Who Was Sister Cathy & Why Is 'The Keepers' Telling Her Story?

Courtesy of Netflix

On May 12, Netflix will return to the world of true crime documentaries with The Keepers, a seven-part series about the decades-old unsolved murder of a young Baltimore nun and the shocking, horrifying events that could possibly be linked to her death. But just who was Sister Cathy, and what happened to make her the victim of such a violent crime?

Catherine Cesnik, who was just 26 at the time of her death, taught English and drama at Archbishop Keough High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Baltimore, Maryland. Although she was beloved by both faculty and students alike, it wasn’t long until that she began exhibiting symptoms of some kind of inner turmoil. According to the Baltimore City Paper, which recently republished its 2005 investigation of Cesnik’s murder in anticipation of The Keepers’ release, the summer before her death she asked for a period of “exclaustration,” during which she gave up her nun’s habit for civilian clothing and taught at a public school instead. That November, she was abducted during a shopping trip, and in January of 1970 her body was finally discovered. Her head had been bashed in by an unknown object — possibly a ball-peen hammer, according to former homicide detective Louis George “Bud” Roemer.

Those who’ve followed the case closely over the years, such as Baltimore City Paper journalist Tom Nugent or retired former students Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, have come to believe that Cesnik might have been killed because she knew about the claims of sexual abuse at the hands of Father Joseph Maskell and others at the school during the late ‘60s. In 2016, the Baltimore Sun reported that the Archdiocese of Baltimore settled over a dozen lawsuits from women alleging that they were sexually abused by a priest at Archbishop Keough, Joseph Maskell.

In response to the resurfacing of the allegations of abuse at Keough via The Keepers, the Archdiocese of Baltimore released the following statement:

Since the 1990s, when the Archdiocese of Baltimore first learned of an allegation of child sexual abuse against Maskell, and on numerous occasions since, the Archdiocese has publicly acknowledged and apologized for the horrific abuse committed by him. The Archdiocese reported the allegations to civil authorities in the 1990s and cooperated fully in any investigation, removed Father Maskell’s faculties to function as a priest, apologized to victims and offered them counseling assistance, sought additional victims, and provided direct financial assistance to 16 individuals abused by Maskell. Though it was unaware of the abuse at the time it occurred approximately 50 years ago, the Archdiocese deeply regrets the damage that was caused to those who were so badly harmed and has worked diligently since becoming aware of their abuse to bring some measure of healing to them. The Archdiocese is wholly committed to protecting children, holding abusers accountable—clergy and laity alike, and promoting healing for victims. These are hallmarks of the Archdiocese’s child protection efforts, which we strive to constantly strengthen. There is no room in the Archdiocese for anyone who would harm a child and every effort must be made to ensure what happened before never happens again. It is our hope that “The Keepers” advances this pursuit, just as we hope the series helps those who have kept alive the memory of Sr. Cathy and our collective hope that justice will be won for her.

One of these women, Jean Wehner, said in a 2015 Huffington Post interview that she not only told Cesnik about the abuse, but that she allegedly had an upsetting encounter with Maskell that lead her to believe he was involved in Cesnik's murder. Maskell denied the allegations until his death and Cesnik's murder remains unsolved.

Cesnik was more than just another victim in a horrible cycle of abuse, however; to those who knew her, she was a warm, inspirational figure who played guitar like a real-life Maria Von Trapp and wrote musicals for her students to perform. “Catherine Cesnik is the reason I became a teacher,” Hoskins told the Baltimore City Paper. “I still regard her as the finest teacher I ever had.”

Hopefully when viewers see The Keepers, it will show that side of Sister Cathy and explore how her death has continued to bring her community together, almost fifty years after it happened.