In November 1969, a 26-year-old Catholic nun disappeared in Baltimore. Sister Cathy Cesnik, a beloved English and Drama teacher, vanished while shopping for an engagement present for her sister. Two months later, in January 1970, her body was found on a frozen rubbish dump, her skull bashed in.
Who killed Sister Cathy? That’s the question asked in ‘The Keepers’, Netflix’s new long-form documentary series. It’s been called ‘the new “Making a Murderer”’. But while it also examines a real-life cold case – Sister Cathy’s murderer has never been brought to justice – what’s different here is the focus. After watching the first three episodes what shines through is the courage of a group of women, many of them victims of abuse, who would not shut up, go away or play nice.
In the first episode we meet two of Sister Cathy’s former pupils, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub. Now retired and in their 60s, for the past ten years this pair of retired Nancy Drews have been investigating what happened to their favourite teacher. They are adorable, a real chalk-and-cheese pair. Abbie is the researcher, sniffing out long forgotten clues on her computer; Gemma is more social and could sweet talk blood out of a stone. But don’t mess with these women – they are formidable, and what started as a hobby has become their life’s work. The pair are also examining the murder of another young woman, 20-year-old Joyce Malecki, who disappeared the same week as Sister Cathy.
In episode two the focus shifts to Jean Hargadon Wehner – who for years was known as ‘Jane Doe’, after coming forward in the early 1990s to say that she had been taken to see Sister Cathy’s dead body by a priest. He was Father Joseph Maskel, an alleged paedophile who worked as a counsellor at the same school where Sister Cathy taught. Jean had told Sister Cathy that Father Maskell was abusing her. Her courage in telling her story to camera is one of the bravest things you’ll ever see.
Was Sister Cathy silenced because of what she knew? Other victims share their experiences on camera, and their stories are heartbreaking. One now bakes as a hobby. ‘It’s cheaper than a shrink,’ she jokes. These women will reduce to you tears.
Like all good mysteries, each instalment of the seven-episode series ends with a cliffhanger. Whatever you do, resist the urge to start Googling the case before you get to the end.
‘The Keepers’ is available to stream on Netflix from today (Fri May 19).
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