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Who killed Sister Cathy?

By Karyn Spory, Mt. Pleasant News | Jun 02, 2017

Who killed Sister Cathy? It was the question that drew myself and millions of other viewers to the Netflix true crime documentary “The Keepers.” But as I delved deeper into the seven-part series the question quickly shifted to “why was Sister Cathy killed?” and then transformed into the overarching issue of why it’s so hard to believe a woman.

Sister Cathy Cesnik taught English and drama at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Md. By all accounts, Cesnik was beloved by her students. She was described as funny, sweet, and as the coolest guitar-playing nun many had ever met.

But on Nov. 7, 1969, Cesnik left the apartment she shared with her colleague, Sister Mary Russell, to buy an engagement gift for her sister. Her vehicle was found parked catawampus in the street in front of her apartment; just a single twig hanging from the steering wheel. Cesnik, however, was nowhere to be found.

Two months later, on Jan. 3, 1970, her body was discovered in a wooded area.

The question of who killed Sister Cathy has long simmered in the minds of many of her students, namely Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub. Hoskins and Schaub, who nicknamed themselves “grandma Nancy Drews”, and have dedicated their retirement to answering this question. That’s where documentarian Ryan White and his series begin.

As the first episode tries to unravel the question of who, the second episode begins the long story of why – a story of rampant, systematic and horrifying sexual abuse.

In 1994, two former Keough students, both identified as Jane Doe (in the documentary they use their real names – Jean Hargadon Wehner and Teresa Lancaster), filed a lawsuit against Father Joseph Maskell, a colleague of Cesnik. The lawsuit claims they were victims of sexual abuse. The lawsuit was dismissed due to the statute of limitations.

As the second episode progresses other women come forward with allegations against Maskell. I watched as woman after woman after woman begins to tell how Maskell allegedly used his position within the school to abuse the students and his power and authority to keep it quiet.

The accounts are graphic, disturbing and saddening. More than once I had to press pause and go take a walk, get away from not only the accounts of the grotesque acts, but from the gut-wrenching sorrow, shame and guilt each one of these women wore as they confessed the reality of their teenage years. But for these women, as they experienced it, there was no pause button. There was no way to walk away from it; not even confiding in a trusted teacher – Sister Cathy – could stop the abuse.

As I watched the subsequent episodes I could hear, in the back of my mind, critics asking why Wehner and Lancaster would have waited until 1994 to file a lawsuit if the alleged abuse happened in the late 1960s and early 70s. The response of “because it’s hard” doesn’t even begin to cover the complexity of what rape does to the psyche of a woman or man.

To begin with, many sexual assault crimes are a case of he said, she said. And if the “he” is the respected priest at a catholic high school, who would you put your money on to have their word taken?

Tom Tremblay, a 30-year police veteran in Vermont and current advocate for preventing sexual assault, told Vox Magazine that power dynamics often play a large role in why sexual assault cases largely go unreported. “Oftentimes (power and control) are purposefully leveraged during the assault and afterward, with things like, ‘Nobody is going to believe you, I’m an important person in the community.’” He told the magazine.

As for those who chose to come forward decades after the crime, Tremblay says trauma often causes the delay.

“When someone experiences trauma, their memories can become fragmented, and rational thoughts can be impaired,” he says.

Tremblay says it’s also hard for survivors to come forward because of the labels and blame society often assign to them.

“Nobody wants to wear the label of victim of rape or sexual assault, so they often struggle to understand what happened, what really occurred. There are so many myths and misconceptions around sexual assault. There are all of these messages that it was somehow their fault. We blame victims more than we do (with) any other crime for what they were wearing, how much they drank, why did the victim do this, why did they do that.”

When it comes to a slew of women (or men) coming out with allegations all at once, like with Donald Trump and Bill Cosby, Tremblay says victims often feel that it’s finally not just their word against the abuser, it’s two or three or a dozen.

So as woman, after woman, after woman comes forward with allegations against Maskill, the question still begs, are they telling the truth and can they prove it?

The documentary doesn’t end with a neat little bow. Cesnik’s case is still cold, although viewers see new detectives looking into the case. But as I exited out of Netflix and turned my computer off, instead of wondering who killed Sister Cathy or why, I was left pondering, why is our gut reaction to a sexual assault claim “is she telling the truth?”

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