Murder of Catherine Cesnik
|Date||approx. November 7, 1969; body discovered January 3, 1970 (aged 27)|
|Also known as||Sister Cathy murder|
|Cause||Intracerebral hemorrhage caused by skull fracture|
|Outcome||Under investigation by Baltimore City and County police|
|Burial||Saint Mary's Cemetery, Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania|
Catherine Anne "Cathy" Cesnik SSND (born November 17, 1942; disappeared November 7, 1969) was a Catholic religious sister who taught English and drama at the formerly all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland (U.S.). On November 7, 1969, Cesnik disappeared. Her body was discovered on January 3, 1970, near a garbage dump in the Baltimore suburb of Lansdowne. Her murder remains unsolved and later served as the basis for the Netflix documentary web series The Keepers in 2017.
Catherine Anne Cesnik was born on November 17, 1942, in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania neighborhood of Lawrenceville, located in the city's east end. She was the eldest child of Joseph and Anna Omulac Cesnik (died 2015). Her paternal grandparents, John (Jan) and Johanna Tomec Česnik, were Slovenians who emigrated from Yugoslavia to Pittsburgh, while her maternal grandfather, Joseph Omulac, came from Yugoslavia and maternal grandmother, Martha Hudok, was born in Austria. Cesnik had three siblings.
Cesnik attended St. Mary's School on 57th Street and St. Augustine High School, both in Lawrenceville. She was 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.
Disappearance and death
At the time she disappeared, Cesnik was teaching at Western High School in Baltimore, Maryland. On November 7, 1969, she left the apartment she shared with Sister Helen Russell Phillips at the Carriage House Apartments, at 131 North Bend Road in Catonsville, en route to the Edmondson Village Shopping Center to purchase a gift at Hecht's for her sister's engagement. Records indicate Cesnik cashed a paycheck at First National Bank in Catonsville that night and possibly made a purchase at Muhly's Bakery in Edmondson Village, since a box of bakery buns was found in the front seat of Cesnik's car. The car, in muddy condition, was found illegally parked across from her apartment complex at 4:40 the next morning by Russell's friends, the priests Peter McKeon and Gerard J. Koob. Residents of Carriage House Apartments spotted Cesnik in her car at approximately 8:30 that night, and others spotted her car at the illegally parked location across the street around two hours later.
Search and discovery of body
Police searched the area immediately following Cesnik's disappearance but did not find her. On January 3, 1970, her body was found by a hunter and his son, in an informal landfill located on the 2100 block of Monumental Road, in a remote area of Lansdowne. An autopsy performed by Deputy Medical Examiner Werner Spitz revealed that Cesnik died from an intracerebral hemorrhage following a fracture to her skull from a blow to her left temple by a blunt instrument. The case remains unsolved.
During Cesnik's tenure at Archbishop Keough High School, it is alleged that two of the priests, Fathers Joseph Maskell and E. Neil Magnus, were sexually abusing the girls at the school in addition to trafficking them to others.
In 1995, Teresa Lancaster and Jean Wehner (née Hargadon), former students at Keough who claim to have been sexually abused by Maskell, filed a lawsuit against Maskell, Richter, the school, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Archdiocese, and Bishop Keeler. The trial court dismissed the action as time-barred by the statute of limitations. Plaintiffs appealed. A writ of certiorari was granted by the Court of Appeals of Maryland which upheld the lower court decision, ruling in part, "...that the mental process of repression of memories of past sexual abuse does not activate the discovery rule. The plaintiffs suits are thus barred by the statute of limitation."
Wehner said that Cesnik once came to her and said gently, "Are the priests hurting you?" Both women have said that she is the only one who helped them and other girls abused by Maskell, et al., and have said that she was murdered prior to discussing the matter with the Archdiocese of Baltimore, although there is no evidence for this assertion.
There is currently no physical evidence linking Maskell to the investigation. It was revealed in late 2016 that the Archdiocese had paid off numerous settlements to Maskell's alleged victims since 2011.
Wehner alleges that, two months before Cesnik's body was discovered, and only a day or two after Cesnik disappeared on November 7, Maskell drove her to a wooded site near Fort Meade and showed her the body. Wehner claims to remember trying repeatedly to brush off the maggots crawling on Cesnik's face while frantically repeating the words, "Help me, help me." Wehner's account was brought into question by scientific evidence showing that it would have been impossible for maggots to be alive at the relevant time of year. However, pathologist Werner Spitz, who worked on the case, later confirmed that there had been maggots in both the victim's mouth and trachea when found. Meteorological records also disclose that the temperature the week in question was high enough for maggots to hatch. It is alleged that Maskell reportedly told Wehner, "You see what happens when you say bad things about people?"
Several days later, on November 13, the body of Joyce Malecki, a 20-year-old woman who looked like Wehner, was discovered by "two hunters" in the same wooded location where Maskell had driven Wehner to see Cesnik's body. Cesnik's body was not found until January 3, 1970, and its discovery by "two hunters" was not in the wooded location near Fort Meade but on the open hill trash dump of a small business property in Lansdowne.
In 2016, the Baltimore County Police Department (BCPD) reassigned the case due to retiring officers, prompting new interviews and further investigation into the alleged sexual abuse at Keough. After attaining permission from the State's attorney's office, the BCPD exhumed the body of Maskell, who died of a major stroke in 2001, but did not find a DNA match to evidence from the crime scene. Police spokeswoman Elise Armacost announced that this discovery does not exclude Maskell from being a suspect in the case.
In popular culture
Netflix produced a seven-part documentary series about the case called The Keepers, which debuted on May 19, 2017. The series features interviews with women who were Cesnik's students, and with some of those who were sexually abused by Maskell and others.
- Bassett, Laura (May 14, 2015). "Buried in Baltimore: The Mysterious Murder of a Nun Who Knew Too Much". The Huffington Post. Retrieved April 20, 2017.
- Nawrozki, Joe; Erlandson, Robert A. (June 19, 1994). "With New Lead, Police Reopen Old Murder Case". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved April 20, 2017.
- O'Neill, Brian (May 13, 2017). "Justice for Sister Cathy is Long Overdue". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: PG Publishing Co. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
- Joseph Cesnik in 1930 Census; Census Place: Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; 1930 United States Federal Census; National Archives and Records Administration.
- Pennsylvania, Marriages, 1852–1968
- "Timeline: The Sister Catherine Cesnik Case". The Baltimore Sun. May 19, 2017. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
- "Sister Catherine Cesnik Case: Missing Nun's Body Found in Lansdowne". The Baltimore Sun. January 8, 1970. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
- Koch, Denise (February 27, 2017). "Baltimore Priest Victim: Police Were in on Sexual Abuse". CBS Baltimore. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
- "Jane Doe et al. v. A. Joseph Maskell et al.", court of Appeals of Maryland, No. 102, September Term 1995
- Smith, Jennifer (April 20, 2017). "The Next Making a Murderer: Netflix Releases Trailer for True Crime Docu-series about Baltimore Nun's Unsolved 1969 Killing and How the Church 'Covered It Up'". Mail Online. Retrieved April 20, 2017.[failed verification]
- Knezevich, Alison (November 15, 2016). "Baltimore Archdiocese Pays Settlements to a Dozen People Alleging Abuse by Late Priest". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
- "About the BCoPD Cold Case Unit and the Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik Homicide" (PDF) (Press release). Baltimore County Police Department. 2017. Retrieved June 14, 2017 – via Archdiocese of Baltimore.
- Knezevich, Alison (May 17, 2017). "Police: Exhumed Priest's DNA Does Not Match Evidence from Crime Scene Killing of Sister Cathy". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved April 20, 2017.
- Knezevich, Alison (May 4, 2017). "Priest's Body Exhumed from Randallstown Cemetery in Investigation of Baltimore Nun's Decades-Old Killing". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
- Liebman, Lisa (May 19, 2017). "The Dead Nun, the School Sex Scandal, and the Amateur Detectives Fighting for Justice". Vanity Fair. Retrieved December 24, 2017.
- McDonell-Parry, Amelia (May 19, 2017). "'The Keepers': Inside Netflix's Compelling New True-Crime Docuseries". Rolling Stone. Retrieved December 24, 2017.