Heroic whistleblower-nun “Sister Cathy” died in valiant effort to stop brutal sexual abuse at her high school, witnesses say
by Tom Nugent
BALTIMORE – More than 47 years after a 26-year-old teaching nun was found murdered in a garbage-littered patch of scrubland on the outskirts of Baltimore, there is convincing new evidence that she died in a tragic bid to blow the whistle on rampant sexual abuse involving both priests and police officers at the nun’s Catholic high school.
The still unsolved killing of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik – for several years a youthful and high-spirited English teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in southwest Baltimore – still looms as one of Maryland’s most puzzling and enigmatic “cold cases,” according to many law enforcement officials and journalists who have studied the murder over the years.
The brutal homicide, recently described in detail in a seven-part Netflix documentary, The Keepers, that was nominated for an Emmy Award, has raised deeply troubling questions about interference by the Catholic Church and Baltimore-area police officials alike in the ongoing investigations of the crime over nearly five decades.
Those questions became even more troubling recently, when a national newspaper, The Crime Report, and a local Baltimore newspaper, Inside Baltimore, both reported that Maryland law enforcement officials were investigating five additional unsolved Baltimore-area murders in order to determine if they might be linked to the abuse at Keough High School and at several other Catholic schools and parishes in the Baltimore area.
“This is beyond coincidence,” said one veteran Maryland law enforcement officer while describing possible links between the six killings (four of the victims were teenagers) and the sexual abuse. The unsolved murders took place between 1970 and 1981 and two of the victims were only 13 and 14 years old.
The murder of the Pittsburgh native who died while teaching at Keough as a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame has been the subject of numerous police and FBI investigations over the years. But only a few months ago, Baltimore-area law enforcement officials for the first time ever confirmed that they believe police officers were also involved in the sexual abuse that many investigators believe triggered the killing of the whistleblowing nun.
During a recent telecast by the CBS outlet in Baltimore, WJZ-TV, a newscaster who has worked on the cold case for years reported that Baltimore-area police now believe some corrupt cops were involved in the events that triggered the nun’s murder.
The nun’s tangled cold case – which now includes allegations of abuse-related murder involving five other homicide victims during the 1970s and 1981 – includes numerous statements by witnesses who say they asked Sister Cathy to help them fend off abuse (including rape and forced prostitution) by priests and cops during the late 1960s.
Sister Cathy vanished during a shopping trip on the evening of Nov. 7, 1969, and was never seen alive again. Her mutilated body was found on a patch of waste ground in the southwest Baltimore suburb of Lansdowne, Md., on January 3, 1970. During the next 47 years, dozens of police and FBI investigators and journalists would spend tens of thousands of hours in a fruitless quest to identify the nun’s killer and trace the alleged connections between her murder and the rampant sexual abuse that had been taking place at her high during the years that preceded it.
According to several witnesses, the troubled nun showed signs of “stress and anxiety” during the months leading up to her murder . . . a period in which she reportedly promised several students that she would confront a notorious abuser-priest and turn him in to law enforcement officials for raping and prostituting teenaged girls who were attending the high school.
Other witnesses over the years have reported that the nun was visited by “a very angry” abuser-priest on the night before she disappeared. In addition, the Archdiocese of Baltimore later confirmed that “guns were found” in that priest’s rectory after he was defrocked by Church officials.
“She was a great hero, in my opinion,” one of those students would later recall. “It must have taken enormous courage to face up to an all-powerful priest like that. Back in that era, Catholic priests were god-like, and they had absolute authority over most of the people in their parishes.”
For Sister Cathy – according to many of the students who knew her shortly before her death – the hazards of blowing the whistle on rapes by priests and police must have seemed immense. But there is little doubt today that the charges of abuse were accurate . . . a fact which became clear decades later, when the Archdiocese of Baltimore awarded about a dozen “settlements” to students who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by two serial abuser-priests at Keough High School back in the 1960s and 1970s.
So far, those abuse settlements have totaled more than $500,000, according to officials at the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which operates all the Catholic parochial schools in the region.
While Maryland law enforcement officials continue to insist that they are determined to solve the murder of the whistle-blowing nun, more than a few former police investigators remain skeptical about their actual willingness to do so.
The skeptics point to the fact several alleged abuse victims have told the Baltimore news media in recent years that they were raped by cops as well as priests, during the era in which most of the unsolved killings took place.
Says one retired Maryland law enforcement official who’s familiar with what he describes as “decades of cover-up”: “I think the fact that all of the murders remain unsolved to this day – and that they seem to have so many similarities and links to priestly sex abuse – is very troubling.
“All these killings should be checked out, to see if there’s a pattern here.”
Copyright © Tom Nugent
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About the Author: Tom Nugent is the author of Death at Buffalo Creek (W.W. Norton), a book of investigative journalism which reported on a coal mining-related flash flood that killed more than a hundred people and destroyed 16 towns in a remote valley in West Virginia. Nugent also publishes an online newspaper, www.insidebaltimore.org, and has reported for The New Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Mother Jones and other publications.