In early June, I watched the fifth and sixth episodes of Netflix’s The Keepers. Then, we went on a bit of trip and then I got distracted, but after long last, I watched the last episode of this documentary series that seeks to find justice for Sister Cathy Cesnik and for the people who were abused by Joseph Maskell. I kept looking at episode seven on my list of shows to watch; I heard other people talking about it. Then The Keepers was nominated for an Emmy. Well, I thought to myself, I better finish it. And so I have.
Honestly, episodes five and six left me muddled. Why did this documentary series get made? The introduction of possible suspects in the fifth episode – two men whose family came forward with stories of truly disturbing and violent behavior – is followed by episode six and the confusing and underdeveloped look at Sister Cathy’s friends, Gerry Koob who claimed to love her and Helen Russell Phillips who was her roommate. (Russell, as everyone calls her, is a huge mystery. At times she is accused of being complicit in the murder and at others it is suggested she was frightened into silence.)
As I said, these episodes left me muddled. I tried to take a step back to think about the information – the testimony – as a historian. When I read diaries, personal journals, and letters, I have to evaluate what the author was really saying, what was left out, what was the perspective. I can rely on other documentation to fill in the gaps. When I conduct oral history interviews, I have to remember that the same rules apply. As a historian, writing the account of a past event requires that I work very hard to not preference one source without criticism. At the end of the sixth episode – which I watched right after I finished five – I was left wondering what more is there to this?
Episode seven, reintroduces the Archdiocese of Baltimore as a spectre in this murder. Maskell was accused of abuse before the Archdiocese transferred him to Keough HS. Before all the violence, abuse, terror, and very possibly the murder of Cathy Cesnik, the Archdiocese of Baltimore knew that Joseph Maskell sexually abused a child. They moved the problem. What did the Church authorities think would happen? (I know, I know, stupid question to ask.) The filmmakers return to Joyce Malecki and drop information about the Malecki family living in the same parish at which Maskell was assigned, St. Clement’s – the same parish from he was moved because of accusations of abuse. Joyce’s brothers comment with frustration and sadness that when they die, the mystery of their sister’s murder will die with them, unsolved. One brother died in 2016. There is no justice for Joyce.
A bill continually is proposed to the Maryland legislature to extend the statute of limitations to report sexual abuse, because victims of abuse do not always have the ability to come forward. The bill never makes it to vote; it is killed by the committee. The filmmakers show us that the Archdiocese of Baltimore (through their legal representatives) are the chief opponents of this bill and it is suggested that the Church influences the committee leaders to kill the bill. At no time is a priest, monsignor, or bishop on camera. The Archdiocese denies any foreknowledge of Maskell’s actions. We are left with more questions – or one question – Will there be justice?
If the filmmakers wanted to call attention to these murders and the abuse, this series accomplished this goal. If they wanted to call attention to the horrendously wrong and bad position the Church took in the face of sexual abuse, they did that too. One thing they apparently did not want to do is explore religious life in the 1960s and 1970s. Everywhere it is dropped into this documentary series – the all-encompassing Catholic culture of Baltimore in the 1960s that allowed priests like Maskell to rule without question and justice to fail. We hear about the changes of Vatican II to priests through Gerry Koob, who wanted to leave the priesthood because he fell in love with Cathy Cesnik. We hear brief encounters of Eucharistic celebrations in Russell and Cathy’s apartment, and the experimentation conducted by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Yet, does anyone know what that means? Experimentation in religious life could be anything. In the case of Sisters Russell and Cathy, it meant they lived in an apartment instead of a convent. It meant they might not wear their religious habit. (Why do the filmmakers keep showing viewers images of Sister Cathy in full habit, but barely touch that she wore secular clothing towards the end of her life? Did she not wear the habit because she was in a public high school or because her community decided to experiment with secular dress?) We learn in the seventh episode that the SSNDs forced sisters “experimenting” to chose the convent or to leave religious life all together. Did they really give members of their community ultimatums and make it that clear cut? From what I know of religious life at this time, it wasn’t that simple. But, I am a historian of women religious and a casual observer would be yet again reminded that Catholic religious life was an abusive and oppressive existence and thank goodness all those women left religious life. Yes. In some cases, it was. But it isn’t as simple as that.
Let me just remind my one reader that I am not an apologist for the Church. I don’t like oversimplification of the lives of women religious. It is not in the interest of the filmmakers to explore religious life in in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now, if they wanted to solve the mystery of who killed Cathy Cesnik (and possibly Joyce Malecki) they did not do that either. They really wanted to. Some of the interviews with one of the suspects and with the representatives from law enforcement left me with the impression that they thought by simply asking the question, they presumed they would get an answer. “Did you kill Cathy Cesnik?” “Why yes, I did.” Case solved. At one point in the midst of the interview with Baltimore police officials, the amateur sleuthing which in one way shined light on this case and the possibly corrupt mishandling of it, also may have compromised the case going forward. We end with Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins committed to finding Sister Cathy’s killer and Jean Wehner (Jane Doe) assuring her interviewer that Archdiocese of Baltimore, the perpetrators of abuse, and the officials who protect them, won’t be able to hide their guilt for much longer.
Will they? Will justice prevail? I don’t have the answer, nor does The Keepers.