Priest in nun murder documentary worked in Wexford as psychologist
THE stranger-than-fiction story of the exhumation of the body of an American priest who fled child sex abuse charges in Baltimore and was suspected of murdering a nun before coming to live in Wexford where he worked as a psychologist with the HSE and celebrated Mass without diocesan approval, is the subject of a Netflix documentary due to be screened on Friday.
The extraordinary tale of Fr Joseph Maskell hit the headlines last weekend due to the imminent showing of ‘ The Keepers’, a documentary series by Netflix in which it is alleged that he killed a nun, Sr. Catherine Ann Cesnik, in the late 1960s after she allegedly tackled him about the sexual abuse of schoolgirls in Baltimore.
Fr Maskell came to Wexford in 1994 after evading police arrest in America where two women filed a $40 million lawsuit against him over child abuse at Keough High School in Baltimore where he had served as chaplain from 1967 to 1975.
After arriving in Wexford, he lived in Castlebridge and worked as a psychologist for several months with the HSE (then known as the South Eastern Health Board), later setting up a private psychology practice which he operated for about three years. He came into conflict with the Diocese of Ferns which raised concerns about his dark past.
The Netflix true-crime documentary will tell the story of Sr Catherine, a 26year old nun at Keough High School who vanished in November 1969. Two months later, her body was found on waste ground and a post-mortem examination showed she died from blunt force trauma to the head. No-one has ever been charged in connection with her death which haunted the local community.
The body of Fr Maskell who died in 2001 was exhumed from his Baltimore grave on February 28 this year for the purpose of taking a DNA sample to compare with evidence found near where Sr. Catherine’s body was located. The results of the DNA testing are awaited.
It is not clear from a Ferns diocesan file on Fr Maskell exactly when the priest came to Wexford or on what date he left but it covers a period from April 19, 1995, to September 22, 1998.
Fr Maskell wrote to the Bishop’s House in April 1995, in response to a query from the Diocese when it was discovered that he had celebrated Mass in Screen- Curracloe by way of cover for the local priest Fr Frank Barron who had fallen ill. Bishop of Ferns at the time was Dr Brendan Comiskey.
In this letter, Fr Maskell wrote: ‘I wish only to offer Mass privately and carry out my spiritual activities in a like manner’. He said he had been granted ‘ temporary leave’ (from Baltimore) and had no ‘plan or desire to engage in any public ministry while here’.
Diocesan Communications Officer Fr John Carroll said it was obvious that Fr Maskell had moved to Wexford before this time. But he did not make himself known to the Diocese and this was his first contact, initiated by the Diocese and not by Fr Maskell himself. Fr Maskell was living at the time in Castlebridge where the local priest was unwell.
There was a follow-up letter to Fr Maskell from the Diocese, requesting episcopal confirmation of his status but no response was forthcoming.
Arising from continued concerns as to his still unclarified status as well as reports that he was in the employment of the South Eastern Health Board and had appeared recently in full clerical garb in public, the Diocese made direct contact with the Baltimore Archdiocese on June 25, 1996, requesting information on Fr Maskell.
The Baltimore Archdiocese explained to the Ferns Diocese that serious allegations of sex abuse had surfaced regarding Fr Maskell prior to his departure from the US diocese in 1994 and that they had been unaware of his whereabouts.
According to Fr Carroll, the diocese also contacted the SEHB around the same time, sharing the information that came from Baltimore and expressing anxiety about the appropriateness of his work as a psychologist and his unsupervised status. The diocesan file also records notes from a meeting with the SEHB in August.
The Ferns Diocese provided the Baltimore Archdiocese and the SEHB with contact details for each other with a view to them making contact so as to assess the situation more directly.
The Diocesan file shows that Fr Maskell worked as a temporary psychologist with the SEHB in 1995, a psychologist in private practice in Wexford and Castlebridge from 1995 to 1998 and that he presented as a priest on occasions between 1995 and 1996 despite lacking permission.
It was his presenting as a priest that prompted Ferns to enquire further into his status and to make contact with Baltimore and the SEHB in June 1996.
Fr Carroll said that up to September 22, 1998, the diocese continued to be uneasy about Fr Maskell’s presence, his contacts and activities and his remaining here in light of the charges against him.
A letter from the Diocese of Ferns dated October 6, 1996, pointed out to Fr Maskell that the celebration of Mass by him, as permitted by his continued status as a priest of Baltimore, ‘anywhere other than in your own private residence – in seminaries, convents, etc. – for example – is regarded as an act of public ministry. So also is any concelebration of Mass.’
The file contains correspondence between the Diocese of Ferns and Fr Maskell and the SEHB, the Gardai, and with lawyers and individuals who were contacted by the Diocese with a view to discovering more details about the status, activities and whereabouts of the US priest, up to September 22, 1998. It is not clear from the file whether Fr Maskell had left the area or not by then.
According to Fr Carroll, it is clear from the file that Fr Maskell continued work in private practice as a psychologist after July 1996.
Fr Maskell’s sister Maureen Baldwin has maintained his innocence of all crimes. She said he never practised as a priest in Ferns. ‘He told the bishop in Wexford he was an ordained priest from the Archdiocese of Baltimore but he was not operating there as a priest. He never asked for ‘priestly faculties’.
The Baltimore Archdiocese said it had attempted to contact Maskell in Ireland, asking him to return but their letters had gone unanswered.
Ms. Baldwin said she accompanied her brother back to Baltimore in 1999 where he continued to live until his death in 2001. In 2016, the Archdiocese of Baltimore paid settlements ranging from $25,000 to $50,000 dollars to 13 former Keough students.
The HSE issued a statement to this newspaper yesterday (Monday) pointing out that due to data protection protocols, it is not in a position to provide information in relation to current or former employees and prior to the establishment of the HSE, the South Eastern Health Board had standard procedures in place regarding the hiring of permanent, part-time or on-contract employees/professional.
Fr Joseph Maskell , who died in 2001,
Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik, who was beaten to death in 1969, aged 26.