May 29, 2017


Netflix's truth-is-stranger-than-fiction docuseries, "The Keepers" (unofficial subtitle: "Who Killed Sister Cathy?") is beyond disturbing. Just when you thought you'd heard some of the worst, most sordid stories of the clergy sex abuse scandal, another multi-pronged, intricate, twisted tale of predatory characters and those who shielded them emerges in all its sickening ignominy.


But this time, there's a beautiful-in-every-way young nun involved, deeply involved. So involved, in fact, that she's (coincidentally?) murdered in cold blood and her body dumped in the woods--as a warning to never break the silence, never tell tales out of school (literally)? The impunity with which pedophiles, perverts, sexual deviants, sadists and life-destroyers operated in the Catholic Church virtually unchecked until 2002 is as appalling as it is mind-boggling.


"The Keepers" chronicles the reign of terror of a particularly evil Fr. Joseph Maskell (who had studied psychology himself) and a priest associate, Fr. Neil Magnus, along with several non-clerical co-abusers in Baltimore, Maryland--the primatial see of the Catholic Church in the United States. His brother was a police officer and Fr. Maskell made sure to become well known to the local police force. He couldn't really be called "charismatic" as many priest-abusers were, but was known for his intelligence and energetic civic involvement, as well as his love of guns. When he took a position as a priest-counselor at a prestigious all-girls Catholic high school, he performed the most heinous sexual crimes right in his out-of-the-way office on the grounds. When evil knows its protected? It gets very, very bold.


To understand how so many young women (and others) could have kept silent for so long--not even talking to their parents, each other, the nuns that taught them (some nuns at least seemed to know something was wrong but chose to either live in denial or look the other way and not rock the boat), you need to understand that this is normal for trauma victims. You also need to understand the kind of pedestal that priests were put on for the better part of the 20th century in America. They were sacred authorities, super-human, not like the rest of us, automatically virtuous and displaying holiness of life in everything they said and did, never wrong, beyond reproach, unquestioned, esteemed. No one dared confront or challenge them. It was unthinkable. It would be like confronting or challenging God's very representative. Their power was absolute. Much of Maskell's abuse was heinously "spiritualized" as a kind of penance. Break down a young person's already fragile self-esteem and join that to a religious guilt dimension? You've got 'em.

Many abusive clergy (or how I like to think about it: "pedophiles/psychopaths who got themselves ordained") used textbook grooming, conditioning, threats and criminal genius, toxically coupled with the entrenched power and influence of the mighty Catholic Church, with its reaches deep into people's strongest religious beliefs, families, ethnic cultures, faith practices, memories, neighborhoods, schooling, upbringing and formation.

There was also a kind of homogenous social conformism in society at this time, as well (remember that concurrent to the Swinging 60's was Camelot): a kind of unhealthy, passive obeisance to any kind of authority or authority figures.


I thank God every day that my dear, devout Irish Catholic father was also a woke, free-thinking, shrewd, egalitarian, intelligent, worldly, self-made New England businessman who brooked no guff from anyone, even those on pedestals. We were never, ever taught--and he didn't model--any special treatment for priests. My father would say of anyone who tried putting on airs: "they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else." In his younger years he had a beloved long-time golf partner, Monsignor Sheridan, of whom he spoke often and fondly. We were casually acquainted with the priests at various parishes (we were parish-hoppers)--but that's about it. My father had had run-ins with various clergymen through the years--over their demands for money and other slights (which could have given him plenty of excuses to leave the Church), but my father believed the Catholic Church was the Church of Jesus Christ and no ungracious human shepherd was going to send him packing. I always sensed a certain unspoken prudence and reserve in my father when it came to the church (little "c").


One of the worst-abused students from the 1960's, Jean Hargadon Wehner, came forth in the 1990's--after horrifying repressed memories began to surface and give her no peace. In all innocence, good will, honesty, courage and uprightness, she reported it to the Church. The Archdiocese of Baltimore made her believe that she was the first to come forth with a report of abuse (she wasn't). A team of crack lawyers were assembled and arrayed against her to successfully stonewall. And very sadly, the otherwise astute head psychiatrist at John Hopkins, Dr. Paul McHugh, was an expert witness in her case against the validity of repressed memories--even ridiculing with levity the very concept. We know much more now--even from the 90's--about how repressed memories actually legitimately work.

So where does the murdered Sr. Cathy Cesnik, SSND, come in? When she was murdered in 1969, and her body found two months later, no one had any clue why anyone would target this beloved, spunky and innovative, twenty-six-year-old teacher from Archbishop Keough High School (where Maskell committed his atrocities with his cronies). It was chalked up to randomness, especially when, four days later, a twenty-year-old woman, Joyce Helen Malecki, was murdered close by in similar fashion--a second unsolved crime. (Was the killer trying to make Sr. Cathy's death look like the work of a serial killer? Did the killer do it for kicks--because they got the taste for homicide? The second one's always easier? To see if they could get away with two?)

It was only when the sexual abuse at Sr. Cathy's school came to light in the 90's that a motive for her murder surfaced--was she going to expose Fr. Maskell? Abused students had begun to confide in her and she promised that she would make the abuse stop. DNA evidence does not put Maskell at the scene(s) of the crime, but several witnesses in the documentary posit other likely suspects who may have been doing his bidding (blackmail? payoffs?) 

The police work at the time? Shoddy at best. Sr. Cathy's murder wasn't even considered foul play for quite some time--even when her car was found crazily parked with evidence of a chaotic event inside and outside of the vehicle. Other potentially damning evidence disappeared. Survivors claim they were also abused by police in uniform, under the auspices of Fr. Maskell.


Now, if you think this series is based on the evidence of a few survivors and one zealous documentarian, you are sadly mistaken. Time is the great discloser. The birds start singing. The puzzle pieces start to fit together. Now-white-haired journalists from 1969 who were shut down when they got too close to the truth--remember all the frustrating details as if it were yesterday. Kids who witnessed grownups talking (or worse) are adults now with corroborating stories to tell (even though they hadn't heard each other's stories). 

But the two real heroines of this documentary are two former students of Sr. Cathy who were not abused and had no idea what was going on right under the roof of their alma mater. (One was inspired to become a teacher herself by the example of Sr. Cathy.) These two determined ladies, Gemma and Abbie, in their retirement, decided to do their own sleuthing (the filmmaker came calling later in the game). They began pouring over microfiche, contacting anyone who knew anything about the school, the priest, Sr. Cathy, Joyce, even the police on the cases. These two dogged detectives got very, very far on their own.


"The Keepers" (like "Spotlight") appropriately and justly focuses on the survivors, not the incredibly intriguing "Who Killed Sr. Cathy" component: macabre, and all-important as it is. You will love Sr. Cathy, who is, perhaps, a true saint and martyr. And she wasn't posthumously canonized by wistful, dreamy remembrances. Her students and her family knew she was great, even before she was cut down in the prime of life--as a sacrificial lamb, it seems. I hope I have even a fraction of this woman's guts.

You will also love Jean--a very average woman, with no particular resources or inner reserves of strength to have endured the awful, awful hand that life dealt her. But she was blessed with a large, close family (siblings) and a phenomenal husband and children that gave her all the love she needed to face down the institutional evil that made her suffer and bear the brunt of its flagrant abuses and subsequent intransigent injustice.


It's difficult to comment on a series this long--I have so much more to say--but I think I've hit the salient points. Should you watch it? Many of my friends have said they just couldn't stomach it after just the first two episodes. They could handle neither the lurid, detailed descriptions by survivors of the grotesque abuses (if you want just a sample: ) nor the murder of Sr. Cathy. 

I watched the entire series in order to understand, in order to honor the suffering of the survivors and HEAR THEIR STORY. It's no good to finally, finally, finally GET TO TELL YOUR STORY IF NO ONE LISTENS.


Here's my movie review of "Spotlight" (also a fine work) where I give some historical background to the clergy sex abuse scandal, as well as some pointers on how we can attempt to assure for the future: NEVER AGAIN.


On behalf of all the good guys, the majority of priests, the clergy sex abuse scandal is not part and parcel of the structure of the priesthood or celibacy (read my "Spotlight" review)! Tragically, our priests, young and old, now have a stigma attached to their "profession." This need not be. In the USA, you're innocent till proven guilty, and there's no reason to look askance at any priest. Just take a page from my Dad's playbook: "we're all human." Or my own playbook: "put nothing past no one." I remember in 2002, bunches of priests, horrified by the revelations (not all priests were privvy to the horrors going on within their own dioceses) began doing some forms of public and private penance. Let's pray for our priests. We love them and we need them.


A friend of mine said of the clergy sex abuse scandal: "It's Satan trying to take the Church down." To which I replied: "And the Church trying to take the Church down." When a male victim of Maskell was asked by the Archdiocese of Baltimore what he wanted when he came forward (he was sarcastically offered a boat), he replied: "For the Church to do the right thing."



  1. Anonymous3:43 PM

    Thank you so much for this analysis. I don’t have the stomach for tales of abuse but I'm glad these people got to tell theirs. Wherevet human beings are given unchecked authority always ALWAYS leads to horrific crimes independent of profession. All the unpunished murders of young black men by police in America is testament to that. (incidentally it seeing you way police can operate with impunity NOW never mind in the 60's makes me able to easily believe they killed her on request).
    I am a devout Catholic and I honestly believe that the Church needs to reform the way they screen, train and perform oversight on the clergy.
    Also as an aside I wish someone would do a comprehensive documentary on Child protective services. There is a reason so many Children run away. For many it's actually safer.

  2. I am working my way through the episodes, but after watching the 4th episode I just found a need to get outside and take a long, long bike ride and to talk to God ... the first thing I was searching for in my conversation with God was peace (for me as I watch the series, but more importantly for ALL of the victims and the other 1+ million viewers) and then I asked God for healing for the abused and their families and friends. I was also horrified on how the abuse affected the futures of those involved. I am saddened, but I will finish this series.