The Keepers: The Case of the Murdered Nun

Directed by Ryan White
Netflix series, 2017

Commentary by Anne Linstatter

"The Keepers" Netflix Series Poster“Who killed Sister Cathy?” asks The Keepers, ripping back the veil of nostalgia on the year 1969 in suburban America and taking us into a world of utter horror. Sex, lies, murder, and priests are the ingredients that gave this film a rating of “best true-crime docuseries yet” by

The Keepers, directed by Ryan White, has been lighting up Reddit and other social media sites since its release on May 19. Through the testimony of more than forty survivors, the documentary presents compelling evidence that Fr. Joseph Maskell, chaplain and counselor of Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, operated a sex ring used by other priests, by Baltimore police officers, and by a few members of the business community.

As chaplain and counselor of the high school, Maskell called girls into his private office frequently, but the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who ran the prestigious Catholic school for girls, didn’t ask questions. Shaming, threats of death, and the sheer power of the all-male church hierarchy kept girls from reporting the rapes and other abuse. Going to the police probably wouldn’t have helped because of Maskell’s extensive ties to the Baltimore Police Department. He served as chaplain of the BPD; his brother Tommy and friends worked there and apparently participated in the cover-up of the murder at the heart of this story.

When a 26-year-old Catholic nun, Sr. Cathy Cesnik, was abducted and killed on November 7, 1969, both police and church blocked the investigation at every turn. By 1992, recovered memories by two students led to reopening the case, but once again the Archdiocese of Baltimore was successful in keeping the truth hidden. The two students were interrogated in a brutal trial heard only by a judge—not by jurors. Church-paid psychiatrists questioned the validity of their memories, and the judge dismissed charges.

More than 40 other women had not been allowed to testify because they had never lost memory of their abuse, and the statute of limitations had expired for them. Only for those with recovered memory had the limited time for reporting crimes been extended.

Though the murder was originally explained as a random killing by a stranger, The Keepers gradually reveals that at least two girls had confided in the young nun and she had planned to report the crimes.

Two alums of Keough are the heroes of this story, along with journalists and the two survivors who testified in the 1995 trial. After sexual abuse by priests gained increasing attention, notably by the Boston Globe investigation in 2002, Maskell’s abuse came up again. The Archdiocese began making payout settlements to his victims in 2011, including to Donna Von Den Bosch of Reading, Pennsylvania, who shared her story publicly in the pages of the Baltimore Sun. Her courage led to contact with another survivor, Kathy Hobeck.

Four years ago two alums, Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, began researching the cold case murder of their beloved teacher. Their amateur detective work led to uncovering the likely link between Sr. Cathy’s murder and the sexual abuse cases.

One of the church officials who, according to the documentary, orchestrated the 1994–95 cover-up is William Malooly, who moved from Baltimore in 2008 to be Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware. A male victim, Charles Franz, alleges that Malooly offered him a speedboat in 1995 to keep his mouth shut about the abuse his family had reported to the Archdiocese in 1967. Had the church prosecuted Maskell at that time, Sr. Cathy would still be alive. Instead the Archdiocese moved Maskell from a parish church to Archbishop Keough High School.

But Malooly is not the only one culpable for protecting abusers. There’s Cardinal Roger Mahony, former Archbishop of Los Angeles, who moved at least one offender around and hid him rather than handing him over to police. Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, emeritus Archbishop of Boston, is another. These cardinals are still living and retain power and respect in the Roman Catholic Church.

Male power and secrecy show up in every scene of this deeply absorbing docudrama. The absolute rule of men makes these crimes possible; priests and cops use guns, murder, and rape to guarantee secrecy. Shortly after the murder, Maskell takes Jean Hargadon into the woods to view the partially nude body of her favorite teacher on a garbage dump.

“You see what happens when you say bad things about people?” he asks. Later he cinches the threat with an additional rape.

In the 1995 trial, Jean Hargadon Wehner reported wiping maggots from her teacher’s face, but police argued that maggots could not breed in November. Not until recently was the sealed autopsy uncovered; it reports maggots in the body. A check of weather records reports warmer than usual temperatures in late 1969.

The few nuns who suspected a problem were too intimidated to communicate with each other. Each girl felt alone. None fought back until Sr. Cathy began to take steps.

Today the Archdiocese and the Baltimore Police Department are still stonewalling Schaub, Hoskins, and Director White. There is no answer to “Who killed Sister Cathy?” but there are several suspects, a growing body of information, a Facebook page, and other websites that analyze the evidence.

In 1969, my family lived just west of Baltimore, where the events of this documentary take place; for me, the memories of the familiar streets and woods of this seven-part Netflix series formed an eerie counterpoint to hidden evil.

I wish this whole story were fiction. Unfortunately, the truth of these events leaves viewers with urgent responsibilities, especially women who are committed to other women and to a walk with Jesus of Nazareth, the one who said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40 NRSV).

What can you do? First, watch the documentary. Then demand that the Roman Catholic Church remove Bishop Malooly, Cardinals Mahony and Law, and others who took part in sexual abuse or cover-up. Demonstrate outside diocesan and archdiocesan headquarters. Stop using Catholic hospitals and schools. Stop giving money to the church. Support efforts in the Maryland Senate to extend from seven to twenty years the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases. Check on limitations in your own state and work to extend them if needed.

Work with groups like the Women’s Ordination Conference to get the church to allow women priests, bishops, and popes. If you’re a Baptist, work for the Southern Baptist Conference to reinstate the ordination of women as pastors. Whatever religion, institution, or workplace you are part of, work to make sure women have as much power as men. Work to make our state legislatures, our House of Representatives, and our Senate at least 50 percent women. Renew work to elect the first female president of the United States.

If you are a survivor of child sexual abuse or domestic violence, speak out as much as you are able. We must all work to stop trafficking, shootings by police officers, and incarceration of nonviolent offenders. There are opportunities all around you to curb male power and secrecy, the causes of Sr. Cathy’s murder.


Anne Linstatter
Anne Linstatter was present at the founding of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now Christian Feminism Today) and attended most of the organization’s conferences. She looks forward to celebrating fifty years of CFT in 2024. A long-time Californian, she taught “Women & Religion” among other courses at California State University, Northridge, and is working on a memoir, Off Track: Confessions of a Feminist Christian.


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