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

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

By Tom Nugent, The Crime Report

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.

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.

his 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.

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.

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...

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  • commented 2017-11-09 11:15:51 -0600
    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.