathy's disappearance appeared on the news, he allegedly told her, "By the time they find her body, it's going to be wintertime, she's going to be buried in snow" (Quoted in The Keepers, Episode 5, "The Suspects"). A year later, he gave her a present of a fairly expensive necklace that included a wedding bell. The woman, now long-divorced from him, wonders if that necklace was the present Sister Cathy purchased for her sister. It's an interesting thought, but it remains speculation.
Davidson was later arrested after he stole a car and used it to try to pick up teenaged girls.
In 1976, someone who sounded like him called into a radio program on the case and stated that he knew someone who was in possession of Sister Cathy's rosary. When interviewed for The Keepers, he admitted he had been the caller, but claimed the information was false, and he had no idea why he said it (The Keepers, Episode 6, "The Web"). It is clear in the interview that he has some form of dementia, and possibly we may never learn anything more from him.
Had police investigated Davidson in 1970, they may have been able to shed some light on any connection he might have to the case. I would consider him a suspect, but we lack the evidence to say much more.
Suspect Three: Gerard Koob
Police initially interviewed and investigated Cesnik's friend, Father Gerard J. Koob. He had spent the evening of November 7 in the company of Brother Peter McKeon. Among other activities, they went to see Easy Rider. Their activities earlier that night can be traced with a fair bit of certainty. The former priest, now a Methodist minister, has since made several strange statements about the investigation. Among others, he claims that the police tossed Catherine Cesnik's "vagina" on the table during an interrogation, wrapped in paper (The Keepers, Episode 6, "The Web"). The police deny that this happened, or even that it could have happened. He has made conflicting statements about his relationship with Sister Cathy. At different times, he has both acknowledged and denied he had a sexual relationship with the young nun (Wilkerson). Much about Koob remains unclear and just plain odd, but no evidence connects him to the murder. The police eventually discounted him as a suspect.
Louis George "Bud" Roemer, an investigating officer, nevertheless believed that Koob and McKeon were less than truthful about the events of November 7 and 8 (Nugent). Harry Bannon, a homicide detective who worked on the case, was also convinced that Koob, at the very least, knew more about the killing than he revealed (Nawrozki and Erlandson, "With new lead").
Suspects Four and Five: Billy and Ronnie Schmidt
I will try to keep this section brief, as untangling the testimony related to the Schmidt Brothers is a task beyond my abilities. Ronnie Schmidt and Billy Schmidt were brothers who lived and worked in Baltimore at the time of the killing. Billy, who was reportedly homosexual, lived in the apartment across from Sisters Catherine Cesnik and Helen Russell Phillips. Ronnie was married with children.
Some members of their family became convinced the brothers had some involvement in the nun's death.
Family members agree that both men changed after that night. Ronnie drank heavily and used drugs. Ronnie's wife reports occasions when Billy and his boyfriend, "Skippy," dressed as a priest and a nun. After moving back to his family home, Billy became increasingly reclusive. He sometimes talked, she said, about the woman in the attic. She later found a mannequin with a nun's habit in the attic-- possibly the same outfit either he or his ex-boyfriend wore (The Keepers, Episode 5, "The Suspects").
Billy Schmidt attempted suicide multiple times before succeeding.
Ronnie's daughter claims her father once said he drank because he killed a woman. His son, four years old at the time, claims that sometime around the murder of Catherine Cesnik, perhaps that very night, he went with Billy and some other men and he saw them throw something wrapped in a rug over an embankment. He thinks now it may have been a body. No evidence indicates that Cesnik's body was wrapped in a rug, and it seems a very odd choice to take a child in tow when completing an errand of this nature.
Were the brothers involved? Did they witness some aspect of the crime? Was Billy obsessed with his former neighbour for reasons we can never now know? Did either brother suffer from a pre-existing mental health condition? At present, we have only speculation. We must remember that notorious crimes are additionally notorious for attracting people who make dubious claims to inside knowledge. Based on evidence currently available, I do not consider the brothers especially compelling suspects.
Suspect Six: Persons Unknown
Sam Bowerman, an FBI profiler who has examined the case, finds Catherine Cesnik's killing consistent with murder by a stranger, though likely one who lived in the area (Nawrozki and Erlandson, "Police hope people will see clues"). If his conclusions are correct, the possibility of a serial killer emerges.
Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Helen Malecki are not the only unsolved killings of young women in Baltimore from this time.8 Pamela Lynn Conyers (16) drove to the Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie, Maryland (about twenty minutes from downtown Baltimore) on October 16, 1970. The car was recovered October 18 on a road still under construction. Her body was found nearby on October 20. According to her cold case file, she died from "trauma to her upper body" ("Pamela Lynn Conyers"). Her purse and underpants were missing, and never recovered.
Grace Elizabeth Montanye, also 16, disappeared September 17, 1971. Her body was found on September 29 in a wooded area in South Baltimore. She had been bludgeoned with a cinderblock. The autopsy found no evidence of rape ("Glydon Girl, 16, Murdered").9
With regards to Cesnik's car, I have already discussed how a killer unknown to Sister Cathy could know her address. Why such a killer would have gone to the bother of returning her car to a nearby location remains an excellent and unanswered question.
Unfortunately, if the killer is a person or persons as yet unidentified, we can say little about them or their motives.
Suspect Seven: Reddit
Since the airing of The Keepers, the internet has been awash with explanations regarding Sister Cathy's death, often anchored by the documentary's take. Most of these simply favour an established suspect, usually Father Maskell. Others develop elaborate conspiracies involving Maskell, the Catholic hierarchy, the Schmidt Family, Edgar Davidson, the Baltimore Police Department, the CIA, and Cesnik's roommate and acquaintances in complex interconnected webs, often based on the most spurious of connections.
The Keepers has entrenched, probably forever, some problematic ideas about this case. It has also made people aware of this particular unsolved killing, encouraged victims of crime to come forward, and documented once more the unearned protection historically afforded to people in positions of privilege. Whatever the eventual outcome, some small good may come out of the long-ago killing of an intelligent, devoted young woman.
But we must accept that we may never learn the truth behind her murder.
1. Someone else can write the rant about how the unsolved cases that seem to get the most attention involve white, conspicuously attractive young women.
2. According to Schaeffer and other reporters, the Baltimore Police claim the documents went missing at some point, possibly due to a flood. While the claim could be correct, it does little to assuage concerns of either incompetence or a cover-up on the part of local police.
3. The case of Ken Deluca, convicted of the sexual abuse of female students over a period of twenty years, illustrates how various factors can conspire to conceal long-term abuse in institutions. A police officer friend, for example, spoke threateningly to some of Deluca's accusers, because he was protecting a friend from what he appears to have honestly believed were false accusations (obviously, these actions were misguided and unprofessional). A priest addressed one of the schools where Deluca abused girls, warning against the spread of rumours. He did so at the request of the principal, and there is no evidence he knew the full truth of the matter. A number of Deluca's supervisors became aware that allegations against him were credible, but (as best as we can determine) they were more interested in protecting the reputation of the Catholic school system where he taught. Transferring employees who carry a whiff of scandal, rather than seriously investigating claims that might prove troublesome, has been common practice.
There was no cabal (in the literal sense) conspiring in the Deluca case, but it certainly might have seemed that way to his victims, and the effect is the same: a sexual predator was protected for years.
It is possible someone else abused girls at Bishop Keough, or that someone else knew about the abuse and helped protect Maskell. But it would not have to be true.
4. The debate is not strictly binary. Harvard's Richard J. McNally, among others, has noted that, while confabulation and false memories occur, some recovered memories may be actual memories of events not experienced as traumatic at the time (McNally and Geraerts). Whether such a phenomenon would have any bearing on this particular case is another question entirely.
5. That she could have been abused by more than one man at different times in her life is disturbingly plausible. Sexual predators often target those who seem vulnerable, and this may include those who have already experienced abuse (Grayson and Stein). Maskell, as school counsellor and confessor, would be in a position to discover such information.
6. Some victims have implicated Dr. Christian Richter, a gynaecologist and friend of Maskell's, with abuse. He denies these claims. However, he does acknowledge that Maskell may have been present at the appointments of some girls (Nawrozki and Erlandson, "2 sue priest"). Like much about Maskell, that fact seems odd and suspicious.
7. We have to address the maggots. The Keepers plays a common true-crime documentary game by introducing, early on, scepticism over Wehr's report of maggots in a body left out in November in Maryland. Detractors interviewed claim that insects would not breed in the cold temperatures at that time of year, and thus discount her tale. In the final episodes, the documentary reveals that (1) the autopsy indicated the presence of maggots in her throat at some point in her decomposition and (2) November of 1969 boasted some unseasonably warm days, making the propagation of maggots possible. The series thus removes the one objection they've raised to Wehner's credibility. Aha! thinks the viewer. She must have been telling the truth! But other problems with her story do not disappear simply because this one detail turns out to be correct. And it is telling that The Keepers ignores more significant issues which directly influenced how representatives of the legal system responded to her claims.
8. Malecki lived near Sister Cathy and attended Our Lady of Victory, to which Father Maskell was then attached. As a parishioner, Malecki knew Maskell. The connection is worth noting, of course, although nothing that we currently know gives him a motive to have killed her.
9. We could continue to discuss unsolved murders in the area. Others have-- but it's always difficult to know which ones to include. For example, about one-half an hour from Baltimore, in Odenton, Maryland, another young woman was found dead from blunt force trauma on November 17, 1973. Donna Lee Dustin had last been seen the night before. However, her death, though still unsolved, seems directly connected to events in her community (Mosk and Ruane), and therefore separate from the ones in Baltimore.
I have focused on those unsolved murders most often connected to Sister Catherine Cesnik's, even by police (Jackman).
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