The True Story Behind Netflix’s Documentary ‘The Keepers’ And The Murder Of Sister Cathy
The Debrief: Here’s your need to know on the seven-episode true crime series that’ll take over your evening
Every now and again you stumble across a documentary that leaves you speechless. You know the ones. A documentary that plants an expression of disbelief across your face that lasts long after you’ve finished watching it. A documentary that leaves you no choice but to be heavily invested in strangers’ lives, and leaves you still trying to find resolve to unanswered questions in the days that follow. A documentary that makes you question what the fuck is wrong with the world. The Keepers is one of those documentaries.
In the nicest possible way, the narrative is horrible. Horrible, upsetting and deeply troubling. But it's an important and incredibly brave story nonetheless. The Keepers tells the story of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a 26-year-old nun living in Baltimore who was abducted and murdered back in the 1960s. The case was never solved, but was linked to a horrific history of sexual abuse by a chaplain called Father Joseph Maskell. The documentary itself is incredibly interesting, but the subject matter is difficult and descriptions of what happened are upsetting and rather detailed, so I'd probably make sure you're aware of what you're getting yourself into before you dive into your next true crime binge. Spoilers ahead of course, but here’s everything else you need to know about the true story of the unsolved murder.
How telling is The Keepers trailer?
Well, it goes in hard on the ‘corruption in Baltimore’ thing, which is definitely carried throughout the series. ‘The story is not the nun’s killing’, a voice says. ‘The story is the cover up of the nun’s story’. It’s just as tense and unsettling as the blockbuster style musical theatrics suggests, but sadly this isn’t born from a really elaborate script, these are real people’s accounts of what happened 50 years ago.
Is The Keepers a real story?
Yep. Back in the 1960 a nun was abducted and murdered in Baltimore. The murderer was never found or charged, but in the years after Sister Cathy's death revelations about sexual abuse came to light and were linked to her disappearance.
The structure of the documentary largely revolves around Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schauab, two former students of Sister Cathy’s who are trying to piece together what happened and why the case was never solved. Throughout each episode we meet other nuns, students and relatives of Cathy’s who each contribute a little piece of the puzzle and offer speculation about who might have been involved in what, and how their involvement might have or have not impacted the whole thing.
So, what actually happened to Sister Cathy Cesnik?
Cathy was a really popular English teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore. She had been given permission to leave her convent to go and work at the school while still remaining a practicing nun, which was pretty unheard of at the time and is described in the programme as an ‘experiment’.
On the evening of the 7 November 1969, Cathy went out to buy an engagement gift for her sister but never returned back to the apartment she shared with another nun called Sister Russell. Her car was found later on that evening, ditched across the road from where she lived rather than in her own parking space, but Cathy had completely disappeared. About two months or so later in January of the new year Cathy's body was found. The police never found out for sure who had taken and murdered her, and to this day the case remains unsolved.
What happened after Sister Cathy's death?
Well, fast forward to the early 90s and the names Jane Doe and Jane Roe enter the story.
These are the pseudonyms of two women who attended Archbishop Keough High School and were taught by Sister Cathy. In 1994 they filed a lawsuit against the chaplain of the school, Father Joseph Maskell, claiming counts of horrific 'sexual, physical and psychological abuse'. In the documentary, we meet the real women behind the pseudonyms and a number of others who also came forward with allegations against Maskell.
They speculated that Sister Cathy found out about the abuse and what was going on at the school, and a few said that she had promised to do something to stop it. Dots were connected and the accusation was that Maskell had somehow organised for Cathy’s death to cover up what he had been doing. Jane Doe claimed that Maskell even took her to see Cathy’s body and threatened ‘You see what happens when you say bad things about people’, referring to Jane Doe having told Sister Cathy about the abuse she was being subjected to. Yeah. It’s all so unimaginably awful.
Why wasn’t Joseph Maskell charged?
After Jane Doe and Jane Roe came forward, there was a huge trial but the case was eventually dropped because of a law in Baltimore that says there’s a time limit on victims of sexual abuse filing a lawsuit. That time limit is three years after the experience, and these women came forward almost 25 years after it had happened which essentially voided their claims. Here’s where we move from unimaginable to unbelievable… Although there was loads of evidence against Maskell that had come to light following years of these women living in fear, or with repressed memories, it just didn’t fall within the legal time bracket.
This law had been challenged on numerous occasions and after years of opposition, CBS Baltimore reported that a bill was finally passed and as of 1 July, survivors of sexual abuse will have until the age of 38 instead.
Was the murder of Sister Cathy covered up?
Investigators and former Keough students Gemma and Abbie think that Cathy’s murder was covered up – they explicitly say so in the documentary. But again, there’s no official proof or admission to confirm that it was. The women allude to the Baltimore legal system having a longstanding relationship with the Catholic Church which as protected them from prosecution, which is of course a huge suggestion to make, but the Former State’s Attorney for Baltimore City said that it was merely a matter of not having enough evidence to take to trial at the time. Since the documentary came out, the Archdiocese of Baltimore added information in the FAQ section of it’s website that denies there having been any interference with investigations. It’s all incredibly complicated, and after 50 years of investigation, depressingly it doesn’t seem to be all that much clearer.
What’s happening now?
As far as we know, the case is still open. Fox News Baltimore reported that in February of this year, DNA samples were taken from Maskell’s body to compare with that found at the crime scene however it doesn’t seem to have matched. ‘Maskell is not the first suspect whose DNA has been compared to the crime scene sample,’ the police said in a release. ‘Over the years, BCoPD detectives have developed DNA profiles of about a half-dozen suspects and compared them against the crime scene evidence. None of these suspects’ profiles have matched’.
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