It’s a freezing winter in Maryland, and Sister Catherine Cesnik has been missing for two months. Then a hunter discovers her mutilated body, dumped on the remote outskirts of Baltimore. Strangely, it’s just the start of a dark and twisted mystery that will dog the Catholic Church for decades to come.
Catherine, known as Cathy, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 17, 1942. One of three children born to second-generation immigrants, she grew up in a devoutly religious household. Well liked at her Catholic high school, she earned the titles of class valedictorian, May Queen and president of her senior class.
After graduating high school, Cathy continued to find direction in the Catholic faith. Aged 18, she decided to join the School Sisters of Notre Dame – a worldwide order of nuns dedicated to education. By the late 1960s, she had taken up a position in Baltimore, some 250 miles from her hometown.
There she began working as a teacher at Archbishop Keough, a Catholic high school for girls. Soon she had earned the respect of both students and teachers alike. According to those who knew her, she was gentle and kind, with an empathetic nature that made her an excellent nun.
However, it was the 1960s, and many young men and women within the church were beginning to question the restrictions of their faith. Furthermore, Cathy had grown into a beautiful woman – a fact that hadn’t escaped the attention of the priests who crossed her path.
In fact, in 1968, a Jesuit priest named Gerard Koob succumbed to his feelings and asked Cathy to marry him. And even though she declined his offer, the pair remained close friends. Then, the next year, Cathy and a fellow nun, Sister Helen Russell, decided to leave the convent where they were living.
Even though the pair were denied permission to leave, Cathy and Helen continued with their plan. No longer allowed to teach at Archbishop Keough, they took jobs at schools elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, they moved into their own apartment.
It was the evening of November 7, 1979, when Cathy left the apartment for the last time. Apparently, her sister had recently gotten engaged, and she wanted to buy her a present at a local shopping center. She drove her 1969 Ford Maverick to a local bank and cashed her latest paycheck.
At some point in the evening, Cathy visited a bakery, where she bought a box of buns. But what happened next is still a mystery, even four decades after the event. What we do know is that Helen grew increasingly worried as the hours ticked by and the usually sensible Cathy did not return.
Eventually, Helen called Gerard, who raced to the scene with a friend. In the early hours of the morning, they discovered Cathy’s car illegally parked close to the apartment. Bizarrely, its wheels were covered in mud. But even though police launched an extensive search for the missing nun, no trace of Cathy could be found.
Soon, investigators discovered that a neighbor had spotted Cathy’s car in its normal spot about 8:30 p.m. To add to the confusion, others claimed to have seen her in the no-parking zone just two hours later. However, no one reported any screams or anything else unusual, and police were stumped.
Then, on January 3, 1970, two hunters made a gruesome discovery at a landfill site in Lansdowne, some seven miles south of Baltimore. There they discovered Cathy’s frozen body, her clothing in disarray. Exposed to the elements, her corpse had been partially eaten by wild animals.
According to the autopsy, Cathy had been killed by a blow to her skull with a blunt instrument – most likely a brick. But who had committed the terrible crime? While Gerard insisted that a stranger had been responsible for murdering the woman he had once wanted to marry, police began to focus on the priest himself as a suspect.
However, Gerard had an alibi for the time of Cathy’s disappearance, and willingly submitted to polygraph tests. Furthermore, some officers would later claim that pressure from the church led them to drop the investigation. Whatever the real reason, the case soon went cold.
For 25 years, the mystery of who killed Sister Cathy remained unsolved. Then, in 1994, former Archbishop Keough student Jean Wehner approached the Baltimore police with a shocking revelation. According to her, Cathy had been about to expose a history of sexual abuse at the school before she disappeared.
The next year, Jean and Teresa Lancaster, another former pupil, filed a lawsuit claiming that Father Joseph Maskell, a priest at the school, had abused them. Furthermore, Jean alleged that Cathy had been the only adult to show concern towards the victims – and that she had paid the ultimate price.
Apparently, Jean had begun to remember the abuse while undergoing psychotherapy. Shockingly, however, it wasn’t the only thing that she claimed to recall. Allegedly, she also had memories of Father Maskell driving her out to see Cathy’s body, months before it was discovered by the police.
According to reports, Jean claimed that the priest explained his actions in a few chilling words. “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?” Terrified, the 16-year-old said she remembers trying to wipe maggots away from Cathy’s face – an observation that surprisingly gives her story some weight. Even though November is an odd month for the creatures to appear, the autopsy confirmed that they were found in the nun’s body.
Although the lawsuit was dismissed due to the statute of limitations having passed, the revelations kick-started a new investigation. This time, police applied techniques that had not been available back in the 1970s. For example a profile of the killer was created using the latest forensic methods. Meanwhile, the now-deceased Maskell’s body was exhumed for DNA testing.
In yet another twist, Maskell’s DNA did not match evidence recovered from the scene of the crime. Currently, the case remains unsolved. And even though it recently emerged that the Catholic Church had paid settlements to the alleged victims, no sold proof of the abuse has ever been found. With the case garnering new attention after a Netflix series based on the events, it can only be hoped that the mystery of who killed Sister Cathy might finally be solved.