In November of 1969, Sister Catherine Cesnik left the apartment she shared with another nun in Baltimore. Her younger sister had gotten engaged, and she wanted to purchase a gift for her. Sister Cathy was never seen alive again. In January, her body was found in a field, the side of her skull smashed in.
Decades later, two former students at the school where Sister Cathy taught launched a Facebook page seeking justice for her and for another young woman who disappeared at nearly the same time. Joyce Malecki was twenty years old when she disappeared. Her body was found after a few weeks on the property of a US Army base, which originally made it an FBI case. But as with Sister Cathy, nothing happened in regard to discovering who killed her or why she died. The former students, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, had warm memories of Sister Cathy, who was in her mid-twenties. She taught English at Archbishop Keough, a Catholic girl’s high school, and she was approachable and concerned about the students. So they created the Facebook page “Justice for Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki” in the hopes of finding leads to whoever killed the young women. What they found was a story of systemic abuse and collusion between the Diocese of Baltimore and the political and legal institutions of the state to cover up what went on.
Now Netflix is showing “The Keepers,” a seven-part documentary on the case. Recently there have been documentaries on killers, such as Netflix’s “Making of a Murderer” and HBO’s “The Jinx,” that focus on the suspect. Instead, “The Keepers” focuses on the victims and those who have dedicated themselves to the investigation. It is riveting viewing.
Director Ryan White has managed to organize in a logical progression a story that’s spread out over 50 years and covers a huge canvas. The first hour introduces the viewer to Gemma and Abbie, and to Sister Catherine and Joyce. It gives context to their world in 1969, and then gives the details of the disappearances and eventual discovery of the bodies. It’s fairly straightforward, though it hints at deeper strains to the story, such as when the former supervising officer on the case takes Gemma and Abbie to the place where Sister Cathy’s body was found. There’s a palpable anger within Gemma, even as she smiles and converses with the retired officer. Later we understand why.
But it’s the second hour that grabs you by the throat, and the documentary won’t let go from then on. The former chaplain of the school, Father Maskell, ruthlessly abused and raped the girls under his care. Multiple women share what happened to them, including how Maskell would invite other men, including police officers, to abuse the girls as well. Maskell was the chaplain to the Baltimore Police Department, among other assignments that insulated him from suspicion. Central to the story is one woman who would eventually sue the diocese under the name Jane Doe, whose memories (like many abuse victims) were suppressed by her mind for twenty years before they finally began to surface. One of the memories that come back is Maskell taking her to Cathy’s body a few days after her disappearance and threatening her with a similar fate.
Two years ago “Spotlight” won the Best Picture Oscar (deservedly) for its story of the Boston Globe’s breaking the priest abuse scandal wide open. The only town that could compete with Boston for the level of the Catholic Church’s entrenched power is Baltimore. Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony, a place of refuge for English papists from the hegemony of the Church of England. Just as in Boston, the church could make abuse complaints disappear. Worse, as the documentary illustrates clearly, they are still doing it to this day.
“The Keepers” is a story that will infuriate, as documentation and evidence goes missing or is “accidentally” destroyed, and where the church blindly ignores complaints while, just as in Boston, moving the offending priest to a different assignment. But in the end it is also a story of endurance and faith in justice if not in the justice system. It’s a story that needs to be seen to clear away the obfuscation and victim-shaming that’s still employed by the diocese to keep a lid on the scandal. But mostly it’s the story of people who kept faith with Sister Cathy and Joyce Malecki. I heartily recommend it.