Baltimore County police dug up the grave of a Catholic priest who died in 2001 as part of the investigation into the unsolved slaying nearly 50 years ago of a Baltimore nun that's the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary.
County police said Thursday they exhumed the body of A. Joseph Maskell to compare his DNA with crime scene evidence in the cold case of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik, whose body was found in Lansdowne in 1970.
Cesnik's case is the subject of the upcoming Netflix documentary "The Keepers," a seven-part series premiering May 19. The documentary explores the theory that 26-year-old Cesnik was killed because she knew of sexual abuse committed by Maskell.
Maskell's body was exhumed Feb. 28 at Holy Family Cemetery in Randallstown and returned to the grave the same day, county police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.
Abuse allegations emerged in the 1990s against Maskell, who had worked as a chaplain and guidance counselor at Archbishop Keough High School. The Archdiocese has reached settlements with at least a dozen people who said he abused them.
One of the women who came forward in the 1990s with allegations of abuse by the priest has implicated him in the nun's death.
Prior to his death Maskell, who was removed from the ministry in 1994, denied allegations of abuse and also denied knowledge of Cesnik's death.
Investigators "have never established that [Cesnik] was killed because of information that she had about abuse in the Catholic Church," said Armacost, though she acknowledged that's a theory, among others, that police have pursued.
She said there is little physical evidence remaining in the decades-old case, but detectives "felt very strongly that in the interest of leaving no stone unturned, it was necessary to exhume Maskell's body and compare his DNA to the evidence that is remaining."
It will take up to six more weeks to get results from the DNA testing, Armacost said. She declined to specify what evidence remains from the crime scene.
There has long been speculation about whether Maskell might be connected to Cesnik's death.
Attorney Joanne Suder, who has represented Maskell's alleged victims, said at least one client told her they confided in Cesnik about abuse, and that the nun said she would tell "higher-ups."
"I think if the various law enforcement agencies had done a proper job in the '70s, that could have avoided the necessity to do [an exhumation] in 2017," Suder said.
Archdiocese of Baltimore spokesman Sean Caine said Thursday the exhumation "was total news to us."
"We support it, especially if it helps lead them to a definitive conclusion about what happened," Caine said.
"The archdiocese has been completely open and transparent with everything that we know," he added.
After Maskell was removed from the ministry following the abuse allegations, he went to Ireland, Caine said. Church officials here learned of his whereabouts in the summer of 1996, when the archdiocese received an inquiry from an Irish bishop asking whether Maskell was in good standing.
Maskell was living in Wexford, Ireland. Archdiocesan officials sent letters to Maskell saying he was not to perform any priestly duties and asking him to return to Baltimore, Caine said.
In 1998, the archdiocese learned Maskell had returned to the United States and was living at Stella Maris, a Catholic nursing facility in Timonium.
Since the 1990s, police have gathered the DNA of about about six other people as part of the investigation into Cesnik's death, Armacost said. They also have identified another suspect who is still living, she said. She did not offer details.
Cesnik taught at Archbishop Keough High School and then Western High School, and lived with another nun in southwest Baltimore. She went missing in November 1969 after going to a bank to cash a $255 paycheck and then to the Edmondson Village Shopping Center, where she bought buns at a bakery.
Her body was found in January 1970 in a field off Monumental Avenue. She had suffered blunt force trauma to her head.
County police said Thursday they also are exploring possible connections between Cesnik's death and those of three others whose bodies were found in other jurisdictions: 20-year-old Joyce Helen Malecki, who disappeared days after the nun did and whose body was found at Fort Meade; 16-year-old Pamela Lynn Conyers, whose body was found in Anne Arundel County in 1970; and 16-year-old Grace Elizabeth "Gay" Montanye, whose body was found in 1971 in South Baltimore.
"They all went missing from shopping areas in roughly the same time period," said Armacost.
She said the other victims' deaths have not been connected to Maskell.
County police seek the exhumation of a body about once every five years, she said.
Under Maryland law, bodies can be exhumed only with the permission of a state's attorney, said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who signed a letter authorizing the exhumation of Maskell's body.
"At this moment, that's the extent of our office's role," he said.
Shellenberger said his office authorizes exhumations about twice a month — but typically, those are because a family member is relocating and wants to move a loved one's grave so they can be closer to them.
"This may have been the first one I've ever done for a criminal investigation," said Shellenberger, who took office in 2007.