HSE investigates activities of US priest featured in Netflix series

Fr Joseph Maskell’s work as psychologist in Wexford under review after fresh allegations

The new Netflix documentary series The Keepers speaks in unexpected ways to one of the deep uncertainties of contemporary Ireland. Video: Netflix

 

The Health Service Executive is investigating the activities of US priest Joseph Maskell, who fled to Ireland following sex abuse allegations in Baltimore.

Maskell escaped to Co Wexford in 1994 amid claims he had sexually abused students while serving as chaplain at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1967 to 1975.

By the time Maskell, whose father was from Limerick, arrived in Ireland, he was ordered not to perform any priestly duties.

The HSE told The Irish Times it had begun reviewing the work of Maskell and “any concerns” arising from his employment as a psychologist in a “psycho-education initiative” by the South Eastern Health Board in Wexford from April 11th, 1995 to November 7th, 1995. He lived in Ireland until 1998.

Maskell is suspected of involvement in the unsolved murder of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik (26), an English teacher at the Baltimore school who became aware of his abuse.

Cesnik disappeared in November 1969 after leaving her apartment on a shopping trip. Her beaten, badly decomposed body was found in a field in Baltimore in January 1970.

One of his victims, Jean Wehner, then a 16-year-old student at Keough, claimed that Maskell had taken her to see Cesnik’s body before it was discovered.

He allegedly told her: “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?”

Cold case

Maskell, who died in 2001, and the cold case surrounding Cesnik’s murder are the subject of The Keepers, a seven-part documentary series released by Netflix last month.

The series has prompted new abuse victims to come forward, renewed public interest and, in turn, the HSE’s review into the priest’s activities in Ireland.

A number of Irish victims have emerged, according to people with knowledge of the Maskell case in the US.

US-based witnesses have said Maskell’s abuse began during his counselling sessions.

The HSE said it had “commenced a process to review services delivered and regarding any concerns arising from the temporary, short-term employment in 1995 of a Mr AJ Maskell by the South Eastern Health Board in its Wexford Community Care.”

The former priest was engaged as a temporary clinical psychologist in “a short-term psycho-education initiative,” the HSE said.

The health service declined to say how many children or young people he treated during the seven months.

Maskell was asked for and provided references from the health board as part of the application process for his employment, the HSE said, and that confirmation was also received and recorded from An Garda Síochána stating that he had no previous convictions.

After his employment with the health board ended, he continued working as a psychologist in private practice in Wexford and nearby Castlebridge from 1995 to 1998.

The health board had no engagement with Maskell during this time, the HSE said.

Maskell had ceased his employment with the health board by the time it received correspondence from the Diocese of Ferns in June 1996 raising concerns about his work as a psychologist and his unsupervised status in light of the emerging details about the allegations against him in Baltimore.

He first came to the attention of the diocese in April 1995 when he said Mass without permission in the parish of Screen and Curracloe while covering for a sick priest.

“I wish only to offer Mass privately and carry out my spiritual activities in a like manner,” Maskell wrote to the diocese after it raised concerns.

Temporary leave

He said that he had been granted “temporary leave” and that he had no “plan or desire to engage in any public ministry while here,” according to details on file on Maskell dating from April 1995 to 1998 that were released by the diocese.

The diocese contacted the health board and the Baltimore archdiocese over its concerns about Maskell after he continued to appear in full clerical garb and presented himself as a priest in Wexford in 1996.

Concerns were raised that Maskell was counselling young people in his private practice. In 1998 Maskell gave an undertaking not to provide psychological services to anyone under the age of 18.

Further contacts with the health board, the Catholic Church in Baltimore, the Garda and other individuals with knowledge of Maskell’s activities continued until September 1998. He left Ireland that year.

Maskell moved to Wexford in 1994 after two women – Wehner and Teresa Lancaster – filed a $40 million (€36 million) civil lawsuit against him, alleging child abuse.

The two women were only identified at the time as “Jane Doe” and “Jane Roe.”

“We do have word that there are two victims coming forward in Ireland,” Ms Lancester said in a phone interview from the US.

Ms Lancaster, who now works as an attorney, said that Maskell spoke of Ireland to her “many times” when she was a student at Keogh.

“He ran to Ireland in 1995 when the Doe-Roe case was breaking,” she said. “They were supposedly going to raid his residence and confiscate records but no records were found and he was gone.”