The Murder of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik; Maryland, 1969
By Laura Wilkerson
JUNE 27, 2012 6:58PM
The body of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik, Sister Cathy to those who knew her, was found on January 3, 1970 covered in snow near a garbage dump in Lansdowne, Maryland, about twenty minutes outside the city of Baltimore. The 26-year-old Roman Catholic Nun had been beaten to death, her skull crushed with an unknown blunt object. Her body was too decomposed and mauled by animals and insects for the coroner to determine whether she had been sexually assaulted or not. To this day her murderer has never been found.
Catherine Ann Cesnik was born in the small community of Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania across the River from Pittsburg to a postal worker father and a homemaker mother in a deeply devout Roman Catholic family.
When they were old enough, Cathy and her sisters attended St. Mary’s Assumption elementary school connected to the Church of the same name where she was taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame. When Cathy entered St. Augustine Catholic High School she was sure of her Vocation and shortly after she graduated in 1960 she entered Convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore as a candidate for Sisterhood. After seven years as a Postulant, Cathy Cesnik took her final vows on July 21, 1967, taking the new name, Sister Joanita.
The Sisters of Notre Dame are a teaching Order and in 1965, while still a Postulate, Cathy Cesnik began to teach at the newly opened, all-girls Archbishop Keough High School.
Sister Cathy seemingly enjoyed teaching and her students loved her but by 1969 the young Nun seemed swept up in the changes brought about in the wake of Vatican II. Students noticed in the Spring of 1969 that their young teacher seemed tired all the time and had been absent quite a lot. That year Sister Cathy applied for permission to take an “exclausation” where, under the new rules implemented under Vatican II, she could live outside the Convent and wear modest “civilian” clothing instead of the traditional Habit.
Sister Cathy’s request was granted and she moved in with another exclausing Nun, Sister Helen Russell Phillips, moved into a two-bedroom apartment located in the Carriage House apartment complex on North Bend Road in Pittsburgh. She was given dispensation to teach at a public high school, Western High.
On Friday, November 7, 1969, Cathy Cesnik left her apartment at around seven in the evening to go to the nearby Edmonton Village Shopping Center to purchase some rolls for dinner and to cash a check. When Sister Cathy hadn’t returned home by 11 p.m., Sister Helen became alarmed but instead of calling the police she called two Priests, Father Gerald J. “Gerry” Koob and Father Peter McKeon, Jesuits who lived in the community Manresa near Annapolis, Maryland.
Fathers Koob and McKeon drove to the Carriage House apartments and a little before 1:00 a.m. they telephoned police and reported Sister Cathy missing. Then, “after several hours of conversation,” they decided to take a walk around 4:00 a.m. in order to “calm their nerves.” It was then, they claimed, that they discovered Sister Cathy’s green Ford Maverick parked at an odd angle in a parking lot just adjacent to the Carriage House apartments. Aside from a small wastebasket being tipped over there was no signs of a struggle in the vehicle.
After Cathy Cesnik’s body was found by two hunters on January 3rd, suspicion quickly focused on Father Koob. The Detectives thought it very strange that Sister Helen would have called the two Priests before she called the police. Father Koob insisted that he and Sister Cathy were just good friends, strictly platonic but then Detective Captain Louis “Bud” Roemer visited Father Koob at the Priest’s quarters in Manresa and discovered the letter. Father Koob would say he handed it over willingly.
Dated November 3, 1969 it read, “My very dearest Gerry, ‘If Ever I Should Leave You’ is playing on the radio. I’m all curled up in bed. My ‘period’ has finally arrived, ten days late…So you might say I’m moody…My heart aches so for you. I must wait on you – your time and your need – even more than I had before…I think I can begin to live with that more easily now than I did two months ago, just loving you…within myself…” Sister Cathy, the author of the missive, went on to write, “I must tell you, I want you within me. I want to have your children.”
Detective Roemer, who died in 2005, claimed that in light of the letter Father Koob confessed to having a sexual relationship with Sister Cathy though Koob, who left the Church and is now a married Methodist minister in New Jersey, later claimed, rather incredibly, that they never had a physical relationship.
Gerry Koob had an alibi for the night Sister Cathy disappeared. He claimed that he and Father McKeon had dinner in Annapolis and then took in the film Easy Rider before calling it a night. The police deemed his alibi “airtight.” Gerry Koob also took, and passed, two lie detector tests.
Still, Detectives were suspicious but pressure was brought from on high to lay off Father Koob and from there it went cold until a quarter of a century later when two women filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore Archdiocese claiming they had been sexually abused by Father Anthony Joseph Maskell in the late 1960s and early 1970s when they were students at Archbishop Keough High School.
Over thirty men and women who claimed firsthand knowledge of the alleged abuse testified in Court but the most sensational testimony came from one of the Plaintiffs, identified only as “Jane Doe,” testified that late in November, 1969, Father Maskell took her to a garbage dump in Lansdowne and showed her the body of Cathy Cesnik and told her that she had better keep her mouth shut or she would end up the same way. It was reported that Jane Doe offered details that were never made public.
In addition, Sister Mary Florita of the Sisters of Notre Dame testified she, “knew several of the kids at Keough and one of them described to me how three or four girls who were abused by this Priest had gone to Sister Cathy for help. There is no question she knew about the abuse that was taking place in the months leading up to her death.”
The lawsuit against the Archdiocese in relation to the two women and Father Maskell eventually failed when Courts ruled that repressed memories don’t count in extending the statute of limitations but the Baltimore Archdiocese found the allegations “credible” and removed him from active ministry and reassigned Father Maskell to clerical duties in the St. Augustine Parish in Elkridge, Maryland where he died of a massive stroke on May 7, 2001 at the age of 62.
Father Maskell was never charged with the murder of Cathy Cesnik. Police in Baltimore County still hold credible the theory that some unknown assailant kidnapped Sister Cathy from the parking lot of the Edmonton Village Shopping Center, killed her, disposed of the body, and then returned Sister Cathy’s car to the parking lot next to her apartment. Father Maskell had acted as Chaplain for the Baltimore County Police, the Maryland State Police, the Maryland National Guard and the Maryland Air National Guard. His brother, Tommy Maskell, retired in 1966 as a Lieutenant for the Baltimore City Police after twenty years of service. Father Maskell was known to go on ride-along with police officers in an unmarked patrol car, often startling kids engaged in make-out sessions by driving up behind them and activating a portable flasher. One of Father Maskell’s 1994 accusers claimed that Father Maskell “forced her to perform sexual acts with a police officer.”
Police officers who had worked with Father Maskell expressed open disbelief at the allegations.
“He Baptized my children. He Baptized my grandchildren. My children liked him,” stated retired Baltimore County Precinct Commander, Captain James L. Scannelli, “If he had been that weird, it would have come out. He was around police a lot, riding along, he rode with me. Police would have noticed; bells would have gone off. Nothing did.”
“It is possible he may have been in the exam room,” said Dr. Christian Richter, a gynecologist Father Maskell took some of the Keough to and who the 1994 plaintiffs alleged had participated in their abuse, “in the absence of parents, I don’t know, to calm the girl. She was 16. She probably had a great deal of faith in him.
Four days after Cathy Cesnik disappeared, on November 11, 1969, Joyce Malenki, 20, disappeared from the parking lot of the E. J. Korvette’s department store in Glen Burnie, Maryland. She was found face down, hand tied behind her back, in the Little Patuxent River at the military base there. She had been stabbed repeatedly in the throat and strangled to death.
Joyce Malenki and her family had attended St. Clement Church in Lansdowne and Joyce had regularly gone on week-long religious retreats with area Priests while she was in high school. Also at St. Clemens was Father A. Joseph Maskell who served at St. Clements from 1966 to 1968 and lived at St. Clemens while serving at Archbishop Keogh High School from 1970 through 1975. In 1969, Father Maskell was serving at a nearby Church, Our Lady of Victory, about three miles away from St. Clement which is located less than a mile from where Sister Cathy’s body was found.