The Murderers and the Nun

I had problems with The Keepers.

That’s the recent seven-part Netflix documentary about the unsolved murder of Cathy Cesnick, a Baltimore nun, who disappeared in November 1969 and whose partly decomposed body was found two months later in a patch of scrub woods.

Cesnik was an attractive young public school teacher, on a sabbatical of sorts, after several years on the faculty of Archbishop Keogh, a Catholic girls high school. She did not wear a habit; she shared an apartment with another secular-sampling nun. She had gone out one evening to a shopping center and never returned.

!n 1994, “Jane Doe,”[1] a former student of Cesnik’s at Keogh, came forward to say that she had recently remembered having been taken to the woods by Joseph Maskell, a priest on the Keogh staff, by whom she had been sexually abused, and shown Cesnik’s body prior to its discovery by the police. Doe said she had confided in Cesnik, who had promised to help her. Doe believed Cesnik had been killed to prevent her exposing Maskell, and that Maskell had shown her the body to scare her into not telling anyone else about the abuse. Doe also believed the Archdiocese, the police, and governmental officials had conspired to protect Maskell and others involved in his crimes. The authorities refused to prosecute Maskell because of a lack of evidence, and a civil suit brought by Doe and another victim of Maskell’s, “Jane Roe,” was dismissed because the statute of limitations had long expired.

I have been suspicious of recovered memories claims since the time of the McMaster Pre-School case. All memory is unreliable to some extent, and memories said to have lain below consciousness for decades seem especially vulnerable to compromise by time, outside influence, internal psycho-dynamics, and the corruption to which the recovery process often exposes them. “The Keepers” did not make me less skeptical. (For one thing, I believe repressed memory claims are usually made by victims of alleged childhood abuse, but Doe seems to have had a consistent recollection of abuse she said she had suffered as a child and only forgotten her adolescent abuse by Maskell and seeing Cesnik’s body.)

I don’t doubt Maskell abused Doe. I don’t doubt the Archdiocese covered for him. Too many other Keogh students alleged similar outrages after Doe went public. Too many times, in other instances, has the Catholic church behaved similarly. (Plus there was that doctor, whose records documented Maskell’s creepy presence during his gynecological examinations of the young women patients Maskell referred him.) But Doe’s accounts of the participation of others in her debasement – priests, policemen, the especially sadistic and enigmatic “Brother Bob” – smack of “recovered” stories about Satanic Ritual Abuse, a phenomenon I believe has been thoroughly discredited, and to which I don’t recall any of Maskell’s other victims saying they’d been subjected.

Even the series’s on-screen expert, a psychologist, who stated the most recent research supports the validity of recovered memories, didn’t convince me. He equated it to PTSD, but my understanding is that with PTSD the traumatic events – the firefight, the loved one’s death – have not been forgotten. They have continually been known but only sometimes – weeks or months or even years after the event – are “lit-up” into disturbing, disabling, sometimes disastrous extremes. While there has been an effort in the last 20 years to rehabilitate the legitimacy of repressed memory claims, Wikipedia reports its non-existence “is the position supported by expert consensus” today. I still think The Myth of Repressed Memory, by Elizabeth Loftus, and Remembering Satan, by Lawrence Wright, are the books on the subject to read.[2]

Then there is/are the murder(s).

Beside the Cesnik killing, Episode 1 of “The Keepers” addressed at length that of Joyce Malecki. Malecki was an attractive 20-year-old, who had disappeared within a few months of Cesnik. Malecki had also gone shopping at a mall not far from Cesnik’s, and her body had also had been dumped in the woods. I kept waiting for these murders to be linked in some way other than upon the chart of the two amateur investigators, both former students of Cesnik’s at Keogh, two charming women who had dedicated themselves to finding her killer, indefatigably searching court files, reading microfilmed old newspapers, scouring the internet, cold-calling those whose names they uncovered, becoming the show’s central figures. But by the time the link arrived – in the last episode – it was little more than Maskell’s having lived and worked a block or two from Malecki’s home – as presumably did several hundred others – and his “signature” having appeared on a condolence card received by her family. (When shown on screen, his name was one of three priests which had been commercially printed – not “signed” – on the card.[3]

The tenuousness of this connection made me wonder what the murder(s) was/were doing in the show at all.

I saw several possibilities. One, the most cynical, was that the producers thought, Hey, we can’t sell this show if it’s just one more story of priests sexually abusing children. Let’s add some homicides. The second, and the one apparent on the series’s face, was that the producers believed Doe that Cesnik’s murder related to the abuse and that Molecki’s murder was linked to Cesnik’s. (The first belief seems reasonable – to a point; the second seems gossamer.) The third, which is what I believe The Keepers most clearly demonstrates, is how good intentions can lead even the nicest people into mazes of twisted, contradictory, badly mistaken thought.

Let me show you what I mean.

We begin with the idea that Cesnik was killed to prevent her exposing Maskell. This is based on Doe’s 25-year-old recollections of a conversation she had with Cesnik, of Doe’s assumption that, because of this conversation, Cesnik said something that threatened Maskell, and that Maskell showed Doe Cesnik’s body. (My recollection is that Doe’s account of her conversation with Cesnik lacked specifics. Cesnik had observed Doe was upset upon coming from Maskell’s office. Doe had confirmed she was. Cesnik had said she would take care of it. Doe had said nothing about sex. Cesnik had said nothing about confronting or reporting Maskell.)[4] The only corroboration the show offers for these recollections (and assumption) of Doe’s is that she was probably correct when she said maggots were present on Cesnik’s corpse. Personally, I find this only slightly more probative than a recollection of there having been dried blood on the body.[5]

If Maskell was the purported murderer, fine; but for reasons that escape me, The Keepers is clear that he wasn’t. Others did it for him.[6] And it was in identifying these “others” that the show had me half-wondering if we weren’t going to end up in Dealy Plaza on November 22, 1963.[7] Either Episode 4 or Episode 5[8] introduced the first alternative suspects: Uncle Ed; Uncle Billy, (unrelated, but perhaps working together – or perhaps not); and Skippy, a friend of one of theirs, about whom little is revealed beyond that he had a thick mustache and (maybe) liked gadding about dressed as a nun. This episode also introduced a nephew of Ed’s (or Billy’s) who said that, when he was a boy, he had accompanied his uncle and another man while they carried Cesnik’s body, wrapped in a rug, from her apartment and drove it to the woods. His account was presented uncritically, even though (a) it is the only suggestion by anyone that Cesnik was murdered in her apartment (and, by the way, distinguished her killing from Malecki’s); (b) it overlooks the fact that Cesnik’s roommate was home; and (c) it presumes that two murderers trying to conceal a crime would bring a 12-year-old along as company. (I guess they couldn’t find a sitter.)

The episode also linked Ed to the murder by a necklace he gave his ex-wife. This line of reasoning ran: Cesnik had gone shopping for an engagement present for her sister; the necklace had a pendant which might have been a wedding bell[9]; the pendant was set with a gem that might have been her birth stone. But in the next episode, the sister said it wasn’t her birth stone after all, though it was her fiancee’s. So maybe Cesnik was giving her sister a necklace with her fiancee’s birth stone on it? Not as persuasive, I’d say.

Episode 7 forgets Billy and Skippy, but we do meet and observe Ed. He appears shabby, poorly aged, seemingly lost, slightly addled, befogged. He denies involvement in Sister Cathy’s murder but admits once calling a radio talk show claiming knowledge connected to it. He also admits driving a car in the manner the killer was thought to have. This made my wife suspect him, but instead of building a further case against Ed, The Keepers sallied forth to present more suspects for our consideration.

The first was Gerard Koob, a minister and former priest, whom we had met earlier as an aggrieved friend of the deceased. At the time of the murder, Koob and Cesnik had been extremely close. In fact, if memory serves, she had refused his request to leave the church, as he eventually did, and marry him. We also become, for the first time, privy to challenges to his account of the night she disappeared, and a letter from Cesnik to him is revealed, which is open to an interpretation that their relationship had been sexual. The letter spoke of her relief at the arrival of her period, which had been 10 days late, and it expressed a desire to have Koob “inside” her. It is, of course, equally plausible that she meant “inside” in a spiritual sense and that her relief at menstruating was simply physiological and not because she feared being pregnant. The Keepers just presents the letter without taking a stand as to its significance.[10]

Of course, if Koob had been the killer, or if Ed had – unless he was working for Maskell, for whom, from his resent incarnation at least, he seems an unlikely partner-in-crime – Maskell wouldn’t’ve known where the body was and couldn’t have taken Doe there. To further complicate things, by the climactic Episode 7, Doe has recovered further memories and now recalls Brother Bob as having admitted he killed Cesnik. (Doe is also remembering more and more about what he looked like. Presumably she will soon be able to pick him out of a police line-up and testify against him should he be brought to trial.)

Doe seemed a reasonable, well-spoken, sincere, thoughtful, woman. But this revelation, while it handily tied Maskell to the murder, seems to me to have presented the film makers with only two honorable courses of action. First, if they believed Doe, they should have absolved all the other suspects, perhaps eliminated them from the film entirely, so as not to further tarnish their names and memories, and begun over, seeking to bring Bob to justice. Or if they had not believed Doe, they should have begun seriously questioning the reliability of all her recollections and explored where and how they had originated and why they had led other people, including themselves, on this pursuit of wild geese.

Instead they turned their film over, in part, to a quasi-public service announcement, calling for the State of Maryland to re-write its statutes of limitations to allow those with recovered memories even longer periods of time to bring claims based upon them. One wonders what minotaurs will be found lurking at the heart of where this would lead.


[1]She appeared under her own name in the show, but I will refer to her as this.

2 Maybe I am wrong about this or other matters I write. But since I am reporting on a show I watched only a week ago, let these errors stand as evidence of just how unreliable memory is.

3 The Keepers did not note that, within the two years following the Cesnik-Malecki murders. two more attractive young women were abducted from shopping centers in the same part of Baltimore and later found murdered. If the show had, it might have had to suggest that a serial killer, unconnected to Fr. Maskell, had killed all four women. It seemed to feel, though, that the temporal connection of the first two killings outweighed the attractive young women/abducted from shopping centers/bodies found elsewhere modus operandi of the four.

4 As for the uncertainty of my recollection on this point, see endnote 2.

5 Newspaper stories of the time report the police saying Doe accurately recalled some details of the scene unknown to the general public but that she got other details wrong. The show did not report this.

6 This seems a fortunate conclusion for a recent DNA analysis of evidence found at the scene seems to have exonerated Maskell of the killing.

7 The closest we got was an interview with a pathologist who also worked for the House Select Committee on Assassinations. (He was one of the 17 pathologists who agreed Kennedy had been shot only once in the head and that this bullet entered from the rear, so he was no goofball, but he had nothing to offer about who-did-it here.)

8 There’s that problem with memory again.

9 I Googled “What do bells symbolize?” The most common is “accruing wisdom.” For Christians, it is “the voice of God.” “Weddings” wasn’t on the list.

10 Pointing a finger at Koob at this point is a bit of a cheat on the show’s part, implying a revelation on its part which is not merited. In fact, he had been the prime suspect of the police in the early stages of the investigation until his alibi cleared him. (He was with a friend at Easy Rider and had the ticket stubs.) Koob had also, it should be noted, voluntarily turned over the letter. One detective, who believed Koob guilty, said at the time that Koob had admitted his and Cestik’s relationship was sexual, but Koob denied it then and denies it now.