The Disappearance and Murder of a Young Nun

Anita Durairaj

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Photo of Sister Cathy Cesnik (Image Source: Daily Mail)

On November 7, 1969, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik disappeared. More than a month later, her partly clad body was found near a garbage dump in a Baltimore suburb. She was only 26 years old when she died. 

The body was in poor condition but an autopsy revealed that Sister Cesnick died from a blow to her left temple by a blunt instrument. 

To this day, Sister Cesnick’s killer has never been caught but it is assumed that her murder could have been a cover-up by priests and the Catholic church.

The Sequence of Events Leading to Murder

Sister Cesnik was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1942 as the eldest of 3 children in her family. She was a bright and intelligent young girl who was president of her senior class and graduated as valedictorian in her Catholic high school. 

Her calling was to be a Catholic teaching nun and she soon found herself teaching English and drama at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore. Her students seemed to love her.

Sister Cathy was the best teacher I have ever had. She was kind and compassionate. I learnt a lot about life from her. I learnt to appreciate literature. 

Her students also grew to confide in her and ended up telling her about some deeply disturbing secrets about the school.

The secrets mainly had to do with Father Joseph Maskell who was a counselor and chaplain at Archbishop Keough High School. It was reported that Father Maskell and another priest were sexually abusing the girls and even trafficking them to strangers for sex. 

At the time of the abuse, no one knew about it except the girls and Sister Cesnik.

Sister Cesnik eventually left Archbishop Keough High School for a different school. There was no reason given for her departure although it might have had to do with the knowledge of the girls being subject to sexual abuse. 

While teaching at her next new school, Sister Cesnik lived in an off-campus apartment complex with another nun. 

On November 7, 1969, Sister Cesnik decided to do some shopping. She told her roommate that she was going to buy an engagement present for her sister. During that trip, Sister Cesnik did cash a paycheck for $255 at the local bank and also purchased some buns at the local bakery. That was the last evidence of any activity on her part. She never returned. 

Sister Cesnik’s roommate was distressed when she did not return and enlisted the help of 2 priests to search for her. The police were also called and they found Sister Cesnik’s car parked oddly about a block and a half away from her apartment. The surrounding areas were searched but there was no sign of the body until January 3, 1970 when it was first discovered.

Even after the body was found, no one was arrested and the case remained dormant until 1995 when former students of Archbishop Keough High School revealed that they were sexually abused by Father Maskell. The priest ended up resigning from the priesthood but died in 2001 before any charges could be brought against him. 

The Cover-up of a Murder

In 2017, a Netflix documentary called The Keepers was released about the unsolved murder. The documentary suggested that the murder was a cover-up by Father Maskell and those in the church who were afraid of the consequences of the abuse. 

According to the documentary, Sister Cesnik was killed either by Father Maskell or his accomplices because she was going to expose the abuse. 

The church, the priests and even some of the police have been implicated in the abuse and subsequent cover-up. As much as 30 allegations of abuse were reported to the authorities and the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but no action was taken. 

The archdiocese claimed that some of the victims’ claims about Father Maskell could not be corroborated. However, the archdiocese was lying.

Even before the murder of Sister Cesnik and the reports of abuse at Archbishop Keough High School, there was an earlier case involving Father Maskell and a young boy called Charles Franz. 

Franz claimed that Father Maskell introduced him to drugs and alcohol. When Franz’s mother found out about this, she reported Father Maskell to the authorities. The archdiocese simply transferred Father Maskell to a different institution where he continued to abuse children. 

In addition, the Netflix documentary suggests that the Baltimore church was very powerful and that Father Maskell had friends among the police department and higher-ups in the church who tried to cover up his crimes.

In 2016, Father Maskell’s body was exhumed and his DNA was compared to the crime scene where Sister Cesnik’s body was found. There was no match. The case remains unsolved. 

Conclusion

I have always been surprised about the number of scandals and crises that the Catholic Church has become involved with. In the United States alone, there has been a pattern of cover-ups in many major dioceses throughout the decades. It was not until the 1990s and early 2000s that the issue of child abuse in the church was brought to attention. That is why Sister Cesnik’s case lay dormant for so long. 

Although Sister Cesnik was murdered in 1969, her case died soon after and was only resurrected briefly in the 1990s before the Netflix documentary in 2017 brought it back into the spotlight. 

Financial settlements were provided to some of the victims abused by Father Maskell but in the end, he seems to have escaped justice. There is still some doubt as to whether he was responsible for Sister Cesnik’s murder but he was certainly guilty of child abuse. 

Child abuse in the church has not stopped. In 2020, more than 4,300 sex abuse cases were filed against clergy in the 2018–2019 audit year. The Catholic Church paid out $281.6 million in settlement fees. The church has also been implicated in withholding the names of clergy members who are accused of child abuse. 

Clearly much work remains to be done in the church to ensure that there will be a zero tolerance policy towards child abuse.

Sources: Wikipedia, Vox, The Baltimore Sun, Platocast, The Daily Mail

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Trained with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Cincinnati, I write unique and interesting articles focused on science, history, and current events.

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