NEW YORK (CNS) — Director Ryan White’s visually striking, atmospheric documentary series “The Keepers” examines the unsolved murder in 1969 Baltimore of popular 26-year-old Sister Cathy Cesnik. Presented in seven one-hour installments, “The Keepers” began streaming on Netflix May 19.
A former English teacher at Archbishop Keough High School, an archdiocesan academy for girls, Sister Cesnik was on a year’s leave of absence from her order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and working in the city’s public education system at the time of her death. She was likely killed — so the filmmakers hypothesize — because she knew too much about her former colleague, Father A. Joseph Maskell.
Long after it came to light through the accounts of his victims, that Father Maskell, a chaplain and counselor at Keough, sexually abused multiple students during his time there.
The extensive descriptions of the priest’s vicious crimes — in egregious violation of his sacred trust — will sicken, trouble and outrage viewers, faithful Catholics above all. With one notable exception, however, the presentation of these unsettling details isn’t lurid.
During an interview with former Jesuit priest Gerry Koob, who was close to Sister Cesnik and a suspect in her murder, Koob bizarrely accuses a Baltimore detective of intimidating him during the initial investigation by showing him the dead woman’s private parts, severed from her body by the killer.
Sensational or not, the program’s horrific subject matter, ranging from the life-crippling theft of innocence to gruesome murder, strictly limits the appropriate audience for “The Keepers” to discerning adults. Some regrettably commonplace profanities reinforce that restrictive recommendation.
When Sister Cesnik didn’t return home after running some errands on the evening of her disappearance, her roommate, Sister Russell Phillips, called Koob. Early the next morning, Sister Cesnik’s car was found parked in the street not far from her apartment. Sister Cesnik’s body, with her skull cratered, was discovered Jan. 3, 1970, behind a garbage dump in Landsdowne, Maryland, just south of Baltimore.
An initially anonymous witness who insists Father Maskell took her to the crime scene to view Sister Cesnik’s body may hold the key to solving the mystery. Viewers learn she’s Jean Hargadon Wehner, a former Keough student and one of numerous survivors of Father Maskell’s abuse.
Repressed memories prevented Wehner from confronting what Father Maskell did to her and his possible connection to Sister Cesnik’s murder until 1992 when she first reported the abuse to the archdiocese. Church officials believed Wehner’s story, but said they needed corroboration to remove Father Maskell.
Unwilling to cooperate with the archdiocese, Wehner and fellow Father Maskell survivor Teresa Lancaster filed a 1994 suit against both it and Sister Cesnik’s order. But the court ruled the survivors’ repressed memories didn’t meet the criteria for waiving the three-year statute of limitations in abuse cases.
Wehner still struggles to recall the appearance of an associate of Father Maskell’s who also abused her — and who, she believes, confessed to Sister Cesnik’s murder: the mysterious Brother Bob.
Mystifyingly, the series fails to explore who this person could be. Some viewers, moreover, will greet Wehner’s sketchy memories with skepticism. Her experiences are consistent with those of other abuse victims, however.
“The Keepers” does examine the plausible connections to the murder of suspects other than Father Maskell. Yet the filmmakers increasingly direct their anger toward what they perceive as the church’s cover-up of his misdeeds — a whitewash which, in their view, has prevented the truth about Sister Cesnik’s killer coming to light.
Take the account, for instance, of another of Father Maskell’s accusers, Charles Franz. He maintains that in 1967, when he was a boy at St. Clement Parish where Father Maskell was stationed, his mother reported the priest’s abuse of him to the archdiocese.
Franz is credible, but Sean Caine, executive director of communications for the archdiocese, told the Catholic Review, the archdiocesan newspaper that the first allegation received by the archdiocese regarding sexual abuse by Father Maskell was not received until 1992. In turn, the archdiocese reported the allegation to civil authorities in 1993, when the Maryland attorney general clarified that organizations were required to make such a report on any allegation of child abuse.
The priest was permanently removed from ministry in 1994 by Cardinal William Keeler, then archbishop of Baltimore. Father Maskell died in 2001; apparently he was never laicized — removed from the clerical state.
The archdiocese has apologized to, and financially compensated, survivors. And cases like Father Maskell’s have prompted the church, both in the United States and around the world, to adopt measures for the strict protection of children. “The Keepers” will, no doubt, engender fresh controversy and reignite debate on the subject.
However repugnant Father Maskell’s behavior may have been, the results of DNA testing following the February exhumation of his body failed to link him to Sister Cesnik’s murder.
“The Keepers,” needless to say, isn’t easy to watch. It’s also sometimes repetitive and discursive, expanding beyond the time needed to tell the story. But, thanks in part to Blake Neely’s moody musical score, it makes haunting television for those mature enough to take on its grim narrative.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.