Baltimore City detectives investigating sex abuse allegations against a Roman Catholic priest dug up a van load of confidential records yesterday the priest had ordered buried four years ago in Brooklyn's Holy Cross Cemetery.
City police were accompanied by the two Baltimore County homicide detectives assigned to the revived investigation of the unsolved 1969 slaying of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.
A high-ranking county police official said investigators were there because the name of the priest -- the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell -- had come up during their probe of the 25-year-old crime.
Father Maskell and Sister Catherine were both on the faculty of the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Southwest Baltimore in the late 1960s.
Father Maskell, 55, stepped down as pastor of St. Augustine's Church in Elkridge on July 31 amid allegations that he had sexually abused students at Keough during his tenure as chaplain and counselor from 1967 to 1975.
In interviews with the police and The Sun, Father Maskell has denied all allegations that he abused former students or had any knowledge of the slaying of Sister Catherine.
The papers exhumed yesterday were buried in the cemetery in 1990 at the direction of Father Maskell, who was then pastor of Holy Cross Parish in South Baltimore, according to two sources familiar with the burial. They included what appeared to be psychological test evaluations and canceled checks.
The city officers, who are investigating the sex abuse allegations and had obtained a search warrant, were accompanied by two Baltimore County homicide detectives.
"Our interest in being there was not the allegations of sex abuse," said Capt. Rustin E. Price, commander of the county homicide unit. "We were there because of the Cesnik murder investigation. . . . Father Maskell's name has come up in our investigation."
Baltimore Assistant State's Attorney Sharon A. H. May, head of the city's Sex Abuse Unit, directed yesterday's excavation but declined to comment on the operation.
William D. Blaul, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said the archdiocese was aware of the excavation and is cooperating with city authorities. The archdiocese owns the cemetery, which is managed by Holy Cross, he said.
Father Maskell's attorney, J. Michael Lehane, said he could not comment on the search.
After Father Maskell's departure from St. Augustine's, officials told parishioners that he had requested leave to seek inpatient therapy for anxiety and stress brought on by "the prospect of civil litigation and a criminal investigation."
The archdiocese said yesterday that the Rev. Gerard J. Bowen of Holy Trinity Church in Glen Burnie has been appointed administrator of St. Augustine's in Father Maskell's place.
Eleven police officers arrived at the cemetery shortly after 7 a.m. yesterday. After a backhoe operator dug out the top layers of earth, officers dug down to the stacks of papers with shovels.
From the pit, which was about 12 feet square and 10 feet deep, they spread the soggy records on the ground. After sifting through them, investigators placed selected documents in black plastic trash bags.
Detective Donna Askew, who is leading the police investigation, declined to identify the records piled into the city-owned van but said, "We took what we needed after I looked them over based on the information we've developed."
The pit is located in a remote section of the cemetery, surrounded by woods and undergrowth, where excess earth and old flowers are dumped. Police were led to the spot by a former cemetery employee who said he was ordered to dig the pit at Father Maskell's direction.
Ex-worker recalls event
The former employee, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said he was called by the cemetery supervisor in July 1990 and ordered to dig a pit 12 feet square and 13 feet deep.
"I could have buried a backhoe in there. I was told, 'Don't ask why,' " the man said.
That afternoon, he said, a pickup truck, driven by a man he believed to be a relative of Father Maskell, arrived packed with boxes of documents. He said he and the driver threw the papers into the pit; then the driver returned to the Holy Cross rectory in the 100 block of E. West St. for two more loads.
While he was waiting between loads, the former employee told The Sun in March, he examined some of the papers, which appeared to be psychological evaluation sheets of men and women. He said he did not note any details, however.
When they were through, the former employee said, he was ordered to backfill the pit and seed it so that it couldn't be found. The man said he kept the location in his head until he became aware of the investigation of Father Maskell. Then he sketched a map, which he placed in a safe deposit box of a local bank.
A source close to Father Maskell, who also spoke under condition of anonymity, denied that there was anything "sinister" about the buried documents. He said the priest and a psychologist used a federal grant to set up a psychological testing center in 1975 and that Father Maskell took the records to Holy Cross with him in 1985. Because of a ban on open burning, the priest decided to dispose of them by burial at the cemetery, the source said.
The link between the allegations of sex abuse against Father Maskell and the slaying of Sister Catherine was forged this spring by one of the women who alleged that Father Maskell had abused her while she was a student at Keough.
The woman told her attorneys, police and The Sun that she had told Sister Catherine about the abuse at the end of the 1969 school term.
Shortly afterward, Sister Catherine left the Sisters of Notre Dame Convent and her position at Keough to teach in Baltimore City schools.
The nun disappeared Nov. 7, 1969, after she left on an evening shopping trip from her residence at the Carriage House Apartments on North Bend Road in Southwest Baltimore.
Police conducted an intensive search but turned up nothing until Jan. 3, 1970, when two hunters stumbled upon the partially clothed body on a frozen field in Lansdowne. An autopsy showed that she had died from a blow to the head.
But the former Keough student said that Father Maskell drove her in his car to the body of Sister Catherine before it was discovered and told her that she was responsible for the nun's death because she had told Sister Catherine about the alleged sexual abuse.
After a silence of more than 20 years, the woman first brought her allegations of sexual abuse to the Archdiocese in 1992, while Father Maskell was still pastor at Holy Cross.