The Keepers: Some Prayers Answered

More on Netflix’s True Crime Bingefest
(Cathy Cesnik’s Murder)

The last post discussed the surprising nature of the new Netflix docuseries The Keepers.

Jean Wehner in 1970

For this week, I sailed through a second viewing of the entire seven-part series about the link between Sister Cathy Cesnik’s 1969 murder and sexual abuse at a girls parochial school in Baltimore.

The goal was to look for some joy in the disturbing series. And it does exist — in seeing the survivors finally get a chance to meet one another.

Justice denied. For the most part, the girls, now women in their 60s, had kept secret the ritualized sex crimes allegedly orchestrated by Archbishop Keough High School’s chaplain, Father Joseph Maskell. They never had an opportunity to empathize with one another in high school, when their ordeals began.

And they got no comfort from the criminal justice system. Maskell never paid for his offenses, nor did the other alleged perpetrators, including Father Neil Magnus, gynecologist Christian Richter, and at least two police officers.

Both of the priests and the doctor are long dead. No one has identified the police officers by name.

Another of the suspects, a local reprobate named Edgar Davidson, submitted to an interview for the cameras. Although unaffiliated with Maskell professionally, he somehow gained his acquaintanceship and may have committed at least one rape under his supervision.

But Davidson seemed far removed from his former self — the smirking young man with lush coiffed hair who cruised around middle schools and tried to entice girls into a stolen red sports car.

Archbishop Keough High, a site of the alleged abuse, changed names in 1988 and closed in 2017

So close. The now-elderly Davidson mentioned not driving anymore, presumably due to DUIs or poverty. His health looked so tenuous that one wonders whether he could survive a trial, if there is one, which seems doubtful.

And unfortunately, the statute of limitations for bringing a civil action against the church and school — for enabling and covering up the abuse — expired. A push to extend the limits via Bill 642, first introduced by Maryland House of Delegates Rep. C. T. Wilson in 2003, was unsuccessful initially.

The documentary showed abuse survivors Teresa Lancaster and Jean Wehner testifying before a sympathetic panel in the Maryland General Assembly.

Suppression trap. Lancaster explained why victims of sexual abuse sometimes take decades to tell authorities. “I was 40 years old when I came forward,” she said. “It took me that long to focus on my life and make something of myself.”

Proponents made a case for waiving the statute of limitations in part because memories of assaults can take decades to resurface, thus making them new allegations.

Wilson, himself a survivor of rapes committed by his adoptive father, testified as well about the need to extend the statute of limitations. “The problem with this is suppression,” he said. “You learn to live with the lie as a child, so you can certainly live with it as an adult.”

David Lorenz, another survivor of abuse (it’s not clear whether it’s related to the archdiocese) told the panel:

“Everyone has a secret. Stand up here and admit it to everybody, because that’s what you’re asking me to do. You’re asking people to take the deepest darkest secret they have and stand up in front of a jury and tell them.”

Survivor shaming. Kevin Murphy, a lawyer for the Maryland Catholic Conference, argued against the bill. He pointed to a “weakness of human memory” that could put accused “citizens” at risk.

He also asserted that allowing victims more time to come forward would give the sex criminals more time and opportunity to abuse additional victims.

Allison D’Allesandro, the Archdiocesan Director of Child and Youth Protection, offered up the same argument:

“The reality is that the perpetrator often remains in a position of close access to children until an allegation is reported to the civil authorities and the employer.”

For the sixth time, the bill died. State Senate President Mike Miller and Judiciary Chair Joe Vallario refused to let it come up for a vote.

Earlier victim. “I thought my colleagues would get behind me [after I testified]. I had no idea the battle I was in for,” Wilson said during a WBAL Radio interview. “When I realized it wasn’t even coming up for a vote, it was very painful…it was very humiliating.”

But The Keepers manages an ending that, while not exactly happy, offers some hope and yet another bit of joy.

Joseph Maskell circa 1969

First, the survivors learn of documentation of Maskell’s having abused a schoolboy named Charles Franz before the priest ever arrived at Archbishop Keough High School.

A 1967 complaint made by Franz’s mother to the archdiocese resulted in Maskell’s transfer from his job as associate pastor at Saint Clement Church to his post as a chaplain and guidance counselor at Archbishop Keough High.

The episode all but proved that the church had covered up the abuse committed by Maskell — allegations that would have helped substantiate Jean Wehner and Teresa Lancaster’s stories.

It also invalidated the church representatives’ argument that reporting sex crimes early is certain to prevent new ones from taking place.

At the end of the series, the producers show Jean Wehner’s cathartic reaction when she learns that archdiocese officials allegedly tried to buy Charles Franz’s silence (he declined) after she and Lancaster initiated legal action in the 1990s over Maskell’s abuse.

There’s more. And a nice post-documentary epilogue: C.T. Wilson managed to resurrect Bill 642. Once it finally came up for a vote, the Maryland House and Senate gave it a unanimous yes.

While the new rules still aren’t inclusive to all survivors, they give those sexually abused as minors the right to pursue damages — from individual offenders as well as organizations that allowed abuses to continue — up until 20 years after they reach majority age.

The old law set the time span at seven years so, for example, a little girl abused when she was a minor would have only until age 25 to sue for damages. Now, the law gives her up until age 38.

(The maximum amount of damages recoverable from offending organizations appears to have remained the same, at $800,000.)

Maryland’s C.T. Wilson

It’s official. The new law also enables victims to sue up until three years after a defendant is “convicted of a crime relating to alleged incident or incidents.”

On April 4, 2017, the day that Governor Larry Hogan signed Bill 642, he also approved six other pieces of legislation, including one outlawing fracking in the state. Sounds like an all-around good date in Maryland history.

That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. RR


P.S. Thanks to Crime Traveller editor Fiona Guy for including True Crime Truant in her site’s 50 Best Crime Blogs and Websites feature.

The Keepers: A Nun’s Murder Shrouded

Netflix True Crime Bingefest
(Sister Cathy Cesnik’s killing)

This week, I’d like to start a little sabbatical from Forensic Files and discuss the new Netflix series The Keepers, a seven-part documentary about a nun’s murder in Maryland in 1969.

The crime went unsolved for decades — and apparently not because the culprit was some kind of lone maniac who slipped in and out of the area around Baltimore.

That and many other aspects surrounding the homicide come as surprises.

Ad hoc sleuths. Usually any violent crime against a clergy member would mean harnessing maximum police manpower for as long it takes to track down the fiend — the people demand it.

But public sentiment lost out in regard to Sister Cathy Cesnik’s murder. The case went cold. A retired Baltimore police officer interviewed on camera for the series unapologetically said that there were lots of murders in the region every year and this one didn’t merit special attention.

Another unexpected element: The nun’s former students — rather than journalists or detectives — spearheaded the investigation that ultimately turned up the most relevant evidence. It was fun to meet the onetime Catholic schoolgirls taught to respect authority without question, who are now in their 60s and aggressive in their own styles.

Sister Cathy Cesnik shortly before her death

Resident evil. Finally, as we learn as the series progresses, although the crime was most likely tied to sexual abuse taking place at Archbishop Keough High, the all-girls Catholic school where Sister Cathy taught English, the collusion that hindered justice went beyond the church hierarchy.

It allegedly involved police, at least one unaffiliated low-life from the community, and even a local gynecologist.

Actually, one more surprise that I’m not sure how to phrase the right way but will try: The 26-year-old nun at the center of the tragedy was by all accounts warm, gentle, empathetic, and a bit of a rebel.

No stereotype. Not that there’s any shortage of nuns with such positive traits, to be sure: It’s just that on an anecdotal basis, one tends to hear more about sisters who hit children with wooden implements, frightened them with visions of the inferno, etc.

The Keepers has plenty of other compelling plot twists, and it portrays the richness and complexity of the lives of the survivors both within and outside of the late-1960s time capsule.

I did a two-day binge-watch of the entire series, directed by Ryan White, and intend to see it again and write a bit more about it next week. Until then, cheers. — RR


Update: Read Part 2.

Charles Whitman: Forgotten Rampage

A 50-Year-Old Columbine
(Tower, directed by Keith Maitland)

Just for this week, I’d like to take a detour from Forensic Files to talk about a new documentary that’s now available on Netflix: Tower.

The movie re-creates a 1966 University of Texas mass murder that somehow — sandwiched between the more-lurid horrors of Richard Speck and the Manson family — got lost in America’s collective memory bank.

Charles Whitman in a widely circulated yearbook photo
Charles Whitman in a widely circulated yearbook photo

On August 1 of that year, a former Marine named Charles Whitman packed up his own personal arsenal, rode the elevator to the 27th floor of the school’s centrally located clock tower, and began shooting at people on the campus below.

Situated within the structure’s walled wraparound observatory deck, the 6-foot-tall blond sniper seemed to have found an invulnerable spot from which to execute strangers in a rain of bullets for an hour and a half.

He hit 46 men and women and at least one child. Sixteen died.

At the time, of course, the massacre made headlines around the world and terrified Americans. (And elicited a prescient opinion piece from Walter Cronkite, which the film shows.) But the horrific saga was referenced only lightly in popular culture over the subsequent years.

A brief mention of the Texas tragedy in a 2012 Mad Men episode, “Signal 30,” is the only one I can recall seeing on TV.

Perhaps the public forgot about the nightmare-by-daylight because Whitman died at the scene on the afternoon of his crime, eliminating the need for any courtroom drama.

Cathy Leissner, seen here as a bride, was murdered by husband Charles Whitman
Kathy Leissner, seen here as a bride, was murdered by husband Charles Whitman

And because the engineering student had murdered his mother and his wife the previous day, there were no prominent female relatives to publicly agonize over how their devoted blue-eyed young man had turned into a deranged executioner.

Tower spends very little time giving background information about Whitman and instead tells the story of the victims and rescuers — via an unorthodox method.

The filmmakers re-created them with an animation technique called rotoscoping and had actors provide their voices. At first, I had trouble getting used to this unusual storytelling element (especially because one of the rotoscoped police officers looked and sounded a little too much like Matthew McConaughey), but after about 15 minutes, I was fully invested.

The ordeal of a pregnant student named Claire Wilson James, who was shot and immobilized during the attack, is the emotional centerpiece of the drama.

But I don’t want to spoil any more of the movie’s revelations for those who will get a chance to see it.

Whitman said he killed his mother, Cynthia, to spare her from the pain o fher life
Whitman said he killed his mother, Margaret, to end her pain

One thing not included in the film is the fact that the 25-year-old Whitman sensed he was coming unhinged a few months before the tragedy.

“Whitman was intelligent enough to realize he had problems, so he went to a psychiatrist,” author Jay Robert Nash wrote in his true-crime encyclopedia Bloodletters & Badmen (M. Evans and Company, 1973).

Dr. Maurice Heatly later said that Whitman suffered from rage related to his parents’ breakup; his father had badly abused his mother during the marriage. Whitman also revealed to the doctor that he had thoughts of shooting people with a deer rifle from the clock tower.

In those pre-Columbine days, however, the confession apparently wasn’t enough of a red flag to trigger preventative action.

The UT Austin tower stands 307 feet tall and dates back to 1937. Paul Cret designed the structure
The UT  tower stands 307 feet tall. Paul Cret designed the structure, finished in 1937

I hope that Tower, directed by Keith Maitland and produced by Meredith Vieira reaches the wide audience it deserves.

The movie had me spellbound for 96 minutes, the same amount of time it took Charles Whitman to traumatize a nation unused to mass shootings. RR


Note: This post was updated on April 30, 2017, to reflect that Netflix streaming has picked up Tower.