What Happened To Sister Cathy? 'The Keepers' Investigates The Nun's Murder
Although Netflix's latest documentary focuses on much more than the crime of murder, the events in The Keepers revolve around the death of one woman — Sister Catherine "Cathy" Cesnik. The Baltimore Catholic nun disappeared in November 1969 and was found dead in January 1970. The details of why she was murdered is something The Keepers investigates and may remain forever unproven, but what is already known about what happened to Sister Cathy? While this murder case has been unsolved for decades, there are some facts about her death that will unfortunately always remain true.
Thanks to The Baltimore Sun's online archive, the original articles about Sister Cathy's disappearance are available to read. The Sun article from Nov. 9, 1969 explains that the 26-year-old nun was reported missing on Nov. 8 by her roommate, Sister Helen Russell Phillips. Sister Cathy had been teaching 11th and 12th grade English at Western High School School and on the night of Friday, Nov. 7, she went to cash a check and go shopping at the Edmondson Village shopping center. She never returned home and her roommate reported her missing to the police.
Her abandoned car was found by a priest friend of the nuns — Rev. Peter McKeow — near their apartment. A Baltimore Sun article after this initial report cleared up these events by noting that Sister Helen had called Gerard J. Koob — a priest who had been in a romantic relationship with Sister Cathy — after her roommate went missing and Koob, McKeow, and Sister Helen had found the car. At the time, the two young nuns were living outside of the convent and had stopped wearing traditional habits.
Although her car was parked illegally and there were leaves and twigs in it, the police treated Sister Cathy's initial disappearance as a missing persons case. "At this moment, there is no indication of foul play," a police spokesman said at the time. The Sun also reported that Sister Russell said that she couldn't think of a reason for her roommate's disappearance, but that reason is the key to the story that The Keepers is telling.
Tom Nugent, who is featured in The Keepers, reported in a 2005 City Paper story that Sister Cathy's body was found near a garbage dump in Lansdowne, Maryland, on Jan. 3, 1970. The Maryland Medical Examiner's autopsy report stated that she had been beaten to death with blunt-force trauma to one side of her head and a quarter-sized round hole in the back of her skull. Laura Bassett in her detailed 2015 Huffington Post article about Sister Cathy's death reported that Cesnik also had choke marks around her neck.
Even though her body was found over 40 years ago, Sister Cathy's murder has never been solved. But two detective who worked on the case — Louis George "Bud" Roemer to Nugent and Nick Giangrasso to Bassett — noted that the fact that Sister Cathy's car had been returned to her home made them think the murder was done by someone who knew her and not a stranger. And the theory that The Keepers is focused on is that the young nun may have been murdered because she knew of claims of sexual abuse by Father Joseph Maskell at Archbishop Keough High School for Girls.
Keough alumni Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub later began their own investigation of Sister Cathy's death and created the Facebook group Justice for Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki (another woman murdered around the same time as Cesnik) and are prominently featured in The Keepers.
The story of another former student at Keough, Jean Hargadon Wehner, is also told in The Keepers. Wehner claims to have been a victim of Maskell's sexual abuse and she told Bassett for the Huffington Post that after Sister Cathy went missing, Maskell drove her to the Landsdowne garbage dump and showed her the teacher's body. He allegedly said to Wehner, "You see what happens when you say bad things about people?"
While The Keepers may not be able to provide the definitive answer to who killed Sister Cathy or why she was murdered, the circumstances surrounding her death are something that the many sexual abuse victims who attended Keough will never forget. And viewers of Netflix's documentary owe it to them and Sister Cathy to hear their stories.