EXCLUSIVE | ‘Cathy Cesnik deserves justice’: Ex-student Gemma Hoskins fights for truth about Baltimore nun’s 1969 murder

Cathy Cesnik's body was discovered on January 3, 1970, near a garbage dump in the Baltimore suburb of Lansdowne

EXCLUSIVE | ‘Cathy Cesnik deserves justice’: Ex-student Gemma Hoskins fights for truth about Baltimore nun’s 1969 murder
Gemma Hoskins (R) has been fighting to reveal the truth about Cathy Cesnik's (L) murder (Gemma Hoskins/Facebook)
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BALTIMORE, MARYLAND: Catherine Anne Cesnik was born on November 17, 1942, in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The eldest child of Joseph and Anna Omulac Cesnik, Cathy attended St Mary's School on 57th Street and St Augustine High School, both in Lawrenceville. She was later an American Catholic religious sister who taught English and drama at the formerly all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Little did young Cathy know that November 7, 1969, would be the most fateful day of her life. Little did she know she would not live to enjoy her birthday just ten days later. That day, Sister Cathy disappeared. Her body was discovered on January 3, 1970, near a garbage dump in the Baltimore suburb of Lansdowne. Her abduction and brutal murder remain unsolved to this day.

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Murder of Cathy Cesnik

In the fall of 1969, Cathy was living in an off-campus apartment complex called the Carriage House. She lived with a roommate, another nun called Sister Helen Russell Phillips. Cathy at the time had left Archbishop Keough High School and was teaching at Western High School, also in Baltimore County.

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Cathy drove her car to a nearby shopping center around 7.30 pm on November 7, 1969. She had told Helen she was going to buy an engagement present for her sister. As per records, Cathy cashed a $255 paycheck.

That night, Cathy did not return home. She was never seen alive again. On January 3, 1970, Cathy’s mutilated body was found in Lansdowne, Maryland. She had been killed by blunt-force trauma to her head.

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Sister Cathy Cesnik (Gemma Hoskins/Facebook)
Sister Cathy Cesnik (Gemma Hoskins/Facebook)

A woman's fight to reveal the truth

Cathy’s murder later served as the basis for the Netflix documentary web series 'The Keepers', released in 2017. Nearly 50 years later, in the aftermath of Cathy’s murder, Gemma Hoskins, with the help of her former classmate, Abbie Schaub, has dedicated her retirement to finding the identity of Cathy’s killer.

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Gemma Hoskins (L), with the help of her former classmate Abbie Schaub (R), has dedicated her retirement to finding the identity of Cathy’s killer (The Keepers/Facebook)
Gemma Hoskins (L), with the help of her former classmate Abbie Schaub (R), has dedicated her retirement to finding the identity of Cathy’s killer (The Keepers/Facebook)

At the time of Cathy’s disappearance and murder, Gemma was a senior at Archbishop Keough High School. Speaking to MEAWW, Hoskins said, “Sister Cathy was the best teacher I have ever had. She was kind and compassionate. I learned a lot about life from her. I learned to appreciate literature. When I met her, I was only 15 or 16 years old, and she was 26.”

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Sexual abuse at Archbishop Keough High School

“It wasn’t until the 1990s that I became aware of the rumors that someone killed Cathy because she may have threatened to expose a horrific crime being committed inside the four walls of the school,” Gemma said. “When Sister Cathy was teaching at Archbishop Keough High School in the late-1960s, two of her colleagues were allegedly sexually abusing girls at the school. They were also trafficking them to strangers for sex.”

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The two men in question were Rev Joseph Maskell and another priest, a teacher -- Rev Neil Magnus. “Neither I nor Abbie knew of the alleged abuse before two of Cathy’s former students -- Jean Wehner and Teresa Lancaster -- made their allegations all these years later. We learned that when the abuse was going on, the survivors confided in Cathy and told her what was happening to them,” Gemma said.

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Gemma and Abbie’s investigation found that when Cathy threatened to expose the abuse, Maskell either murdered her or got her murdered. Wehner was the first to come forward to Baltimore City police in 1992 with allegations of sexual assault. She even alleged that Maskell took her to the woods and showed her Cathy’s body before it was found. 

“Abbie and I soon created public online communities where we encouraged alumni and alleged victims to share their experiences,” said Gemma. They both soon developed a Facebook page that sought justice for Cathy Cesnik and Joyce Malecki, another 20-year-old Baltimore resident whose body was found days after Cathy was reported missing. It is, however, not known whether Malecki's murder was related to Cathy’s.

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“26 is such a young age for a woman to carry the burden of young girls telling you that they were being sexually abused by a man who was supposed to be their confessor. Cathy was a beautiful human being -- she treated each of us like we were special, but she treated all of us the same. I remember her walking up and down the aisle, interacting with all of us,” Gemma recalled.

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“Every time she spoke to one of us, or wrote a comment on our worksheet, she would take our names. She would say: “Gemma, I like how you wrote about Tom Sawyer…”, and every time she took our names, we would feel respected. This means so much to a student,” she added.

“I was in disbelief when I learned she had been murdered. We couldn’t believe that someone would want to hurt a woman like Cathy, who cared for people and loved them. It feels so awful to think that while I was enjoying my time at Keough, so many others were being abused and I wasn't even aware of it. It’s horrifying to an extent I cannot describe, that while I was walking up and down the corridor, my schoolmates were being raped by the priest behind a closed door,” Gemma says.

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Gemma said she loved reading, loved literature, and had a wonderful time at Keough. "From what we know, the church habitually moved these predatory priests from one parish to another in an attempt to cover up the cases. They cared little for the church’s children," she said.

Solving puzzles

“I have always liked solving puzzles, I am good at figuring things out. I have taken some courses in criminal justice, which have been very helpful. When these survivors began coming out to voice what had happened to them, I was shocked and determined to do my best to expose the suspects. I am no detective or investigator, but I knew I was on a mission to tell the world that what had happened wasn’t right,” said Gemma.

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“When I got no answers from the authorities, from those in power, I knew I had to do this on my own. I took classes on criminology, and I learned about psychopathy. I look and learn and I soak up. I read and listen to stories of crimes committed, go to conferences, and try to meet people who can help me in some way or the other. I am just driven,” she added.

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Gemma confirmed that her investigation found there was massive police inaction in the case because some policemen were also allegedly involved in the abuse. Gemma has heard the names of at least ten such policemen, she recalled.

In 1994, survivors Wehner and Lancaster brought forward a $40 million lawsuit against Maskell, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and Archbishop Keough due to lack of action. According to Wehner’s lawyer, there were at least 30 more allegations made to local and state authorities during the same period of time.

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Prior to the 1994 lawsuit, allegations against Maskell were first made public in 1992. The Archdiocese of Baltimore at the time claimed that the two women’s claims could not be corroborated. “Investigation found that the archdiocese’s statement isn’t true. It knew about a separate, earlier case of abuse that involved Maskell and a boy, who is now a grown man, named Charles Franz. Franz claimed that Maskell, beginning in 1967, introduced him to drugs and alcohol. Makell at that time was working at Baltimore’s Saint Clement Parish,” said Gemma.

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When Franz’s mother found out, she complained to the archdiocese, which transferred Maskell to Archbishop Keough. The archdiocese had told Wehner that a second witness was needed to back her claim, even though it already had Franz’s complaint. “The 1994 lawsuit was ultimately thrown out because of an expired statute of limitations. The two women were discredited in the process. The Archdiocese of Baltimore released a list of priests in 2002, who, according to church officials, are accused of “credible” child sex abuse allegations. Joseph Maskell appeared on the list,” said Gemma.

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In the 1990s, after the allegations were made, Maskell fled to Ireland. He died in 2001 shortly after returning to Baltimore County. Reportedly, the police department has reached a forensic dead end with the murder case. However, they haven’t ruled out the possibility of future developments.

“Abbie doesn’t work with me anymore, but my pursuit to find the truth is on. I am not going to give up. The authorities would not tell me anything or let me access the files in connection with the case. If they did, I am sure I could join the dots the police aren’t joining,” Gemma said.

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'The Keepers' does not fully establish the truth. Sister Cathy Cesnik’s murder remains an unsolved mystery, but Gemma and Abbie’s hard work to expose the truth when those in power refused to is considered exceptional. Despite the danger, Gemma said that she is not done yet.

“I am tentatively optimistic. People may refute my theories, and I may not have reached a conclusion yet, but I am positive that I will. Although there are so many suspects in the case, nobody has been charged. I strongly believe that Cathy’s death and the abuse at Keough are closely connected,” Gemma says.

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“My pursuit to find the truth was definitely worth it. I want to see the abusers being charged. Some of them may be dead, but some are not. I will fight for Sister Cathy Cesnik until she gets justice,” Gemma concluded.

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