In November 1969, Sister Catherine Cesnik, a popular, twenty-six-year-old teacher at an all-girls Catholic high school in Baltimore, disappeared. Two months later her frozen body was found in a nearby landfill, her skull fractured and her clothes partly removed. No one was ever charged in her murder, which is now the subject of The Keepers, Netflix’s latest foray into true-crime original programming. The Keepers follows a pair of Cesnik’s former students who have devoted their retirement years to pursuing the case. The two women have amassed vast quantities of evidence, apparently more than the police know, but the drama of the documentary lies in the tantalizing possibility that Cesnik was killed just as she was about to expose the most outrageous and bizarre case of clergy sexual abuse I have ever heard of.
If the allegations are true, a gun-toting priest-psychologist, working as a guidance counselor at the school, not only took advantage of the many troubled students who came to see him, but—abetted by a local gynecologist—also pimped them out to a large circle of men, including local politicians, uniformed police officers, other priests, and teaching brothers. The teenage victims, who barely understood what was happening, were bullied into silence: terrified by threats that they might end up like Cesnik, mortified with shame when they were diagnosed with “whore personality,” they were told they had to submit to these acts before God could forgive them. The abuse was accompanied by Latin prayers and signs of the cross to make them seem like rituals. Only decades later, long after the statute of limitations ran out, did the victims begin to come to terms with what had been done to them, recalling horrifying memories they had suppressed and speaking out.
The early episodes of The Keepers seem to build a strong case that Cesnik was killed by the pedophile priest to keep her from telling what she had been hearing from some of the victims. That priest, Fr. A. Joseph Maskell, was also the chaplain of the Baltimore police, where he had a highly placed brother, and where he is alleged to have found clients for his covert procurement operation. Were the police protecting him? Was the Church? The non-Catholic state’s attorney who won’t pursue the case seems unaccountably blasé about the many boxes of evidence that have disappeared.
But later episodes complicate the theory that Maskell was the killer, introducing evidence that there were at least six other men who may have had something to do with her disappearance or murder, or with the hiding of her body. These include a mysterious accomplice of Fr. Maskell known only as “Brother Bob,” another man who lived in the apartment downstairs from Cesnik, and an ex-Jesuit priest who had wanted to marry her but denies they had a sexual relationship in spite of evidence to the contrary. The strangest of this group once called a radio talk show to say he knew that someone still had Cesnik’s rosary, but then changed his story; the creepiest kept a mannequin of a nun in the attic of his brother’s home and kept telling his sister-in-law that it was calling out to him accusingly. There could have been many more who had something to lose if Cesnik talked.