Why was Sister Cathy Cesnik murdered in 1969 — and who did it?

By Isabella BiedenharnJoe McGovern and Christian Holub
May 19, 2017 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Who killed Sister Cathy? The Keepers, from director Ryan White, dives into the life and untimely death of a Baltimore nun, whose unsolved murder still lingers nearly five decades after the fact. As you dive into Netflix’s chilling new true-crime series, follow along as we recap each of the seven episodes here, one revelation at a time. Be aware before reading (and viewing): Some subject matter may be disturbing.

EPISODE 1: “The Murder”

In 1969, Cathy Cesnik, 26-year-old nun and beloved high school teacher, was murdered in Baltimore — and the crime was never solved. This first episode lays out the facts of the case, as well as the tireless crusaders — plucky former students of Sister Cathy’s, now well into their 60s — who have been fighting to piece together the facts of this murky nightmare. A warning: The content of this series can be difficult at times, so read (and watch) at your own discretion.

There’s journalist Tom Nugent, who wrote a detailed story on the murder years ago and has been haunted by it ever since. Then there are Cesnik’s former students Gemma Hoskins, a “bulldog” unafraid to ask anyone any question, and Abbie Shaub, a soft-spoken research whiz, who run a Facebook page where people similarly obsessed with the case can post any information they find out — or remember — about Sister Cathy’s disappearance and death. “Our concern is that she fell into something evil and got caught up with it,” they say. “We’re told the story is not the nun’s killing. The story is the cover-up of the nun’s story.” They’re onto something.

The details of the case, told through a chorus of voices, are these: Sister Cathy was beloved at Archbishop Keough High School, the Catholic all-girls school where she taught English. (Now, the school is called Seton Keough High School.) Students connected with her in part because she wasn’t much older than they were, but also because she was bright and passionate, and made texts like Romeo and Juliet and The Scarlet Letter come alive for her students.

On Friday, November 7, 1969, Cathy left work around 3:00 p.m. and returned to the apartment she shared with another nun, Sister Russell. She’d told multiple people she was going to buy an engagement gift for her sister that night, and seemed excited about it. Sister Cathy supposedly left her apartment parking lot around 7:00 p.m., cashed her paycheck at the local bank, went to the bakery for dinner roles, then went to the local shopping center, Edmondson Village, to buy the engagement gift. (The Keepers depicts Sister Cathy’s journey with a map of the area and a clock measuring out the hours of the evening.) Eyewitnesses saw her grocery shopping, and one believes she saw her sitting in the car in the parking lot as if she was waiting for something. Accounts vary as to whether Sister Cathy ever made it back to her apartment complex after the shopping trip.

Another former student, Mary Kreig, recalls being in the area where Sisters Cathy and Russell lived that night to peek into the apartment of Mr. Noone, a teacher she and her friend had a crush on. They heard yelling from the direction of Sister Cathy’s apartment. “It was a man’s voice. Loud, booming. Garbled with emotion, anger. We really thought it was some kind of violence that was going on up there,” she recalls.

At 11:30 p.m., Sister Russell started to get nervous that Sister Cathy hadn’t gotten home yet, so she called a fellow teacher and Sister Cathy’s friend, a priest named Gerry Koob. He and Brother Peter had seen Easy Rider that night in Baltimore, but rushed to Sister Russell’s and spent 45 minutes listening to her tell the story. By that point, Gerry says, it was three hours after she had expected them, so they decided to call the police and report her as a missing person. Gerry said Mass, saving some bread for Cathy if she returned home. In the early, early hours of the morning, the men left the apartment and noticed that Cathy’s car was mysteriously parked on the street, keys in the ignition, with its rear sticking out into the street adjacent to the apartment. The car was muddy, and there was a twig inside near the steering wheel. It was clear to Gerry that the car had been in a swampy area — and that whoever put it back wanted it to be found.

The plot thickens: Three days later, another young woman went missing and was later found dead. Joyce Malecki, 20, had also gone shopping and never returned, and her car was found unlocked with the keys in the ignition. She’d switched cars with one of her brothers earlier that day, leaving her car with him and taking their parents’ car. Joyce’s body was found facedown in a stream, with her throat cut and hands tied behind her back. Gemma and Abbie have been working with Joyce’s brothers to continue making connections between the two cases in the hopes that they can solve both at the same time.

Here, we meet John Barnold, the former chief of homicide of the Baltimore City Police Department. He was continually quoted at the time as saying they didn’t think Sister Cathy’s disappearance was a kidnapping. Now, being interviewed for The Keepers, he explains that he was supervising so many robberies, homicides, sex offenses, assaults — he couldn’t devote his time to one specific case.

It wasn’t until mid-January 1970 that Sister Cathy’s body was finally found by hunters: She was lying on her back near a garbage dump with her skull caved in. The retired policeman on the case, James Scannell, takes Gemma, a helpful man they met through the Facebook group named Alan Horn, and the documentary crew to the spot where he found the body. Scannell is soft spoken, and it’s hard to tell if he’s senile or just old. He remembers the condition of Sister Cathy’s body in great detail and says, “I think she was probably dumped there. She hadn’t deteriorated — no maggots or anything like that.” Gemma is suspicious of him and tries to see if he can help them get the full report from the BCPD, but he brushes it off, saying no one at the office would know him anymore.

In further conversations with journalists and longtime Baltimore residents, people posit that the person who killed Cathy knew her very, very well — and that the police and FBI likely knew more than they let on about both Cathy and Joyce Malecki’s deaths, but Baltimore’s widespread corruption and strict hierarchies are preventing information from getting out.

In the episode’s final moments, we learn that there was one witness, a Jane Doe, who was a student at Keough and claimed to have seen the body. Does Jane Doe hold the secrets to unlocking this mystery?

Burning Questions:

• Who killed Cathy and Joyce and why — and was it the same person?
• Why would the killer (presumably) return the cars?
• Why did Joyce switch cars with her brother?
• Who is Jane Doe?
• Why are the police and FBI covering this up, if they are?
• Why were the two women murdered in such different ways?
• Is Scannell hiding something?

— Isabella Biedenharn
(Click ahead for episode 2)

A good chunk of time is spent describing how wonderful Keough was supposed to be, and how excited students were to learn they’d passed the admissions test and were accepted to the school. The image of this perfect school is quickly shattered, though, as Jean begins to recount her harrowing story.

As a freshman, Jean says she went to confession and confided in the priest, Father Magnus, that her uncle had sexually abused her when she was younger. But instead of trying to help Jean through this, Magnus asked her name and to look at her (for non-Catholics, this obviously is never a part of confession), and told her, “I don’t really know if God can forgive this.” A couple weeks later — and this is very disturbing to hear and read, so proceed with caution — Magnus and another priest, Father Maskell, who held great sway in the school, called her into an office and began to sexually abuse her even further, calling their semen “the Holy Spirit” and “the Eucharist.” “He was reminding me that the things I had done weren’t done to me, that I had made those things happen,” she says.

During these “therapy sessions,” as the priests convinced a naïve and traumatized Jean they were, they would call her a whore and pray over her in Latin as they raped her. “They were powerful because they represented God,” she remembers. “I wanted to get out of that room, and yet I felt that I had to be in the room in order to be a good person.” After a while, it was just Maskell abusing her — though sometimes he’d bring people in to abuse Jean as he watched and guarded the door. Once, he brought a gun, removed the bullets, and put it to Jean’s temple, telling her that if her father found out she’d been “whoring around,” he’d do the same to her — without removing the bullets.

Maskell had a strange childhood of his own: His mother started grooming him to be a priest at a young age, making him say Mass on the front yard and use Necco wafers as make-believe Communion hosts. A former altar boy, Brian Schwaab, recalls that when Maskell was working as a priest in the local church, he brought a gun to the sacristy, and Brian asked why a priest needed to carry a handgun. “I’ll never forget the look he gave me… I didn’t get a look like that until years later interviewing violent offenders,” he says.

As it turned out, Jean wasn’t the only Keough student suffering terrible, violent abuse at the hands of Father Maskell: He preyed on other students who had histories of abuse, too, so much that when he’d call a name over the P.A. for a student to come to his office, a hush would fall over the class as the other girls looked on in devastation and pity, while the teachers simply said they knew Maskell was weird but the student had to go. “Teachers would look down,” one former student recalls. “They knew something was going on.”

Father Maskell was the school counselor and had a Master’s degree in school psychology — so the horrific irony of the situation is that the very person students should have been able to go to for help was the one tormenting them. One student, Lillian Hughes, got a job as his assistant, and he’d have her type up her classmates’ records — most of which were sexual. She now believes that when he gave her a cup of Coke every day, he was also drugging her. Her memories of the time are foggy. She does recall that Maskell put the Alfred Hitchcock movie Marnie into the school’s religion curriculum, which centers on a woman with repressed memories of abuse.

Another note on Maskell: Not only was he the chaplain for the Maryland State Police, but his brother, Tommy Maskell, was a Baltimore City policeman, and Maskell himself was close friends with several cops. Jean even recalls Maskell bringing a cop into the room to abuse her. Even though he said he didn’t want to, Maskell encouraged him.

Finally, one student confided in Sister Cathy, and Cathy eventually asked Jean about the abuse, too. Jean confided in her at the end of the school year, and Cathy told her she would take care of it. But at the beginning of the next school year, Sister Cathy and Sister Russell got permission to leave Keough and live outside of the convent in an apartment and to teach in a public school, partly so that they could be “out in the world” and help understand more what their students’ lives were like.

Gerry Koob, the former priest Sister Russell called the night of Cathy’s disappearance, also confides that at this time, he and Cathy had grown close and realized they were soulmates, but when he proposed that he leave the priesthood and she skip her final vows and they get married instead, she turned him down. The day she was killed, Cathy had told Gerry there was something serious she wanted to talk to him about. He assumed it was to re-open the conversation about marriage, but now he realizes, more likely, she was going to tell him about the abuse at Keough.

Fast forward to November 1969, two days before Cathy went missing: One of the abused students — as of right now, anonymous — and her boyfriend went to the sisters’ apartment to visit, but Fathers Maskell and Magnus burst into the apartment without knocking. The student recalls that “Maskell looked furious” but “Magnus looked dumb.” Cathy sent the student and her boyfriend away, but the next day, Maskell allegedly told the couple he’d kill both of them, and their whole families, if they talked.

Back at Keough, Jean explains that Maskell called her into his office, and he frantically told her Cathy was missing, but then said that he knew where she was, and could take her there. He drove her to the woods, where she saw one of Cathy’s shoes on the ground… and then her body. “There were maggots on her face,” Jean recalls, saying she kept wiping Cathy’s face and crying, “Please help me! Please help me!” At that point, she says Father Maskell bent down to her and said, “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?”

Burning Questions:

• Why wasn’t Joyce Malecki mentioned in this episode? Is her murder not connected with Cathy’s after all? OR… was she also an abused student?
• Who was the anonymous student Maskell threatened?
• Who did Sister Cathy tell about Father Maskell’s abuse? Did she tell someone else first, or go straight to Maskell himself?
• Who else knew about the murder and helped cover it up?
• Did Father Maskell actually kill her, or did he get someone else to do it?
• Why did Jean say Cathy’s face was covered in maggots, when Scannell specifically told Gemma that her face didn’t have any maggots on it?
• But perhaps the fieriest of these burning questions: How is this story going to stretch across five more episodes? At this point, it seems pretty cut-and-dry: There were a couple horrifyingly sadistic priests who arranged for Sister Cathy’s death when she threatened to turn them in, and the police and the rest of the Catholic town protected them. I guess this is a very early take (and just a big hypothesis) but I’ve seen Spotlight. Isn’t this kind of the same story?

— Isabella Biedenharn
(Click ahead for episode 3)

When the Huffington Post published a longform story about this same case two years ago, writer Laura Bassett opened the piece with that shocking incident. The Keepers director Ryan White (who previously made docs on Prop 8 and Serena Williams) is more of a Shyamalan-showman. Episode 3 deals largely with Jean’s poignant backstory (more on that below), but White reaches for the cliffhanger magic again, ending this 64-minute episode a bit clumsily with the revelation of a new important individual called, if you can actually believe it, Deep Throat.

This Deep Throat is a super-secret Baltimore detective with a story to tell about secret file boxes that were buried in a cemetery grave by Father Maskell. He was so nicknamed by the amateur sleuths (and apparent Watergate nostalgists) Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub. But as adorable as those two women are, White could have been more careful of the line between portraying them and becoming them. The shrouded-in-mystery revelation of Deep Throat — cue mood music and another onscreen graphic of a black silhouette — feels more manufactured than powerful.

But that’s only one ding against what is overall a patient and expertly constructed episode. Here are the five points of interest to dig into as you’re watching:

Jean remembers

Despite the incalculable horror that Wehner describes living through as a teenager, the episode is touching for how it chronicles the humongous support of her family. That includes her husband Mike (“the lifesaver that got thrown in for me,” she says), her two children Sarah and Greg, plus a cadre of brothers and sisters, who like Hoskins and Schaub also moonlight as detectives to help discover the truth.

It was a chance meeting with a real estate agent and former high school classmate in 1992 that caused Wehner to purge long-dormant memories of the abuse she suffered. A future episode will take a deep dive into amnesia and the psychological basis for how traumatic events are repressed, so we’ll hold of on that discussion for now. But Wehner’s description of unlocking her past is intense and vivid: “It was like ripping masks off your face and looking in a mirror as you’re doing it.” (Also to be explored later in the series will be the Church’s attempts to render Wehner as an unreliable witness.)

Wehner and her siblings recall a family meeting in the early 1990s, where her subconscious burst like a balloon. She screamed, “I loved her and I killed her,” regarding Sister Cathy. The episode doesn’t spell out this fact, so it’s worth clarifying: Wehner’s overwhelming guilt stems from her belief that she triggered a series of events that led to Sister Cathy’s death. In her mind, that’s akin to having slain the woman herself. But Wehner is not saying that she literally killed Cathy with her own hand.

Enter Jane Roe

In a moment that echoes the ending of Spotlight, Wehner’s lawyer Beverly Wallace describes the deluge of letters that she received from other students at Archbishop Keough High School. The famed Boston Globe Church abuse newspaper articles (the basis for the Oscar-winning move) are name-checked in this episode. As in Boston, other victims were inspired to share their stories once the door was creaked open. In Baltimore, a classified ad was placed in a newspaper, and Wehner’s family mailed a thousand letters to former alumnae of Archbishop Keough. In a fascinating detail, Wehner’s adolescent nephews are described as praying over the letters before they went into the mailbox.

Teresa Lancaster is one of those who responded, and her testimony is equal to Wehner’s in its frightening weight. “I can tell you stuff you won’t believe that [Father Maskell] did,” she says. In a docuseries that certainly doesn’t lack for horrific descriptions of rape and abuse, the most ghoulish so far might be Lancaster’s retelling of her experience on Halloween night in 1970. She alleges Maskell took her into a wooded area, where she was raped by police officers. Absorb that timeline: October 31, 1970. That’s almost exactly one year after — after — Sister Cathy went missing.

Cheers for Sister Marylita

It’s a detail that comes out very quickly in the show, but we should pause to recognize a nun named Sister Marylita Friia. She was the “no-nonsense” sister who was appointed principal of Archbishop Keough in 1975, and upon hearing complaints from parents of students at the school, Maylita took action. “She told him he had 15 minutes to pack his things and get out,” Gemma Hoskins says.

Granted, it’s true that she could also have alerted law enforcement authorities about Maskell, but we don’t know what she was or wasn’t aware of. More than 40 years later, it’s at least comforting to know that someone sniffed out Maskell for the disgusting slob she was.

And she looks like a sweet lady. Here is Sister Marylita (left) in a Facebook post from last year.

Bet Your Bippy

The episode jumps ahead in the timeline to describe an interview that Father Maskell gave to the Baltimore Sun newspaper in August 1994. “Hysterical nonsense” is how the priest’s defensive, deny-everything stance was described. This was after a new round of allegations had been leveled against him and the Church was taking action — by sending him to rehab for all the stress he was experiencing because of the accusations.

The article by Robert A. Erlandson and Joe Nawrozki (real the full text here) supplies a backstory on Maskell but very few quotes with the man. One of the most tantalizing contributions in the article  comes from a woman named Attilia Marasa, who worked in the high school’s office.

“I think Father Maskell’s above reproach, an upstanding priest. All this crap that’s coming out about priests is just to get money from the Catholic Church,” she’s quoted as having said. “If it had happened to me it would have been reported at once, you can bet your bippy on that. I would have gone right away to the archdiocese, don’t wait 25 years. The girls should have told their parents right away and gotten a lawyer and reported to the archdiocese.”

Burning Questions

• Who was Dr. Christian F. Richter?

The Keepers is like a swift kick to the hornet’s nest that is Baltimore, implicating cops and lawyers and politicians as well as the priests. Dr. Richter is the gynecologist Teresa Lancaster describes seeing on Father Maskell’s insistence. Richter died 11 years ago, and this obituary merely describes him as a Civil War buff and an excellent doctor.

• What about Joyce Malecki?

Episode 3 steers into Wehner’s life story and for understandable reasons abandons the other murder, that of 20-year-old Malecki. Her name never comes up during this hour — but hopefully that isn’t true for the rest of the series.

• Was the Institute of Living used as a Catholic-priest-laundering site?

Dr. L.M. Lothstein provides haunting testimony on camera about his time working at Connecticut’s Institute of Living. Lothstein claims that the Catholic Church was sending priests to the Institute who were guilty of abusing children, under the phony symptom of depression. “It happened over and over again,” Lothstein says. It sounds like there could be a seven-hour Netflix show just about that.

— Joe McGovern
(Click ahead for episode 4)

As EW critic Jeff Jensen has already pointed out in his review, Lynch’s obsessions echo in The Keepers’ darkest corners: “sexual abuse, psychic manipulation, and a culture that preys on women.” But the late introduction of a new figure in The Keepers’ tangled web takes the prize for creepiest connection to Lynch, in this case the director’s soon-resurrected Twin Peaks. Brother Bob, a faceless monster-person from victim Jean Wehner’s memory who boasted about murdering Sister Cathy, can’t help but churn up our own memories of this demon from Lynch’s original series:

Brother Bob’s identity will presumably be further explored in later episodes. But what’s truly unnerving, despite a few moments of lightness within the gloom of this hour, is that Bob is just one of a gallery of new suspicious characters introduced. Here are the five major points of interests from episode 4.

The Apostle Paul

In last episode’s recap, I linked to the obituary of Dr. Christian Richter, the gynecologist who we find out here was included as a defendant in Jane Doe and Jane Roe’s ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit. But now we also hear about Paul McHugh, pseudo-intellectual (in my opinion) psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who megaphones his virulent anti-LGBT views to aid the Catholic Church in sex abuse cases. A self-described “orthodox Catholic,” he was instrumental in getting the 1994 lawsuit dismissed. For years, McHugh has asserted that homosexuality is the root case of child sex abuse in his Church. Presumably, per that logic, McHugh would assist in exonerating a priest like Father Maskell because he targeted females?

Unsurprisingly, McHugh would not agree to be interviewed for The Keepers. A lifetime of being a toady and sycophant might have caught up with him. In McHugh’s dotage (he’s 86), the man perhaps has finally discovered a sense of shame.

Whistling past the graveyard

Lee Richmond was a professor at Johns Hopkins who became friends with Father Maskell in 1982 after he took a course on community counseling. She mentions that she was once planning on visiting him in 1990 when he explained he was busy burying a bunch of old office files in his cemetery. Huh? Is that was your friends do on the weekends?

The anonymous Baltimore detective known as Deep Throat, whose voice has been altered so that he sounds like RoboCop with laryngitis, claims that there were nude photographs of girls among the files. “That’s a typical pedophile,” Deep Throat says. “A pedophile cannot separate from his collection. Even if he can’t get to it, he knows it’s there.” There was enough to arrest Maskell on the spot, he says, but “the division chief ran interference with the Church.”

Sunny May

Deep Throat’s comment about the division chief leads into this episode’s more fascinating, tough-to-decipher interview. Sharon A.H. May worked for the State’s Attorney’s Office from 1983 to 2004, and she describes going to Holy Cross Cemetery on the day that the files were exhumed.

“To my recollection there was nothing found,” she says. At first, May appears to be bobbing and obfuscating in her guarded, I-do-not-recall answers to director Ryan White. (White introduces May from a surreptitious camera angle as she’s fixing her hairdo in a mirror — a cheap shot.) But have we become too accustomed to enablers of violence in Baltimore flying out of the hornet’s nest that we as an audience project a sense of guilt onto May’s statements?

Was she also involved in a conspiracy to protect Maskell from the law? No way, she says. “I was not one to be intimidated,” May remarks, adding for good measure that she is not now and has never been a Catholic. But in four episodes of The Keepers, there’s not been a person’s face that I’ve studied as closely as May’s. Either she’s telling the truth or she’s not telling the truth — and if it’s the latter, what stories she must have.

Lancaster Law

In the episode’s most moving segment, we learn that Teresa Lancaster (the “Jane Roe” from the 1994 lawsuit against the Church) received her law degree at age 49. And it’s at this point where the show evokes the Freddie Gray case, allowing Lancaster’s voice to trace the reverberations of injustice and pain from decades ago to today. It’s an ambitious leap for The Keepers to make, but one that feels rightly earned.

Burning Questions

• Will Jean Wehner and Teresa Lancaster ever meet?

The two plaintiffs in the 1994 case have purposefully never encountered each other. Wehner says it was because she didn’t want a perception of another victim’s testimony influencing her own. But is the show leading up to a get-together between the two women?

• What does former cop James Scannell know?

In a scene that’s essentially a replay of a moment from episode 1, we again see the white-haired Scannell mumble through an explanation of finding Sister Cathy’s body. Now we find out that he, like Paul McHugh, denies the concept of recovered memories. And he says that Father Maskell’s real craving was to work in law enforcement. Please, allow him to babble on.

• What about Joyce Malecki (redux)?

The kidnapping and murder of Malecki has now not been touched upon for three episodes. Here’s hoping that The Keepers returns to her story soon. This whole thing would be simpler if Malecki weren’t in the picture as well, but the show shouldn’t pretend she isn’t. What if Father Maskell and the boogeyman Brother Bob can be connected to Malecki? That sure changes the shape of things.

— Joe McGovern
(Click ahead for episode 5)

EPISODE 5: “The Suspects”

As we all understand by this point, The Keepers is a murder mystery story unlike any other. The sheer amount of time that has passed since Sister Cathy Cesnik’s murder changes the story’s typical formula, because most of the people involved are long dead. It’s hard to deliver justice to Father Joseph Maskell, for instance, since he’s in the ground. And even before he died, as Lil Hughes tells us at the top of the episode, Maskell was hospitalized and sick, and his eyes were empty. In his later years at the dementia ward, she once tried to get up in his face and confront him about what he’d done, but even she could tell there was no point by then.

So what’s left to do if the big bad guy is beyond justice? Well, even if Maskell is guilty of instigating Cathy’s death, it’s unlikely that he did so alone. In Maskell’s absence, the best option is to find out who else was involved and what their stories can tell. Luckily, Abbie and Gemma’s anonymous tip line soon bears unexpected fruit. They get two different versions of a very similar-sounding story: “I think my uncle killed Sister Cathy.”

The first niece in question is Debbie Yohn. Her uncle, Edgar Davidson, was an erratic and combustible guy. To hear her aunt “Margaret” (not her real name) tell it, Edgar came home with a bloody shirt and a questionable alibi on the night of Nov. 7, 1969, the same night that Sister Cathy disappeared. Days later, when Cathy’s disappearance first made the news, Margaret recalls Edgar’s reaction: rocking back in his chair, smirking, talking about how she’ll probably be buried in the snow by the time they find her. Shortly thereafter, Edgar got new tires for their car — supposedly for the winter, but maybe also to change his car’s incriminating tire tracks.

There are even more shady details. Cathy disappeared after buying an engagement present for her sister, but the present was never found. Funnily enough, that Christmas, Edgar got Margaret a beautiful piece of jewelry: a necklace with a green rhinestone. She could tell it was never intended for her; after burying it in a corner of her jewelry box for years, she’s passed it on to Debbie, who now just wants to return it to the person it was intended for.

Sharon Schmidt has a similar story. She distinctly remembers overhearing an argument between her parents in which her dad said, “You wanna know why I drink? Because we killed a woman and put her behind the shop.” Cathy’s body was in fact discovered near the Schmidt family business, and as we heard in earlier episodes, dumping her there would’ve required specific knowledge of that area. Whether Sharon’s father was involved in the killing or just helped her uncle, Billy, dispose of the body, he too came home with a bloody shirt that night but no visible injuries (much like Edgar) and afterward became a heavy drinker.

Like Maskell, Billy Schmidt is dead now, so his ultimate culpability in Cathy’s murder might remain a mystery forever. But regardless of his exact involvement, it’s clear that the unanswered questions inflicted deep, deep wounds on himself and his family. Billy, who already had to deal with the problems of being a closeted homosexual man in the repressive Catholic atmosphere of ‘70s Baltimore, spent years after Cathy’s death screaming about “the woman in the attic,” and committed suicide not long after.

Sharon’s brother Brian was haunted by Cathy’s murder, too. Six months before he died of a heart attack, Brian told researcher Alan Horn that he had a distinctive memory of an Uncle Bobby keeping him occupied as a small child while Billy and his mysterious friend “Skippy” disposed of a rolled-up rug in the woods. As Brian told Horn, “this is a child’s memory in an old man’s body” — so he thought nothing of it at the time, only to later realize it was probably Sister Cathy’s body.

Tragically, Brian never breathed a word of this to his sister, who unbeknownst to him was also suffering from unresolved questions about their family’s involvement in Cathy’s murder. Sharon says that learning about this only after Brian’s death was “hard to take.” It’s the latest example in this show of a person being shoved face to face with unspeakable trauma at a young age, and instead of providing a support system, their community just forced them to repress that damage until it poisoned or killed them. The show doesn’t draw a direct connection between Brian’s heart attack and the built-up pressure of keeping such stress inside himself for decades, but Jean has just such a tragic formulation about her late husband Mike.

In Jean’s words, Mike “swallowed a lot of anger” over the years. Standing by her side through her traumatic confrontations with the Church often meant keeping his mouth shut. And after years of swallowing that anger for her sake, Mike Wehner died of esophageal cancer in May 2007. There are some beautiful shots of Jean sitting alone on a park bench as she recounts her memories of “her rock.” Although this episode is full of new clues in the mystery, I love it for these moments of reflection, as people confront the full weight of the past bearing down on them in all its beauty and tragedy.

Another such moment comes soon after, when Gemma finally gets a call from Cathy’s sister Marilyn. They set up an in-person meeting, but there’s an even more immediate impact. Gemma can’t believe how much Marilyn’s voice sounds like Cathy’s. After hanging up the phone, she just cries and cries.

The past is not dead, as Faulkner said. It’s not even past.

After those emotional journeys, the episode does leave us with a couple leads. First there’s Marilyn, who might be able to provide some much-needed information about the necklace. And then there’s Edgar. Unlike Father Maskell, Father Magnus, or Billy Schmidt, Edgar Davidson is very much alive — and just as scary as ever.

Burning Questions

Who is Skippy? Billy Schmidt’s mysterious friend and maybe-lover is a big unanswered question here, not least because Sharon’s mom swears he once tried to run her off the road. Unfortunately, without a name or current description, it’ll be hard to find him, so I wonder if this thread will go anywhere.

What does Edgar know? The biggest lead-in to the next episode, of course, is Edgar Davidson. The survivors of ‘70s Baltimore are either dead or so old their memory is untrustworthy. Is Edgar himself trustworthy? How much will he be willing to tell — if he knows anything at all?

Why are Sharon and Debbie’s stories so similar? Debbie says the similarity between her story and Sharon’s is evidence of a conspiracy. Is that the answer, or did one of them copy the other? Or was one of them not connected to Cathy at all?

Did the necklace have meaning other than an August birthday? Hopefully Marilyn can answer this.

—Christian Holub
(Click ahead for episode 6)

EPISODE 6: “The Web”

Fulfilling the promise of last episode’s cliffhanger, episode 6 starts off with an interview with the most likely living suspect for Cathy Cesnik’s murder: Edgar Davidson.

Edgar is old now, with bushy gray hair and a hard-to-understand voice. He’s still “with it” more than Maskell was in his later years, however. Edgar recognizes a picture of Cathy Cesnik, for instance (“that’s Cathy”), though he’s a little less receptive to a picture of Maskell, saying he never actually met him. Ultimately, Edgar basically denies culpability for the crime. He confirms he said those incriminating things to his wife (and called into a popular 1976 radio show to say he knew someone with Cathy’s rosary), claiming he said them to trick her into thinking he was involved. He says he was young and “stupid,” but offers little more than that. He says he wasn’t involved in the actual murder at all and has no idea who was. Debbie warned us last episode that Edgar’s something of a trickster, who likes to play with people like a cat playing with a mouse, so who knows if he’s telling the truth or not. Either way, it’s all we’re getting from him for now. Not every murder suspect is going to pull a Robert Durst and just confess to everything on tape.

The search for suspects now turns to friendlier corners. In focusing so much on Maskell, The Keepers has not yet had time to look at the people who were close to Cathy. And boy, is there a lot to look at there.

First up is Gerry Koob. Remember him? He was training to be a priest at the same time Cathy was training to be a nun, and they fell in love. Gerry even proposed marriage at one point, only for Cathy to turn it down and insist they stay on their chosen paths. He seemed like a good guy in the few times we’ve seen him up until now, but now we’re hearing about a potential other side. Investigative reporter Tom Nugent comes out as a big Koob skeptic and swears a detective on the case once told him, “If Koob didn’t kill her, he knows who did.”

As it turns out, Gerry’s alibi is kind of shaky. His story of the night Cathy disappeared has always been the same. Gerry says he went out that night with his friend, Brother Pete McKeon. They got dinner and saw Easy Rider, then headed back to Baltimore once they got a call from Cathy’s roommate, Sister Russell Phillips. As Gerry says, “Pete was my alibi, and I was his.” Nugent has found a hole in the story, though: Nugent, in his colorful phrasing, recommends taking everything Gerry says with “a gigantic boulder of salt.”

As if proving his point, Gerry tells a story so colorful it seems obviously fake. He says into the camera that while he was being interrogated by the police over Cathy’s murder, one detective threw Cathy’s vagina on the table in front of him, wrapped in newspaper. Both John Barnold of Baltimore City Police and Gary Childs of County refute the story. Barnold says he would never have allowed such tactics under his watch and that Koob’s story sounds more like “a dream,” while Childs just says it sounds a little “out there.” But if Gerry is lying or exaggerating this story, as he obviously seems to be, what else could he be lying about?

In order to find out, the team tries reaching out to Pete McKeon. But like Edgar, Pete is getting on in years, and his memory is probably unreliable. To guard against that, he recites the same story he’s been telling police for decades (movie, dinner, call, back to Baltimore), so we don’t get anything new. The sheer amount of time that has passed in this investigation means that even promising threads often hit a dead end or fade into nothing, with the principals either dead or forgetful.

Take Sister Russell, for example. Bud Roemer once told Nugent that Russell had “the key to unlock this whole thing,” but unfortunately Cathy’s friend never told anyone what she knew – not even Patricia Gilner, who temporarily took over Cathy’s room with her. Another secret gone to the grave.

Having grown up Catholic, I often laugh at jokes like John Mulaney’s humorous description of the Irish-Catholic attitude toward life: “I’ll keep all my emotions right here, and then one day, I’ll die.” It can be good for laughs, but as we see in this series, that attitude of Catholic self-repression is very real, very prevalent, and has caused lasting damage to people’s lives.

Importantly, that repression was also institutional. One former cop claims Maskell was arrested at one point — he could’ve only gotten out of that one via protection from both church and state. In one of the most dramatic confrontations of the episode, filmmaker Ryan White presents former D.A. Sharon May with a list of 50 abusive priests published by the Baltimore archdiocese in 2002. Only one name on that list was found guilty of sex crimes, and he pleaded guilty. May has nothing to say to this, of course, just more nonsense about how “the evidence wasn’t there” — and there’s no way to double-check, because all the evidence related to Maskell has been destroyed. One of the big takeaways from this show: Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse a child and protect the abuser.

Luckily, in addition to all the investigative details in this episode, we also get a look at the people trying to overcome the damage of repression. Cathy’s sister Marilyn, for example, kept quiet about the case for a long time so as not to upset her parents, though she always carried Cathy’s memory with her. (“When Cathy died I said, ‘You will not die as long as I’m alive. You will not die.’”) Now, Abbie and Gemma’s quest has shed light on some things for her (she didn’t even know about the Maskell connection until recently) and connected her with the necklace Cathy intended for her. The green birthstone, in fact, appears to reference the August birthday of Marilyn’s husband, Bob.

Jean, too, has found some healing over the course of this project. Abbie and Gemma’s movement has connected her with other abuse survivors from Keogh, and it’s helped her find solidarity and comfort in numbers.

The episode ends by proving Jean right. One of her biggest disputes with police came from her claim that Maskell showed her Cathy’s maggot-covered corpse, which cops always insisted was impossible because it was the winter, too cold for maggots to breed outside. But when Gemma finally gets ahold of the autopsy report, courtesy of Marilyn, she finds proof that there were maggots in Cathy’s mouth and throat.

Jean was right. She was likely right about the other things, too.

Burning Questions

Is Gerry lying? Where on earth did he get that vagina story?

What did Russell do or know? Did she betray Cathy to Maskell for some reason? Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’ll ever get an answer to this question.

Is there a solution? We’ll find out next episode.

—Christian Holub
(Click ahead for episode 7)

EPISODE 7: “The Conclusion”

We start off the final episode of The Keepers with an introduction to another victim of Maskell’s abuse, a man named Charles Franz. As with Jean Wehner, Charles’ recollections of his abuse are horrifying in their complexity. In addition to physical and sexual abuse, Maskell also introduced Charles to alcohol and drugs as a way to forget the pain. But perhaps this is the most horrifying detail of all: Maskell was abusing Charles in 1967 — two years before Cathy’s death, before Maskell was transferred from St. Clement Church to Archbishop Keough. Charles puts it bluntly: “If the Catholic Church had dealt with this properly in ’67, there would be no murder. We wouldn’t be here.”

Up until now, we’ve heard about some horrifying things in this show: rape, murder, betrayal, repression. This finale is dedicated to unspooling the Catholic Church’s role in these events, their ongoing complicity in repressing the victims of clergy abuse, and the cooperation and protection they receive from the government in doing so.

First, though, some final notes on the Cesnik case. Edgar Davidson continues to deny involvement, has no answer for why he was in possession of the necklace Cathy bought for her sister’s engagement, and just generally doesn’t seem like anybody’s gonna get anything out of him at this point. There are still some leads, though. Barbara Schmidt notes that her brother-in-law Billy Schmidt used to smoke Salem cigarettes – did the police find any cigarettes at the scene? Forensic evidence has improved a lot since the ‘70s; maybe they could use that to get some DNA? When director Ryan White mentions this to Gary Childs, the Baltimore County detective confirms with a laugh that they did collect a cigarette from the scene. Although Childs declines to comment on the police’s ongoing investigation, he notes that everything White has told him is very interesting. He promises to look at everything and has confidence the case can still be cracked (FYI, the DNA they eventually pulled from the scene does not match Maskell’s).

The Malecki family, unfortunately, does not share his confidence in their own case. Joyce Malecki’s murder has flown under the radar somewhat during this show, since its connection to Cathy’s death remains unclear. The Malecki family is used to that; criminal authorities have been giving them the cold shoulder for decades now. As one of Joyce’s surviving brothers says, “If there’s nothing, someone should tell us.” Instead, the FBI refuses to tell anyone anything. Abbie and Gemma have now gone almost three years since their initial FOIA request for Malecki evidence and have received nothing but perfunctory replies. The Maleckis, rightfully, feel abandoned.

They aren’t the only ones. Since there’s a seven-year statute of limitations on sex crimes, survivors have few avenues for pursuing justice if it takes them longer than that to come forward about their experiences. One Maryland state assemblyman, C.T. Wilson, has been trying to introduce a bill that would give survivors more time to file suits, only to watch it die in committee over and over again without going to a vote. In hearings for the bill, Wilson confesses that he himself is a survivor, having been abused by his adoptive father for years. Other survivors like Teresa Lancaster (the onetime “Jane Roe”) come forward to share their experiences. They talk about how getting over child abuse takes a long time, and survivors shouldn’t be punished.

If you thought the Catholic Church would deploy lawyers specifically to argue why those survivors should be punished in that matter, you’ve probably been paying attention to this show. One such lawyer, Kevin Murphy, was the same guy who decades ago grilled Teresa and Jean when they tried to sue the Church over their abuse. Murphy’s arguments are as hard to watch, in their way, as Jean’s first descriptions of her abuse back in episode 2.

Their arguments ring hollow in the wake of emotional appeals from abuse survivors, but once again the Church gets its way. Wilson confesses to White (adding that this interview could very well end his career) that committee chairs keep the bill from going to a vote because they and the Church both know it would pass. It happens again this time, though Wilson vows to try again. Viewers will probably be happy to know that his third attempt at the bill succeeded, and was signed into law by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in April.

The U.S. Constitution mandates the separation of church and state, but that border is a little more porous in places like Baltimore, where the Church has long held a lot of cultural and political influence. Wilson argues that this saga demonstrates exactly why such separation is needed — when the Church victimizes people in this way, it’s the government’s duty to intercede and provide justice for people.

The final act of this episode lays out the Church’s own failure to provide such justice. When Jean sued the Church in the ‘90s, their argument was that she lacked corroboration for her claims, that there needed to be someone else saying that Maskell abused students. As it turns out, Charles Franz is living proof of such corroboration. He claims that when his mother learned how Maskell was abusing him, she complained directly to the Archdiocese, which promptly transferred Maskell from Charles’ school to Archbishop Keough. In addition to causing untold rapes and (most likely) the murder of Cathy Cesnik, this move is also proof that the Church knew about Maskell as early as 1967. The Church lied to Jean, a lie the Archdiocese doubled down on in their written responses to questions from White when they again said that Jean was the first person to come forward with allegations against Maskell. Both Jean and Charles are angry, but not entirely surprised.

So what now? When both church and state fail to provide justice for their most vulnerable citizens, the task must then fall to the people themselves. This show started with Tom Nugent wondering why Abbie and Gemma didn’t go the traditional investigative reporter route for their story. But their grassroots movement has done so much more than any of these other institutions. Abbie and Gemma uncovered interesting details in the case, but more importantly, they got various injured people in contact with each other. As they say here, no matter how it happened, Cathy’s murderer feels connected to the systemic abuse that went on at Archbishop Keough and around the country. So though her murder remains unsolved, the search for truth has helped some survivors find some measure of comfort, peace, and, most importantly, connection. As Keough shuts down for good, Jean and her friends erect a memorial plaque to Cathy Cesnik — to the woman who stuck up for them when she was alive, and who brought them together again in death.

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  • 05/19/17
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