Ocean City Today

Seven-part series examines claims of sexual abuse at Seton Keough High School

OC resident seeks justice in ‘The Keepers’

By Greg Ellison | May 18, 2017
Photo by: Greg Ellison Ocean City resident Gemma Hoskins is beginning a national media tour to promote the just released Netflix documentary series, The Keepers, which highlights ongoing efforts to solve the decades old murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik.

(May 19, 2017) Ocean City resident Gemma Hoskins appreciates tenaciousness.

The retired Harford County school teacher and a close-knit group of cohorts have spent years investigating the nearly half century-old unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in Baltimore.

Now, they are bracing for the national media spotlight with today’s release of Netflix’s seven-part documentary series “The Keepers.”

On Nov. 7, 1969, Cesnik, an instructor at Archbishop Keough High School, a private all-girls Roman Catholic school in Southwest Baltimore, was reported missing. Two months later on Jan. 3, 1970, her body was discovered in a nearby wooded area.

The murder, which happened during Hoskins senior year, took place after Cesnik left Archbishop Keough on plain-clothes duty with Sister Helen Russell Phillips.

“She and Russell were going to take part in a social experiment and teach in public school and live outside the convent,” she said. “They weren’t actually leaving the sisterhood but the kids they taught didn’t know they were nuns.”

Hoskins met Cesnik in 1966 during her freshman year at Archbishop Keough and she felt an instant affinity for the 20-something nun.

“She was my English teacher and the first day she walked into that room, I can’t even describe what it felt like because she was this breath of fresh air,” she said. “She was like Julie Andrews in the ‘Sound of Music.’”

Because many of the nuns at the school were older, Hoskins said, Cesnik’s youthfulness and upbeat demeanor endeared her to pupils.

“Most of the nuns, when I had to speak to them directly, made me want to cry,” she said. “She (Cesnik) wasn’t scary and was always smiling.”

At the same time, according to a lawsuit filed many years later, Father Joseph Maskell, who taught religion classes at Keough, was abusing some of the students. Maskell, who died in 2001, has long been suspected to have been involved in Cesnik’s murder.

“We knew nothing about what was going on,” she said. “When I think there was just a one-inch door between us walking in the halls and what was going on in the chapel, his office, (and) his bathroom. How did we miss that?”

It wasn’t until years later, in the 1990s when two women filed suit alleging abuse at the school, did Hoskins become aware of it.

“One had retrieval of memory and the other one remembered all the time but nobody would ever listen to her,” she said. “They were Jane Doe and Jane Roe.”

As part of the lawsuit, which targeted Archbishop Keough and church officials, attorneys sent letters to alumni asking anyone with knowledge of Maskell’s sexual abuse to come forward.

“They got over 100 responses,” she said.

As it happened, many of the students shared a bond with Cesnik, Hoskins said, with some trusting her enough to tell her of abuse by Maskell.

“Can you imagine these 15-, 16-, 17-year-old girls coming to her and saying the Chaplin is raping me?” she said. “She’s 26 and she takes on this role of telling them she’s going to take care if it.”

Hoskins said criminal charges were not filed at the time of the lawsuit because the statute of limitations for victims to report child sexual abuse is seven years after turning 18. She also noted that retrieved memories were not yet admissible in court.

In 2005, Hoskins was contacted by Tom Nugent, a veteran newspaper reporter with the Baltimore Sun, who had taken an interest in solving the mystery after interviewing a number of Maskell’s alleged victims during the 1990s.

“He said, ‘Gemma let’s get some Chinese food and solve this thing’,” she said.

Nugent’s subsequent article, “Who Killed Sister Cathy,” was rejected by a number of major publications.

“The Sun wouldn’t publish it, the Washington Post wouldn’t publish it, the New York Times wouldn’t publish it because they said there were too many legal ramifications,” she said. “‘The City Paper (Baltimore) published it and it made a huge impact.”

Yet the furor died off and the mystery faded from the public’s consciousness. Hoskins, however, reignited the quest for justice in 2012 when she contacted Nugent.

“Out of the blue, I wrote him an email one day and said, ‘When are you coming back to finish the story?’” she said.

This began the latest chapter in the unsolved murder mystery, which by Hoskins’ accounting has generated roughly 8,000 emails with Nugent.

Joining the effort was another Archbishop Keough alum, and fellow Ocean City resident, Abbie Schaub.

“She and I sort of spearheaded the whole thing,” she said. “I’m extremely right-brained [and] she is way left-brained, so it worked.”

Their efforts lead to the creation of a private Facebook page for Archbishop Keough alumni, some of whom were abuse victims.

“It’s about 500 women and they’re not all victims,” she said. “Most of them are friends and family members who went to Keough.”

In short order, a public Facebook page, “Justice for Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki,” was established to delve into the unsolved murder.

“Joyce Malecki was a young woman from the same parish where Maskell was the pastor and she was found murdered four days after Cathy disappeared,” she said.

In a case of déjà vu, Nugent again conducted extensive interviews with Archbishop Keough alumni only to have his efforts stymied by numerous publishers.

“Tom got many interesting stories and again nobody would publish it,” she said. “They said it’s too sensational.”

Embracing the digital era, Nugent took the rejection in stride and created his own online news outlet, insidebaltimore.org, to release the story.

The resurgence of interest in the cold case drew the attention of documentary production company Tripod Media, whose representatives met with Hoskins, Schaub and Nugent in November 2014 to discuss a potential film project. Like many of those laboring to solve the murder mystery, Hoskins said director Ryan White has a family member whose life was positively affected by Cesnik.

“Ryan’s aunt, who told him about the story, was one of Cathy’s students,” she said.

Noting the director’s extreme attention to every gritty detail, Hoskins said White and his film team spent at least one week per month in Baltimore for more than two years to produce what developed into a multi-part series.

“It was going to be a 90-minute documentary,” she said. “It’s about seven and a half hours of actual film.”

As the national spotlight shines in her direction, Hoskins remains focused on the goals of the long-term endeavor, but has also expanded the list.

“In the beginning, the two goals were finding the killer and having resources and a safe place for those who were abused at Keough,” she said.

Since starting the campaign, however, Hoskins hopes to see some changes made in the law.

“I really believe that the statute of limitations on child abuse has to be eliminated,” she said.

Additionally, Hoskins wants clergy to become legally required to report abuse claims.

“All teachers, daycare providers, doctors and nurses have to report suspected abuse or neglect,” she said. “It does not apply to clergy and that’s not right.”

Lastly, Hoskins wants to see clergy members’ accused of mistreatment processed the same as lay members of society.

“When clergy abuse, they need to be arrested, charged and tried in a court of law,” she said.

With the abuse scandal at Archbishop Keough continuing to fester, Hoskins said the decision was made to close the institution this June.

“When Keough was full, there were 1,200 girls,” she said. “This year there’s probably 40.”

Hoskins said that with renewed focus on Cesnik’s murder, and alleged sexual misconduct by Maskell, the victim list, which currently tallies over 40, may expand.

“It would make sense that more people would come forward because he [Maskell] was moved from parish to parish,” she said. “It’s wrong. If he had been thrown in jail in the beginning none of this would have happened.”

(Victims and others have theorized that Maskell killed Cesnik because she was about to reveal information about the abuse. He was removed from the ministry in 1994 and died in 2001. He denied having any knowledge of abuse at the school.

Earlier this month Baltimore County detectives had his body exhumed for DNA testing, with plans to compare it to crime scene evidence).

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