Cracking the Stonewall on a Nun’s Murder: A Reporter’s Story

Print More
newspaper headline

Photo courtesy of Netflix.

It was the kind of moment that an investigative reporter never forgets.

Harsh accusations were told to WJZ by many of [Father] Maskell’s victims. We have spoken with two of these women, and now a third is coming forward with a real bombshell. She told WJZ she was abused not only by Father Maskell, but also by police officers. . . .

It happened last February 27, when Baltimore’s CBS outlet, WJZ-TV, reported that local police were investigating credible reports of cops raping teenagers at a Catholic high school for girls in the city, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

cold case

Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik. Photo courtesy Baltimore County Police

But the shocking TV news report also marked a huge turning point in this investigative reporter’s 22-year effort to uncover the truth about the murder of a teaching nun, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik, who had reportedly tried to blow the whistle on widespread sexual abuse of students at her high school in southwest Baltimore.

The February 27 news story was an unexpected development, for sure.

For the first time ever, a major television station in Baltimore was talking openly—live and on the air—about the possibility that the nun’s murder had been covered up by police officials for more than four decades because an open investigation might reveal that “several” local policemen had been engaged in the sexual abuse, along with several law-breaking Roman Catholic priests.

Until then, the story of the 22-year struggle to uncover and report the abuse—along with an alleged Church and police cover-up—had been a depressing chronicle of stonewalling, frustration and official indifference.

But then came the remarkable evening last winter when the dam finally broke and the allegations of police misconduct suddenly flooded onto airwaves and front pages all across the Baltimore-Washington region.

The reporting struggle had not been an easy one. Again and again, as a series of mostly local reporters dug at frightening allegations of rape by priests and cops, they were stymied by Baltimore-area “cold case” investigators and special agents at the FBI—all of whom repeatedly refused to discuss details about the unsolved killing of the nun or the abuse that had reportedly triggered it.

priests

Father A. Joseph Maskell (left) was defrocked by the Archdiocese of Baltimore (AOB) after numerous allegations of sexual abuse, and after the AOB confirmed that “guns were found” at his last church rectory in Maryland. His friend Father Neil Magnus (now deceased) was also accused of rape by students at a Catholic girls’ high school in Baltimore, where he served as Director of Religious Studies. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

 

This reporter, for example, was told several times over the years by cold-case investigators at the Baltimore County Police Department and the FBI that the nun had undoubtedly been killed by a “random assailant” who abducted her during a Nov. 7, 1969, shopping trip, then raped and murdered her.

When I then uncovered significant evidence linking the murder of the nun to the school abuse, both the police and the FBI refused to examine it. Instead, they made clear that they had no interest in studying any scenarios other than the “random assailant” scenario they had long ago decided was the correct explanation that lay behind the nun’s murder.

James Scannell

Baltimore Police Captain James L. Scannell (now deceased) was a close friend of Father Maskell and often drove the priest on “ride-alongs” in his squad car. Some female high school students said they were sexually assaulted by priests and cops during such ride-alongs. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

 

It took more than a decade of reporting and writing stories about the nun’s murder before the shocking new information about sexual abuse by priests and police, and possible links connecting it to the killing, finally began to gain momentum.

Indeed, Baltimore-area law enforcement officials now say they believe that six different unsolved killings may in fact be connected to the abuse.

Tom Nugent

Tom Nugent

The struggle to tell the story of the nun’s murder and the ensuing alleged cover-up began in 1994, in Baltimore, when I and several others interviewed the first abuse victim. During the ensuing years, I continued to interview both abuse victims (more than a dozen have by now received “apologies” and more than $500,000 in “settlement” compensation from Church officials) and those law enforcement officials who were willing to talk with me.

I spent hundreds of hours burning shoe leather in Baltimore, while interviewing dozens of former students at the Catholic high school—along with several police detectives and FBI agents who had worked on earlier investigations of the nun’s killing. I slowly developed several high-ranking sources in Baltimore law enforcement.

As I gained their trust over more than a decade of scrupulously careful reporting, they began to provide more and more revealing details about the abuse, the murder, and an alleged police cover-up of both.

I also went to Pittsburgh and interviewed family members and friends of the murdered nun, in order to tell that side of the story in specific, compelling detail.

Again and again, I tried to interest newspapers (including my former employer, the Baltimore Sun, and the nearby Washington Post) in letting me cover the story for them. For several years, they refused to run the copy I sent them, while insisting that the facts I’d uncovered weren’t sufficient to back up allegations of police involvement in sexual abuse—along with alleged police and church cover-ups of murder.

But then I got a break.

In early 2005, I finally managed to persuade the City Paper, an independent newspaper in Baltimore to run a massive, 5,000-word story about the nun’s killing and the ensuing investigations.

That story drew some important help from some media-savvy abuse-research volunteers, one of whom eventually succeeded in attracting the attention of the Huffington Post.

Photo courtesy Netflix

The lengthy 2015 HuffPo piece helped to set the stage for this year’s Emmy-nominated true crime documentary, The Keepers, which brought international attention and millions of viewers to the tragic story of Sister Cathy and the allegations of sexual abuse and alleged cover-up by Baltimore-area police and the FBI.

By the time The Keepers premiered in May of this year, the local news media—including print, television and magazines (such as Baltimore Magazine, which ran a lengthy investigative story on the nun’s murder)—were already reporting the story in shocking detail.

If there is a lesson for investigative reporters in all of this, it now seems clear.

Learn how to tell your story in a variety of formats (print, television, magazines and documentary film and video) so that you can reach a variety of audiences and thus maximize the story’s impact.

The bottom line: once the powers-that-be in Baltimore realized that the story of the murdered nun, the sexual abuse and the allegations of police cover-up was going to be the subject of a blockbuster, seven-part documentary on Netflix, the bureaucratic stonewalling gave way to increasing disclosures of revealing fact by law enforcement officials in Maryland.

Of course, the story isn’t over yet.

With local law enforcement in Maryland now talking openly about “new findings that may link six different unsolved murders to two priests who were involved in the abuse during the late 1960s and much of the 1970s,” there may very well be additional surprises ahead.

The effort to uncover the facts will continue.

Hopefully, the worldwide interest provoked by The Keepers will also continue to help journalists overcome the kind of stonewalling that so often takes place when law enforcement officials refuse to share information with the public—for motives that often seem dubious and self-serving.

Update: Baltimore county cold case detectives now confirm they are investigating six different unsolved murders in connection to this case. Read more

Tom Nugent is the author of Death at Buffalo Creek (W.W. Norton), a book of investigative journalism about a coal mining-related disaster that killed 125 people and left thousands homeless in Appalachia. He is also the publisher of an online newspaper, Inside Baltimore. Tom welcomes comments from readers.

16 thoughts on “Cracking the Stonewall on a Nun’s Murder: A Reporter’s Story

  1. Great work Tom. You listened when nobody would listen . You were the here. Hopefully truth will prevail. Hopefully many families will have a shread of piece. She hope all police departments take these stories seriously. I hope all who covered up are held accountable.

  2. Thank you Tom, from the bottom of my heart. That priest never deserved to become anyone’s hero. He was a wolves in sheep’s clothing to the fullest.

  3. He was not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was a wolf in Shepard’s clothing and that is a big difference. A wolf in sheep’s clothing will never get away scot free with rape and murder-but a wolf in Shepard’s clothing will get away with rape and murder and never be brought to justice-simply because the Shepards are above the law.

    • Maskell / Magnus are (were) NOT the only serpents involved in this sordid story! No need splitting hairs with what Melissa stated.

  4. Your dogged determination to shine a light on Sister Cathy’s murder helped to push this shocking story into the light. Thank you for continuing to shine that light and to speak truth to power.

  5. Thank you for understanding that justice is directly linked to the simple revelation of truth, and never giving in to the heavy pressure (or implied threats) of those who would like to stop that flow.

    The Keepers not only helped victims, but celebrated the fact that it is the *little people* who keep on fighting for this revelation that can move mountains of cover-up and shake our culture out of an attitude of *I’m not sticking my neck out to help.*

  6. Thank you, Tom Nugent. One of the original “Keepers”. More stories from brave survivors continue to surface. Families now look back and talk to each other. Many are asking questions about what really happened to a sibling or a friend. More voices are heard to say “ME TOO”. It happened to me too!!! Good Sheperd, St. Clement’s, Our Lady of Victory, St. Marks, Annunciation, Holy Cross, and many others are names associated with hunting grounds for Maskell and his ring of powerful church and law enforcement co-conspirators. When will the good people in these church families decide enough is enough. When will the brave take a stand to expose the rot and reclaim the safety for their faith? Please…If you know something, saw something, or suspected something….tell someone. Tell your mother, your father or your sisters and brothers. Tell your friends. Tell the police! Tell someone……THEY WILL BELIEVE YOU NOW.

  7. Great work Tom, I’d like to extend a personal invitation to you to come to Pittsburgh, PA as soon as the PA Attorney General issues his scathing report on the Pittsburgh Diocese and several others currently under grand jury investigations.

    You can start and finish the job that the Pittsburgh media was never permitted to do; and that is to write about the clergy sex abuse of innocent children and the cover-ups by the Roman Coward Church and the Zappala Crime Family/Terrorist Group.

    The Pittsburgh media is not permitted to publish the corruption dating back to when Bevilacqua with the bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese, followed by Cardinal Donald “The Lavender Don” Wuerl and current bishop David Zubitch. Just for the record, Zubitch was the personal secretary for Bevilacqua when he was destroying the lives of innocent children in the Philly Archdiocese.

    Wuerl was the personal secretary for Cardinal John Wright a known sexual abuser from Worchester, MA.

    Of course you don’t have to take my word for this information, read for yourself and judge for yourself:

    http://whale.to/b/homosexual_colonization.html

  8. thank you for your tenacity. as someone who lost her career fighting an educational system who did not follow mandated reporting, tried to cover up abuses of power, protected the perpetrators … it’s great to know there are #TruthTellers among us. #MikeFerence is exactly like you….perseverance. #SOLReform #OneIsTooMany

  9. Tom is really good soul. Have given him a few tidbits on the phone. But he deserves the credit for the keeepers. Others have used his info but he found it. God bless you tom. Your friend jerry

  10. Hope you also dig into the links between the pedophile priest-serving ban on safe marital sex, bullied childbirth-ruined mothers, hoodwinked abortions for priests’ mistresses and rape victims, and church-ordered Munchausen by Proxy medical trafficking (especially at Johns-Hopkins) of us unwanted forced-birth kids. Were any of Maskell’s victims threatened with disfigurement? Were their mothers bullied about contraception use to save their marriages and health? Was a late Towson Immaculate Deception pastor/Orioles chaplain a buddy/sex ring client of Maskell? This priest reportedly banged Orioles wives, ordered my childbirth-ruined mom to chemically burn me as HER marital abstinence forever excuse, and told my dad to go to hookers. This abuse mystery won’t be solved until you expose the double standard sexual caste system that tortures married couples with cruel abstinence while treating clergy and politicians to orgies.

  11. Thank you for your hard work and determination. You’re one of the warriors who are tearing the lid off this disgusting abuse of people and power. I don’t know if it’s coincidence but it seems the whole nation is beginning to speak out about sexual abuse and harassment since the Keepers aired. It’s time predators be put on notice that this will no longer be tolerated and kept quiet!

  12. Tom, I have the greatest respect for your dogged journey to uncover the truth of this case. Thank you!

    I’m about the age of the Keough girls. Though I’m not Catholic and I went to public school, I remember all too well the prevailing authoritarian atmosphere of the times. Although nothing exceptionally horrible happened to me, if it had, there would have been no one I could tell.

    It’s no surprise The Powers That Be still–all these years later!–want these institutional abuses covered up. Back in the day, they were “always right” and “knew best.” Except … not so much.

    You and the victims who have spoken out are true heroes and heroines.

  13. Your talent and persistence has made a world of difference for countless people. It was a privilege and an inspiration to learn from you back in the day. Thanks for all that you do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *