On Friday, May 19, Netflix premieres “The Keepers,” a seven-part docuseries that probes the 1969 murder of the widely loved young teacher Sister Catherine Cesnik. Her death has been linked to allegations of a cover-up of sex abuse by Father A. Joseph Maskell, the then-chaplain at the now-closed Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland.
At the time, Sister Cesnik was teaching at Western Public High School, having taken a leave from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, left Keough and moved out of the convent into an apartment with a fellow sister.
On Nov. 7, Sister Cesnik, 26 — known as Sister Cathy to her former students at Keogh — left the apartment to run errands. When she didn’t come home, the police were alerted. On Jan. 3, 1970, the young nun’s partially clothed body was found in a remote area of Baltimore County.
To this day, the murder remains unsolved.
Why Are We Still Interested in the Death of Sister Cathy?
Obviously, it’s a tragic and disturbing tale, but, for the sake of perspective …
Last year in Baltimore, there were 318 murders, including the shooting of an innocent 13-year-old boy who was merely a bystander. Just in the last couple of days, it’s been reported that a California brain surgeon and two nurses have been arrested and charged with sex crimes with children.
The world is brimful of evil, but some crimes run deep — and if they involve the brutal killing of a beautiful young woman, and especially if they involve the Catholic Church, and most especially if it touches on sex abuse, interest never fades away completely.
The death of Sister Cathy features all of the above, so it’s not surprising that Netflix jumped on the chance to equal or surpass the true-crime success it had with “Making a Murderer” in 2015.
Digging Into the Reporting on Sister Cathy’s Murder and Father Maskell
As I read through a series of stories about “The Keepers” and the incidents it covers, it seems — as it always does — that the truth is complicated.
I haven’t seen the show yet, but a writer for America magazine did, and here’s a snippet:
“The Keepers,” a new Netflix original series, is a masterful, methodical journey into the continuing mysteries of this heartbreaking case. Nearly 50 years later, the wounds remain fresh in Baltimore—and the director Ryan White’s method of slowly unfolding the complex, sometimes contradictory real-life tale makes for painfully suspenseful viewing. This is not an easy show to watch. But once started, it is difficult to look away.
Yet the faith, battered and nearly broken, remains—a testament to how “The Keepers” respects its subject matter. While the series unlocks the church’s sins in the abuse crisis, it also documents the faith of women in this community as a shining light, a faith guided by the memory of Sister Cathy. Her memory is best survived by seeking justice.
The Baltimore Sun went on strike the day before Sister Cesnik’s body was found, so the story didn’t get the media attention it warranted, something the Sun laments in a May 18th story:
She would remain a missing person nearly two months. But readers of daily newspapers wouldn’t learn that a father and son discovered her body on Saturday morning, Jan. 3, 1970, while hunting in a remote area off the 2100 block of Monumental Ave. in Lansdowne.
The day before, both The Baltimore Sun, with its morning and evening editions, as well as The News American, had been silenced by a strike of the pressmen’s union. There would not be another paper for 74 days.
Obviously, Baltimore is keenly aware of “The Keepers.” Also on May 18th, the Sun published a detailed timeline of the case and how it relates to the abuse allegations.
Never having been convicted, Maskell died in 2001. Baltimore detectives had his body exhumed at the end of February 2017 to see if his DNA matched evidence from the Cesnik crime scene. On Wednesday, May 17, Baltimore CBS affiliate WBZ reported that there was no match, saying:
Homicide detectives say the negative results from the Maskell DNA profile comparison means that their best hope for solving the case now lies with people who are still alive and willing to come forward with conclusive information about the murder.
But, another WBZ report, from Feb. 8, speaks to a woman, referred to only by a pseudonym, who believes her husband, a friend of Maskell’s, was involved in the murder:
Two women, both with close ties to an unnamed man who may have been recently questioned by police, tell WJZ they believe her death may be linked to widespread sexual abuse by a powerful priest that took place decades ago.
They say they’ve revealed some critical clues to investigators.
One of those women asked not to be identified. We’ll call her “Ann.”
“I instinctively felt that when Sister Cathy was murdered, that my husband at the time had committed the murder,” Ann told WJZ’s Denise Koch.
A May 17 Catholic News Agency story offers this additional bit of information/hearsay:
When she didn’t return after what was supposed to be a brief errand, concerned roommate Sr. Helen Phillips contacted Fr. Gerard Koob, a close friend and alleged romantic interest of Sr. Cathy.
Fr. Koob and a friend drove to the women’s apartment, and after talking to Phillips and hearing nothing from Sr. Cathy, they contacted the authorities to report her as a missing person.
Koob, now a Methodist minister, was thoroughly questioned by authorities at the time. His story that he had been at the movies with a friend that evening before learning of Sr. Cathy’s disappearance has held, and he has passed two lie detector tests regarding his whereabouts that night.
UPDATE: After watching a couple episodes of the series, it appears that Koob and Sister Cesnik were indeed friends (he refers to them as “soulmates”). He says he offered to marry her if he left the priesthood, and she left being a nun, but she refused. As he’s wearing a wedding ring and no longer is a practicing Catholic, apparently he continued with his part of the plan.
How the Church Is Reacting to “The Keepers”
The Archdiocese of Baltimore responded online in advance of the premiere of “The Keepers.” At the official Website, there’s a lengthy statement from Archbishop William Lori, which addresses both the murder and the allegations against Father Maskell.
It says, in part:
The Archdiocese is committed to promoting healing for survivors of sexual abuse. As a pastoral measure, the Church has provided counseling assistance and direct financial assistance to victims of Maskell. In addition, the Archdiocese has offered personal meetings and apologies to any survivor who has come forward and continues to be in communication with survivors to discuss ways of promoting their healing and an understanding of the effects of their abuse. Their abuse was horribly tragic and the Archdiocese remains deeply saddened and regretful that someone representing the Church could have perpetrated such crimes against children. The Archdiocese has also reached out to the family of Sister Cathy to offer support.
The tragic events discussed in this docu-series have been the subject of both Archdiocesan disclosures and numerous local and national news stories. The Archdiocesan website has links to some of those previous articles and statements going back to 1969 that provide more detail about these events. The Netflix series is the latest to deal with them.
There’s also a FAQ which goes into further detail about Maskell, the Archdiocese’s settlements with his alleged victims, and how the Archdiocese responded to the widespread belief that Maskell was linked to the murder of Sister Cesnik. It also mentions that the former Father Koob, who was rumored to be involved with Sister Cesnik, was not a diocesan priest but a Jesuit.
As to the Archdiocese’s involvement with the “The Keepers,” the FAQ says, in part:
Did the Archdiocese comment for the production?
Yes. The Archdiocese offered on several occasions to answer any and all questions for the production and, in fact, provided written responses to questions from producers of the series. Unfortunately, the producers asked very few questions of the Archdiocese before releasing the series and did not respond to the Archdiocese’s request to receive an advanced copy of the series. Advanced copies were provided to media outlets.
I hope that all this and the links embedded are of help to you if you choose to watch “The Keepers.” I’m reluctant to, but, hey, it’s part of the job. So, when I get a chance to see all of it, I’ll come back with further comments.
Here’s a trailer:
Image: Courtesy Netflix