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Who Killed Sister Cathy? New Netflix Series Alleges Church Cover-Up

A seven-part Netflix docu-series scheduled to air beginning Friday, May 19 will focus on priestly sexual abuse of high school students in Baltimore in the 1960s, and the subsequent murder of a 26-year-old nun who may have discovered the abuse.

“The Keepers” will no doubt titillate viewers with its sordid tale of sex and murder; but what it is not expected to do, say officials of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, is accurately reflect the Archdiocese’s efforts to deal with the abuse and to cooperate with the murder investigation of the nun.

The series will reportedly suggest a connection between the abuse cases and the death of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik, S.S.N.D. – although the recent exhumation of the body of Fr. Joseph Maskell fails to substantiate that connection.


Does “The Keepers” Accurately Reflect the Archdiocese’s Role?

In their quest to produce a blockbuster exposé, the writers of “The Keepers” interviewed women who were sexually abused as high school girls in the 1960s and ’70s by Fr. Joseph Maskell, then chaplain of Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School. The victims allege that Fr. Maskell was involved in the death of Sister Cathy Cesnik, who once taught at the same school, and that there was a cover-up on the part of the Archdiocese – although they provide no evidence to support their claim. In fact, neither the abuse nor the suggestion that Maskell might be involved in the nun’s death were known to the Archdiocese or to the police until the 1990s.

During filming of “The Keepers”, the Archdiocese offered on several occasions to answer any and all questions for the production and, in fact, provided written responses to questions from producers of the series. However, the producers asked very few questions of the Archdiocese before releasing the series. They did not respond to the Archdiocese’s request to receive an advanced copy of the series, although advanced copies were provided to media outlets.

And the series reportedly includes “facts” which were published, then later retracted by the Baltimore Sun, regarding the priest who some believe was involved in the killing. In its coverage, the Sun quoted certain police supervisors who, they said, had accused the Archdiocese of Baltimore of interfering in the investigations in 1969-70; but in fact, it was later revealed that those officials had actually retired before the relevant time frame, and had no input into the investigations.


The Backstory: Accusations of Abuse Lead to Priest’s Dismissal

The Archdiocese acknowledges that there were problems 40 or 50 years ago in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. That was when Fr. Joseph Maskell,  a chaplain at Archbishop Keough High School, is alleged to have sexually abused several young women who were students at the school. But the priest’s alleged crimes were never reported until 1992, when the first adult survivor came forward to accuse Fr. Maskell of abuse.

For its part, the Archdiocese contends that it responded quickly to the charges. In 1993, although the abuse charges could not be confirmed, the Archdiocese reported the allegation to civil authorities. Father Maskell, who denied the claims, was removed from ministry and was referred for months of evaluation and treatment. He was eventually permitted to return to active ministry after the Archdiocese was unable to corroborate the allegation of sexual abuse through its own investigation; but when other alleged victims came forward in 1994, Father Maskell was permanently removed from ministry. The Archdiocese held an open meeting at the parish where he had served most recently, publicly explaining the charges and the reason for his dismissal from the clerical state.

Officials reported that when it was learned, several years after Fr. Maskell’s dismissal, that he had taken up residence in Ireland, the Archdiocese notified authorities in Ireland about his history. On numerous occasions, archdiocesan officials attempted to contact Fr. Maskell in writing.


Compassionate Support for the Victims

Sexual abuse, said the Archdiocese in a statement on its website, is a horrible crime, and no child should be subjected to sexual abuse. Archbishop William E. Lori, 16th archbishop of Baltimore, met personally with the victims during his first week in that archdiocese to extend his apology for any abuse which may have occurred. “Part of the conversation that I have with survivors,” he told the Catholic Review,

…always includes an apology. And you might say, ‘What kind of an apology is it if you were somewhere else?’ I represent the church – there’s a sense in which I represent the history of the church and the response of the church whether at the time it was inadequate or deeply flawed… At least I can give voice to that. … I truly empathize and am sorry for the pain they (survivors) are currently going through.

When the Archdiocese first received an allegation of sexual abuse in 1992, more than 20 years after the abuse occurred, the Archdiocese offered counseling assistance. The adult survivor and her attorney were strongly encouraged to report the alleged abuse to civil authorities. The following year, after the state Attorney General clarified Maryland law as requiring reporting of child abuse even when the alleged victim was an adult and did not want the allegation to be reported, the Archdiocese officially filed its report of the abuse.

The Archdiocese has offered to each victim an apology and an opportunity to meet with the Archbishop. In addition, although the statute of limitations has long lapsed, the Archdiocese established a voluntary, pastoral mediation program which has provided over $97,000 in counseling assistance and over $472,000 in direct financial assistance to those who may have been abused by Maskell.


The Murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik

A question posed by the Netflix series is whether a religious sister knew of the abuse – and whether that knowledge played a part in her murder.

Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik was a popular young nun who had taught English at Archbishop Keough High School. Sister Cathy, as she was known, had lived for eight years in the order’s convent; but in 1969, she requested permission from her order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, to live outside the convent. Her request was denied; but she and another nun moved out anyway, and Sister Cathy began teaching at Baltimore’s Western High School. Students from Keough High kept in touch, visiting her in her new apartment; and according to later interviews, they believed that Sister Cathy was aware of the priest’s abuses.

When Cesnik disappeared after a shopping trip in November 1969, local police and others began a search that received wide media attention. The search ended nearly two months later, when a father and son hunting near the Lansdowne area of Baltimore County came across her body in a dump.

The Washington Post reported on her disappearance:

On the night of Nov. 7, 1969, Cesnik drove to Catonsville to cash a check, went to a bakery in the Edmondson Village Shopping Center and wasn’t seen again. Her green Ford Maverick was found not far from her southwest Baltimore apartment in a no-parking zone. Baltimore City police began working the case and zeroed in on suspects in the Catholic Church, leading to allegations that diocese leaders pressured the police to back off, which the church has always denied. The case was taken over by Baltimore County police when Cesnik’s body was found there two months after her disappearance.

For eight years, the police investigation into the murder continued. Detectives conducted numerous interviews and polygraphs. There was little physical evidence at the crime scene, but police gathered what they could. Because of the poor condition of the body, detectives were unable to determine whether or not Sister Cathy had been sexually assaulted. Finally in 1977, with all leads exhausted, the case became dormant.

But in 1994, that changed: One alleged victim of Fr. Maskell, Jean Hargadon Wehner, came forward, reporting to authorities that in 1969 Maskell had driven her to the local dump to see Sister Cathy’s body, to warn her what could happen to people who crossed him. Finding the teacher dead with maggots crawling on her face, Wehner was shocked and afraid – and, she explained later, it seemed better to tell no one what she had seen. Two months later when two hunters happened upon the body, the case became a murder investigation; but Wehner, still fearful that she might face the same violent end, kept her secret for the next 25 years.


Exhumation of the Body of Joseph Maskell

Father Maskell died in 2001; but in February 2017, Baltimore County police exhumed his body so that detectives could compare his DNA profile to a sample taken from the dump in Lansdowne, where Sister Cathy’s body had been discovered nearly fifty years earlier. Baltimore County police spokesperson Elise Armacost told the Washington Post:

As part of the effort to leave no stone unturned, our homicide detectives asked the state’s attorney to approve an order to exhume the body of A. Joseph Maskell so we could take a DNA sample and work up a DNA profile to see if it would match remaining evidence. If it does, it’s a huge step in this investigation.

Following scientific analysis, the Baltimore Police reported on Wednesday, May 17 – just two days before the show’s premiere – that it was not a match. According to the Virginia forensics lab which analyzed the samples, Maskell was clearly excluded as a contributor to the DNA from the crime scene, making Netflix’s insinuations out-of-date even before air time.


The Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Continuing Outreach to Victims

One of the good things to come from Netflix’s production is that the Archdiocese of Baltimore – and by extension, the Catholic Church – has been given another opportunity to stand against sexual abuse by clergy or by anyone, to invite victims to seek personal counseling and other assistance, and to offer Christ’s peace to those affected by the sin of sexual abuse.

The Baltimore Archdiocese has, since news of Fr. Maskell’s abuse first reached their offices, put in place policies to ensure that children are protected. Among protections now in place are a zero-tolerance policy, screening and training for more than 100,000 employees and volunteers, and oversight by an Independent Review Board which was formed in 1993. In 2002, the Archdiocese disclosed the names of all credibly accused priests. Their pastoral outreach is intended to be a healing process and includes counseling for victims, a personal apology, and a mediation program run by a non-Catholic retired Circuit Court judge.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, through the Maryland Catholic Conference, has worked extensively on public policy matters that protect children and respond to victims of child abuse. For example, the Archdiocese worked with legislative leaders including the bill’s main sponsor Delegate C.T. Wilson, himself a survivor of child abuse, to end the civil statute which imposes limitations for victims of child abuse.

Although the homicide of Sister Cathy Cesnik remains unsolved, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has continued to cooperate fully with authorities investigating the case and continues to offer full support for efforts to solve the murder. In 1994, the Archdiocese and Metro Crime Stoppers offered a $6,000 reward for information leading to the arrest/conviction of Sr. Cathy’s killer.


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