The next true crime documentary series gaining national and worldwide attention is focused on Baltimore – and the unsolved murder of a Catholic nun.
“The Keepers: Who Killed Sister Cathy?” features seven hour-long episodes. They detail allegations of sexual abuse of students at the former Archbishop Keough High School where that nun, Sister Catherine Cesnik, was a teacher. All seven episodes began streaming on Netflix Friday morning.
Sister Cesnik disappeared in November of 1969, and her body was found in January of 1970. No one was ever arrested in connection with the murder, but many of Cesnik's students believe it was tied to sexual abuse they endured at the school.
In the documentary some of those students, now women in their 60s, recount -- in graphic detail -- the abuse which they say was committed by Father Joseph Maskell, who served as the chaplain at Archbishop Keough. They also say Maskell allowed other men to sexually abuse them, in some cases in his office at the school.
The documentary’s director, Ryan White, sat down with ABC2’s Christian Schaffer. He said he felt it was important to include the graphic descriptions provided by the victims.
“It was excruciating for the people who were telling their truth and I felt terrible putting them through that,” he said. “But what I learned was to always follow the lead of the survivor. Because in many ways because I was there to listen and hear it and perhaps, and hopefully we've done the Netflix series, tell it, these people saw that as healing. They were willing as retired grandmothers to sit down with me, knowing that their grandkids might see this and say, this happened to me. And (they’re) doing this because they know this happened to them and no one's ever believed us. But if we're all willing to take this step and talk about this horrific past, people will believe us.”
White’s mother is from Baltimore. Her sister (his aunt) graduated from Archbishop Keough in 1972 and knew many of the women featured in the documentary. She also had Sister Cesnik as a teacher in the 10th grade.
“There's been nothing more disappointing, demoralizing, horrifying than making a series about your own church that you had a positive experience in, and realizing the depth to which they went to harm people,” White said.
Maskell died in 2001. The series documents the efforts of former Archbishop Keough students to find clues linking him to Sister Cesnik’s murder. Production of The Keepers has been going on for more than three years.
“It’s calling on a lot to ask people to excavate their memories in those types of ways, especially related to the mundane things,” White said. “That's what's so interesting about The Keepers to me; much of the mundane is actually where the answers lie.”
In 1994 – 25 years after Sister Cesnik’s disappearance – two women came forward and sued the Archdiocese of Baltimore, over the abuse they say they’d suffered at Archbishop Keough.
At the time, they remained anonymous; known only as Jane Doe and Jane Roe. A Baltimore judge denied their request to proceed with the lawsuit because the statute of limitations had expired. The judge rejected their argument -- that newly-recovered memories of the abuse should have given him a reason to make an exception, and allow the case to go forward.
In “The Keepers” – both Jane Doe and Jane Roe are interviewed, and their real names and faces are revealed.
“One of the things that, Jean, who is Jane Doe, says, she says ‘I didn't even know the word 'abuse' until I was an adult.’ That wasn't even in the lexicon in the late 60s and early 70s,” White said. “Especially when the abuse is coming from your spiritual leader; that would not be a word you would attach to it. The word she would attach to it was 'he was helping me seek forgiveness' or 'he was trying to get the evil out of me.'"
White says the title of “The Keepers” has a dual meaning: “I actually stole that title from somebody that said it during the filming,” he said. “So we were actually at a dinner with Jean and one of her friends and I didn't know that her friend was an abuse victim as well and I don't think anybody else at the table did. And they were having a conversation about it, and it got very emotional and the woman said, 'It's because we're the keepers, we live with this inside of us for our entire lives. We live with the shame and anger and guilt' and right when she said it I knew I was stealing it as the title of the film.”
But White says it also refers to institutions he calls “gate keepers,” including the Catholic Church – as well as the Baltimore City and Baltimore County Police Departments.
“These people were forced to suffer in silence their entire lives with their violent, sociopathic, perhaps involved in a murder, abuser side-by-side with them in their community,” White said. “And that's because of the church and the state and the things they failed to do throughout Maskell's lifetime.”
Just this past February, detectives in Baltimore County exhumed the body of Father Maskell, as part of their investigation into Sister Cesnik’s murder. The announcement came after the series had already been completed.
“I see it as an extremely positive sign that the Baltimore County Police are finally, at least outwardly, showing that Joseph Maskell should be a suspect in this murder,” White said.
White hopes the release of The Keepers might bring more accountability to the church, and to the state: “My hope is that the documentary in many ways, the series, is the beginning of answers, whatever they may be. Because there's a lot of question marks still out there,” he said. “It's not enough for a documentary to be coming out and saying, 'This happened in Baltimore.’ To have just told a documentary story where the community says this happens. We have to have the state and the church acknowledging their failures and then doing the traditional forms of justice."