Into the Unknown: Sister Cathy Cesnik
This is probably the most controversial case I've profiled so far, and the one that I think is the most frustrating. It all starts with the murder of a nun in 1969 and brings us all the way up to today, where there are no answers to be had despite a plethora of clues and theories. Those theories, which include eyewitness accounts, recovered memories, and shocking revelations, bring us into the sordid world of institutional sex abuse. There also may be a connection to the unsolved murder of at least one other Baltimore woman, which I will explore next month. Strap in, because this is a long one.
Some of the content in this post, which not only discusses murder but also child sex abuse committed by clergy, may disturb or upset sensitive readers. I do not post graphic pictures, but websites found by following links in this post may. Reader discretion is advised.
THE VICTIM: Catherine Anne "Cathy" Cesnik was born November 17, 1942 in Lawrenceville in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to parents John "Jan" and Johanna, who were both immigrants from Yugoslavia. She was raised in a devout Roman Catholic household, and attended religious schools throughout her life. She was valedictorian of her high school class, as well as president of the class and student council at St. Augustine High School for her graduating class of 1960, and was chosen to be May Queen in her senior year, as well. She was a dedicated student, bright and popular with other students and teachers. She became a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), a Roman Catholic religious order with global installations devoted to education and many other pursuits. At the time of her disappearance, she was working as a teacher of English for juniors and seniors at Western High School after leaving her position at Archbishop Keough High School (later renamed Seton Keough High School) to explore a new teaching option as a civilian teacher offered by the SSND.
This option was treated as experimental, and by the time she disappeared, the experiment had been considered a failure and Cathy and the other nun who had been chosen to perform this test, Sister Helen Russel Phillips, who was known by her middle name, had been informed that they must either return to their normal teaching positions within the SSND or leave the order altogether. Her students adored her, and spoke highly of both her ability as a teacher and her character as a person.
Cathy was 5'5" tall and weighed 115 pounds, with short blonde hair and green eyes. In photographs she's almost always smiling. She was last seen wearing a navy blue suit, aqua colored coat, a yellow sweater and black shoes.
THE HISTORY: In the 1960s, Baltimore Maryland was a city of just over 900,000 people. The city hit its peak population in 1950 with 950,000, and has seen a steady decline ever since. As of 2013, less than 12% of the population identified as Catholic, but that is the largest percentage of those who identify as religious. Founded in 1789, the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore is the oldest archdiocese in America, and is often cited as "the home of American Catholicism."
In the late 1960s, concerns over sexual abuse committed by clergy members, and any hints of a cover-up, were almost unheard of, though the abuses were most certainly going on at the time. The church was, and remains today, a force to be reckoned with, and any cases that were brought up in the 1960s were often handled internally with no criminal charges brought against the abusers. We know now that the Catholic church spent a large amount of money and a great deal of time covering up decades worth of abuse claims in order to keep up the church's reputation and public identity.
In this and all my blog posts, I endeavor to keep my opinions about these matters to myself, but this is a different matter altogether. I will state that opinion here and will not apologize for it. Abuse of children on any level and in any form is unacceptable and it is unforgivable that a religious organization would cover up allegations of abuse on such an immense scale. I do not judge anyone who is a Catholic any more than I judge anyone else for their religion, which is to say not at all. Religion can give a person a sense of comfort, stability, and purpose, not to mention hope, in a world that grows more chaotic by the day. Your religion is your choice, and no matter which one you choose to believe, you are welcome here. I, however, cannot condone abusive behavior or the cover-up of such by those who could have made an immeasurable difference in the life of an abused child or their family. The Catholic church had a chance to take a strong stance against this and prove themselves worthy of the adoration and devotion they have received. They failed spectacularly.
THE INVESTIGATION: On November 7, 1969, Cathy left the apartment she and Sister Russel shared, planning to cash her paycheck and buy a gift for her younger sister, who had just gotten engaged. She stopped at a jewelry store and a bakery to buy pastries as well, then vanished. After eleven p.m., Sister Russel called friends, priests Pete McKeon and Gerard "Jerry" Koob, and they joined her at the apartment to wait. No sign of her was found until early the next morning after a sleepless night. Koob and McKeon decided to take a walk to break the mounting tension in the apartment and found Cathy's car parked illegally across the street from the Carriage House Apartments, where Cathy and Russell lived.
The car was muddy, and the drivers' seat was adjusted back too far for Cathy to have been the last person to use it. A broken umbrella was in the back seat, and McKeon said it looked like there had been a struggle in the car. A broken twig was stuck in the turn signal lever, entwined at one end with yellow thread. Police mounted a search, but found no sign of the missing nun. It would be three months before she was found.
Witnesses said they saw Cathy's car parked properly in her usual space around 8:30 that night. Others saw the car parked the way Koob and McKeon found it two hours later. None of the witnesses saw anyone else in or around the car at either time. One witness claimed a car similar to Cathy's green 1969 Ford Maverick pulled in behind her and she followed them out of the lot, but that claim has never been verified. Leads dried up quickly and no one came forward with information about Cathy's whereabouts, and the search dragged on for months.
On January 3, 1970, the body of Catherine Cesnik was found by two hunters. Sister Cathy was left in a remote area of Lansdowne, near a garbage dump. Her body was left out in the open on a slight rise. Parts of her body were exposed, and an autopsy confirmed her cause of death was blunt force trauma to the back of her head, which caused a 2-inch circular fracture to her skull and a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. There were also marks on her throat suggesting she had been strangled, and the way her clothes were on her body suggested some sexual motive to the crime, as well. Her purse was found, with personal items inside, but the money she got from her cashed paycheck was never found. Her jewelry wasn't removed, however, which casts doubt on a robbery motive.
At the time of her murder, police were stumped for clues to her killer or killers. No clear motive was established back then, and only in the years since has information surfaced that would give police and the general public even a clue as to what that motive may have been. Fathers E. Neill Magnus and Father Joseph Maskell, who also worked at Archbishop Keough, were accused in the early 1990s of sexually abusing multiple students at the school after one of the victims' repressed memories of her abuse at their hands came back to her during multiple meditation sessions. A junior at the time of Cathy's disappearance, Jean Wehner, known in those days to the public only as Jane Doe once the preliminary efforts to take Maskell to trial were ongoing, began to talk about her memories. She and her family sent out postcards asking alumni if they knew anything about sexual abuse at Keough, and another former student named Teresa Lancaster came forward as well. During this time Jean, Teresa and several other women who were students at the time, spoke of how Cathy Cesnik was aware of the abuse and may have been in position to try and put an end to it.
THE SUSPECT(S): This sections is going to get into some theories that are based mostly on speculation, because the evidence from Sister Cathy hasn't led to a solid suspect. There are several men who are suspected of either carrying out Sister Cathy's murder, or having knowledge of it in one way or another, but there is little evidence to prove their guilt, especially after so many years have passed. Father Maskell has been the prime suspect, at least aware of Cathy's murder if not directly responsible for it. He passed away in 2001. His body was exhumed in 2017 and his DNA tested against evidence found on Cathy's body. There was no match, but most people who have researched this case agree he was involved somehow. Jean Wehner claims one of the memories she recovered during her self-administered meditation sessions was that Maskell took her to Cathy's body, using the murder of the nun to threaten Jean into silence.
Maskell continued to be accused of sex abuse of children throughout his career, starting before his tenure at Keough and right up until at least 1998, even after he moved to Ireland and was ordered not to practice as a priest. In 1998 he returned to the United States. He proclaimed his innocence until his death in a nursing home, but the Archdiocese of Baltimore paid out settlements totaling almost half a million dollars to 16 alleged victims starting in 2011.
If Maskell did not act alone, as evidence suggests, there are several other men who may have been connected with the crime. Father Magnus, who was also allegedly abusing the girls at the same time as Maskell, may have been involved. He passed away in 1988, but did serve at another school after leaving Keough in 1982. Wehner alleged that several police officers were involved in the sexual abuse she suffered, as well as other men who were brought in by Maskell and Magnus. Wehner was not the only victim of these two men at Keough, as there are many other women who have come forward with stories of abuse at the school in the intervening years.
Other people of interest, those who police believe may not be telling the whole story, are Pete McKeon and Gerard Koob, who found her car. Their stories about where they were the night Cathy disappeared matched up in the immediate aftermath, but over the years have changed and no longer line up quite as well.
Koob claimed in The Keepers that he suggested both he and Cathy leave the church and asked Cathy to marry him, but she refused and the two remained friends. Some of her letters to him suggest a sexual relationship, but there of course is no proof of that. Both Koob and McKeon cooperated with the investigation, submitting to interrogation and polygraph tests until the church intervened on their behalves and the police were forced to back off. There is only speculation that these men were in any way involved, much like the other suspects.
Other potential suspects include several other men who appeared to their families at the time of the murder, covered in blood and with only shaky alibis for their whereabouts. These men, who have never been interviewed by police about Cathy's murder, all changed their patterns of behavior after her death. Most of these suspects have since died. A piece of jewelry given to one of their wives may have been the gift Cathy bought the night of her disappearance, intended for her newly-engaged sister. It is a necklace in the shape of a wedding bell, adorned with a green stone, possibly the August birth stone, peridot. The woman who received it had been married to her husband for a year and a half when he gave it to her, and he was not one to give gifts for no reason. She never understood why he would give her that piece of jewelry, and the green birthstone in it meant nothing to her.
Nothing is certain in this case. Though there is more information than in most cases I profile in this series, there is nothing concrete to be had. Nothing that has led to a definite answer. And nothing that can keep the case going forward, even after the extra media attention.
THE AFTERMATH: No one has been charged with the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, and the investigation has been cold for decades. Investigators and suspects alike have passed away and grown old as the world has moved on. The Keepers reawakened interest in the case since its release in 2017, but there have been no new solid leads. Cathy's parents have passed away without ever finding out what happened to their daughter or why.
The murder of Cathy Cesnik was a heinous crime, committed against someone who was loved by so many. I would love to see this case brought to a conclusion. Cathy deserves it, as do all who loved her during her life, and still do to this day.
Join me again next month when I continue this story by profiling the also-unsolved murder of Joyce Malecki, who disappeared in similar circumstances just days after Cathy's disappearance. She was also found murdered shortly after she vanished and there is a chance the two murders are connected.
If you have any information about the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, please contact the Baltimore City Police Department at 443-902-4822 or email them at HomicideTips@baltimorepolice.org.
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