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Netflix’s The Keepers: the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik and the abuse at Archbishop Keough, explained

Jane Doe is crucial to the series’ theory that Sister Cathy’s death was a cover-up.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Netflix’s The Keepers tells a chilling story: The new true crime docuseries posits that the unsolved murder of a Baltimore nun might actually be part of an elaborate a cover-up by the Catholic Church. Over seven episodes, it theorizes that the nun, Sister Catherine “Cathy” Cesnik, was killed because she threatened to reveal rampant sexual abuse going on at the Archbishop Keough High School for girls.

Filmmaker Ryan White’s series is a well-executed, complex dive into the despair of the victims of that abuse.

Today, nearly 50 years later and in the aftermath of sex abuse in the Catholic Church becoming a major news story — and in turn being chronicled in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight — it’s easy to see how the church mishandled its documented cases of sex abuse and how it evaded responsibility over decades.

As we now know, the church habitually moved predatory priests from one parish to another and covered up cases, instead of caring for the church’s children. But Cesnik’s murder and the abuse at Keough happened during the 1960s, when victims had fewer resources than they do today and were up against a powerful entity at a time when publicizing accusations against that entity would have been met with much more scrutiny in the public eye.

The Keepers doesn’t solve Cesnik’s murder, nor does it completely tie its main villain — the man behind the sexual abuse at Archbishop Keough — to Cesnik’s death. But it does an important service in showing the long-term effects that sexual abuse has on victims, and how easily society disregards the voices of women who need help most. Here are the major components of the documentary series, where the case stands, and why it ultimately might not matter that it doesn’t find Cesnik’s killer.

Sister Cathy Cesnik might have been killed to cover up sexual abuse

Sister Cathy Cesnik’s disappearance and murder remain an unsolved mystery.

Cesnik was born in 1942 and grew up to become a nun at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, where she began teaching in 1965. She left the school in the fall of 1969, and was living in an off-campus apartment complex (called the Carriage House) with another nun, Sister Helen Russell Phillips. Cesnik was teaching at Western High School, also in Baltimore County, when she disappeared.

The Keepers opens with the basic facts of Cesnik’s case: On November 7, 1969, Cesnik drove to a nearby shopping center around 7:30 pm, telling Phillips she was buying an engagement present for her sister. Records show that Cesnik cashed a $255 paycheck. She did not return home that night, and she was never seen alive again.

Phillips was distressed that Cesnik did not return home and around 1 am called Revs. Peter McKeon and Gerard J. Koob — Koob was a friend and secretly a love interest of Cesnik — who came to the women’s apartment. The three then called the city police. Cesnik’s car was found parked strangely a block and half from the apartment, and police found twigs and mud in the car.

Cesnik’s mutilated body was found on January 3, 1970 in Lansdowne, Maryland. An expert interviewed in The Keepers explains that she was killed by blunt-force trauma to her head.

The murder of a nun is no doubt peculiar, but The Keepers posits a shocking theory: that Father Joseph Maskell, a counselor and chaplain at Archbishop Keough from 1967 to 1975, either killed her or had her killed.

Maskell, at the time, was abusing teenage girls at the school, and The Keepers advances the idea that Cesnik knew about his abuse and was seen as a threat who might uncover it. Further, the documentary suggests that because of the Catholic Church’s powerful presence in Baltimore, and Maskell’s relationships with authorities and the police — he had a brother on the force — Maskell was able to orchestrate a perfect cover-up.

Why Father Maskell would want Sister Cathy dead makes sense, but the series doesn’t show us anything definite

If there’s any shakiness to The Keepers, it’s that the series never fully establishes how Cesnik was a looming or imminent threat to expose Maskell — at least more so than any other nun teaching at Archbishop Keough.

Cesnik, like the other nuns at the school, didn’t come forward to authorities about the abuse. But some of The Keepers’ subjects share anecdotes of Cesnik knowing about the abuse and running interference for some of Maskell’s victims, which allowed them to avoid interacting with Maskell.

When Cesnik left Archbishop Keough, the reason given was that she and her roommate, Sister Russell Phillips, wanted to extend their outreach to the local (non-Catholic) high school. But interviews with several Archbishop Keough alumni insinuate that Cesnik left because she had reservations about the abuse at the school.

There might be a bit of projection at play in the documentary, as The Keepers doesn’t present any striking evidence that Cesnik was going to do something about stopping the abuse at Archbishop Keough from happening. We also don’t know about what sort of relationship Maskell and Cesnik had.

The Keepers hypothesizes that Cesnik was planning to speak up but was killed before she had the chance. However, there’s no solid evidence that Cesnik was ever planning to act.

One could also argue that Cesnik would’ve continued her silent disapproval of Maskell, since there was no indication that she wanted to make Maskell’s abuse public. Her closest friend, Koob, tells The Keepers’ filmmakers that she never told him about the abuse at Archbishop Keough. And the series doesn’t explain why Maskell would kill her if he did indeed have the protection of the police.

The Catholic Church believes the abuse allegations at Archbishop Keough were credible

In 2002, the Archdiocese of Baltimore released a list of priests whom church officials say are accused of “credible” child sex abuse allegations. Maskell appeared on the list. He had fled to Ireland in the 1990s, after allegations were brought against him concerning abuse dating back to the ’60s, and died in 2001 shortly after returning to Baltimore County.

Since 2011, the Catholic Church has been paying out settlements to Maskell’s victims. According to a November 2016 report from the Baltimore Sun, at least a dozen settlements have been paid out:

Donna Von Den Bosch, 60, of Reading, Pa., reached a $35,000 settlement in September, according to legal documents. She says Maskell raped her multiple times over the course of about three years while she was a student at Archbishop Keough in the 1970s.

The Sun explains that the paper doesn’t usually name victims, but Von Den Bosch wanted to she her story publicly. Von Den Bosch says she told a nun at the school but was ignored (Cesnik had left Archbishop Keough and was killed before Von Den Bosch was enrolled there).

Allegations against Maskell were first made public in 1992, prior to a 1994 lawsuit from Jean Hargadon Wehner and Teresa Lancaster, who came forward as Jane Does and sued Maskell, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and Archbishop Keough. At the time, the archdiocese said it could not corroborate the two women’s claims.

The Keepers refutes the archdiocese’s statement in its final episode, by showing that the archdiocese knew about a separate, earlier case of abuse involving Maskell and a boy (now a grown man) named Charles Franz.

Franz and Maskell met prior to Maskell’s tenure at Archbishop Keough, when Maskell was working at Baltimore’s Saint Clement Parish. Franz says that beginning in 1967, Maskell abused him and introduced him to drugs and alcohol. Franz’s mother found out about the abuse and complained to the archdiocese, and Maskell was transferred to Archbishop Keough.

The Keepers shows records that archdiocese officials visited Franz and made note of the abuse allegations before transferring Maskell to Keough. When Wehner (a.k.a. Jane Doe) came to the archdiocese in 1992 to make a formal complaint against Maskell, the archdiocese told her several times that it couldn’t do anything with Maskell because there wasn’t a second or corroborating complaint against him. Franz’s account proves that in addition to already knowing about Maskell when Wehner came forward, the archdiocese already had a second, corroborating complaint against Maskell.

As a result, The Keepers paints an especially sinister picture of the archdiocese by detailing how Wehner was told that the archdiocese needed a second complaint, or a witness to back up her claims, even though it already had one.

Because of a lack of action, Wehner and Lancaster brought forward a $40 million lawsuit against Maskell, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and Archbishop Keough in 1994. The Keepers details that at least 30 more allegations from other Archbishop Keough alumni, according to Wehner’s lawyer, were made to local and state authorities during the same time period.

Sharon May, who was the head of the sat the Maryland state’s attorney’s office in the ’90s — during Wehner’s Jane Doe lawsuit — explains in The Keepers that she didn’t really have enough evidence to prosecute Maskell. She says the individual accounts couldn’t be used in conjunction with one another.

When it comes to the murder, The Keepers’ biggest development hinges on whether there were maggots on Sister Cathy’s corpse

In The Keepers, the link between Maskell and Cesnik’s murder is Wehner, and whether what she’s saying is believable according to the church and to authorities. She’s also the only link between Maskell’s sexual abuse at Archbishop Keough and The Keepers’ theory that Maskell allegedly murdered or was involved in the murder of Cesnik.

And she has a bombshell of an accusation.

Wehner says that after Cesnik went missing in November 1969, when Wehner was a high school student at Archbishop Keough, Maskell met with her and was acting very strange. He said he knew where Cesnik’s body was. Wehner says he also led her out of school, drove her to the place where they eventually found Cesnik’s body, and actually showed her the corpse. Wehner says she bent down to look at the body, and that there were maggots on Cesnik’s face.

“You see what happens when you say bad things about people?” Maskell allegedly asked Wehner.

When Wehner came forward with the story in the ’90s, the police said that November’s typically cold weather would have made it impossible for maggots to live. But as The Keepers shows us, the autopsy designated the presence of maggots in Cesnik’s body.

Further, according to archival Baltimore weather reports from Weather Underground for 1969, it appears that there were several days after November 7 that were actually quite warm — the highs never dipped below 51 degrees during the week of Cesnik’s disappearance; from the 16th to the 19th, there was a point where highs hit 63; and later in the month, beginning on the 23rd, there were consecutive highs of 64, 59, 53, and 54. And according to a study from the National Institutes of Health (in researching this story, I found myself learning more than I ever wanted to know about decomposition and maggots), the optimal temperature for blowfly larvae (the species of fly usually associated with decaying carcasses) is around 75 degrees.

The maggots in Cesnik’s body seem to indicate that Wehner’s story has at least a grain of truth to it.

Further, in the years and decades following Wehner and Lancaster’s lawsuit, their stories began to appear more and more credible. Their 1994 lawsuit was ultimately thrown out because of an expired statute of limitations — and the two were discredited in the process. However, as mentioned above, the church has since paid out settlements to Maskell’s victims (including to Wehner), signaling that it believes the women were telling the truth about Maskell’s abuse.

Today, Wehner and Lancaster’s stories seem like accounts that were ignored and brushed aside, not the fabrications they were once made out to be. And if Wehner is telling the truth about the abuse, The Keepers believes, and about the maggots she allegedly saw on Cesnik’s corpse, then her linking Maskell to Cesnik’s death seems to be more credible than not.

But Father Joseph Maskell’s DNA doesn’t match the forensic evidence

The maggot bombshell is The Keepers’ most satisfying revelation — it connects Maskell and the sexual abuse at Keough to Cesnik’s murder while also lending credibility to Wehner’s story. The other components of the mystery are far less tidy.

In February, prior to The Keepers debut, Maskell’s body was exhumed to test his DNA with forensic evidence related to Cesnik’s murder that Baltimore County had preserved. Earlier this month, police learned that the evidence wasn’t a match.

“[Cold case detectives’] best hope for solving the case now,” Baltimore County police spokesperson Elise Armacost explained to Washington Post, “lies with the people who are still alive and willing to come forward with conclusive information about the murder. They are cautiously optimistic that the renewed, intense interest in the case may generate useful new leads and encourage people with solid evidence about Sister Cathy’s murder to come forward to police.”

Though she didn’t rule out the possibility future developments, Armacost said the police department has reached a forensic dead end with Cesnik’s murder case.

The finding doesn’t totally discredit the series, since The Keepers theorizes that Maskell may have played a puppet master–type role in Cesnik’s murder. Maskell may have facilitated or planned the murder without committing it himself. Maskell, the series hypothesizes, had accomplices.

But Billy Schmidt, one of the two possible accomplices that The Keepers identifies — through interviews with his living family members — is dead. The other possible accomplice, Edgar Davidson, reportedly arrived home with blood on his hands the night Cesnik disappeared and may have given his first wife a necklace that Cathy purchased when she went to buy an engagement present for her sister. But Davidson is now old and seemingly barely coherent when he’s questioned in The Keepers.

Then there’s Rev. Koob, Cesnik’s best friend and — as we find out late in the documentary — a secret love interest of Cesnik’s and possible suspect. Police interviewed Koob several times about Cesnik’s murder. And in his interview with the filmmakers, Koob is clear that the two had a relationship, though it’s less clear how intimate or serious (as in, serious enough to leave the church) it was, since Koob’s side is the only one we hear.

The major inconsistency in Koob’s story is that he says he and fellow Rev. Peter McKeon drove from Annapolis to Cesnik and Phillips’s apartment the night Cesnik disappeared, after receiving Phillips’s call. The series shows that they might have actually driven from Beltsville. Koob told police and says in the documentary that he and McKeon had gone to dinner and seen a movie earlier in the evening, and has been able to provide receipts from the night. The two also passed lie detector tests.

Earlier this year, it was reported that in 2016, Wehner received a $50,000 settlement from the Catholic Church. She said in a statement that the settlement was the church recognizing the truth in her story, and that she still holds the church and its leadership accountable.

“[In the ’90s] the Church’s response was a re-raping of me and my family, which had an unfathomable impact on us, individually and as a whole. I now believe the [Archdiocese of Baltimore] knew that what I was remembering was just the tip of the iceberg. I also believe the AOB paid millions of dollars to keep their secret,” she said. “I hold the Catholic Church’s spiritual leaders, who are supposedly ‘called’ to nurture, guide and protect their Church, accountable.”

The Keepers has brought newfound attention to Sister Cathy’s murder, which might also bring the police new leads. Still, it’s possible we may never find out who killed Sister Cathy. But solving her murder isn’t the primary focus of The Keepers. What compels filmmaker White is the abuse that took place at Archbishop Keough and the voices of Maskell’s victims. That they are given the proper respect to tell their stories, which the church was so intent on ignoring, is the essence of the series.

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