On January 3, 1970, the frozen corpse of Sister Catherine Cesnik was found lying near a garbage dump in the Baltimore County suburb of Lansdowne, Maryland. The 26-year-old nun and Archbishop Keough high school teacher, known to her students as Sister Cathy, had disappeared the previous November, when she went out one evening to purchase an engagement gift for her younger sister and never returned. Her car was found later that night, parked at an unusual angle near her apartment, leading investigators to suspect that the killer was someone she’d known who was familiar with where she lived. Despite these clues, the case quickly went cold.
Now, 47 years later, the case has been reintroduced to the public through a seven-episode true-crime documentary available on Netflix. The Keepers tracks the 1969 murder of Sister Cathy by following a series of threads created by former Archbishop Keough students, retired law enforcement officers, church officials, friends, family, and various possible suspects. Within this wide net, the story spins outward to reveal a world of horrific sexual abuse hidden behind the office doors of Archbishop Keough, and a tangled web of tenuous, suggestive, often unproven connections. The question of “Who Killed Sister Cathy?,” taken directly from the headlines of newspaper clippings that have been collected and preserved, is only a small part of what The Keepers is about. Instead, filmmaker Ryan White turns the focus from “who” to “why.” While early moments of The Keepers may call to mind Netflix’s last venture into true-crime documentaries, Making a Murderer, it goes one giant leap further by exploring its expansive story with a truly empathetic approach, dissecting a chilling, complicated tale with delicacy and heart.
In the second episode, viewers are introduced to Jean Wehner. Wehner was one of Sister Cathy’s students at Archbishop Keough, where she was routinely sexually abused by the school’s chaplain, Joseph Maskell, and his associates, including another priest, police officers, and local businessmen. An innocent teen and a devout Catholic, Wehner believed that this nightmare was penance for what Maskell told her was a sin: the fact that her uncle had abused her as a young child. Now in her sixties, Wehner shares the story of this stomach-turning abuse with openness and determination, alongside multiple other victims with tragically similar stories to tell. She is the heart of the series — the emotional crux of The Keepers — and having confided in Sister Cathy regarding her experiences with Father Maskell shortly before her disappearance, Wehner establishes a connection between her own abuse and Sister Cathy’s murder. The Keepers follows her story through a lawsuit against Maskell and the archdiocese and her efforts to find justice — both for herself and Sister Cathy.
White and Netflix have brought a fair amount of attention to Cesnik’s murder and the sex-abuse cases at Archbishop Keough, but The Keepers would not be what it is without Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two former students of Archbishop Keough and the founders of a Facebook group dedicated to sourcing information about the murder from fellow alums and community members. The two self-proclaimed “retired grandma Nancy Drews” are polar opposites — the former is a gravel-voiced straight-talker, while the latter is quiet, preferring behind-the-scenes research — but their love for Sister Cathy has brought the two women together, and their amateur sleuthing has played an enormous role in bringing Sister Cathy’s plight into the national spotlight.
The Keepers tells the story of a murdered nun and an abusive priest, and the way that powerful individuals work together to isolate and silence their victims. It’s also the tale of a group of middle-aged women asserting their power and challenging a system that has failed them, despite being mocked, doubted, and threatened to stay silent. More than just a mystery series, The Keepers is a story of survival and perseverance — a story that needs to be shared.