Netflix's 'Keepers' prompts call for archdiocese to release priest's files

The release of "The Keepers," a Netflix documentary series examining the unsolved death of a Catholic nun and abuse at then-Archbishop Keough High School, has sparked calls for the Archdiocese of Baltimore to release files on the priest at the center of the story.

An online petition on change.org has more than 11,000 signatures urging church officials to make public its files on A. Joseph Maskell, who died in 2001.

The priest denied abuse allegations before his death and was never charged. Since 2011, the archdiocese has paid out $472,000 in settlements to 16 people who accused him of abuse.

"The release of these documents will restore public trust in the Archdiocese, and confirm the Archdiocese statements regarding their handling of the sexual abuse claims," the petition states.

It also says such a disclosure would help to investigate "all avenues that may have led to the murder of Cathy Cesnik in 1969."

"The Keepers" explores the theory that Cesnik, a nun who taught at Archbishop Keough and Western High, was killed because she knew about abuse committed by Maskell.

Series director Ryan White said producers asked the archdiocese for files on Maskell "multiple times" while working on the documentary, but were denied.

"I just feel like it shows no concern for the community healing, no sign of transparency at all," White said.

In a statement, archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said records related to Maskell "are confidential, and Archdiocesan policy and state law would preclude us from disclosing much of the information in them as they include confidential personal information (e.g. names of alleged sexual abuse victims), personnel records, health records, attorney-client communications, personally identifying information (such as social security numbers), etc."

Other dioceses have released similar types of files on such cases, with certain information redacted.

Terry McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks clergy abuse cases, said when church officials in other cities have released records of accused priests, it typically has been the result of litigation or in bankruptcy proceedings.

"Even then, there can be amazing delays," said McKiernan, who added that the files may contain everything from a priests' seminary records to complaints about a priest from parishioners to news clippings.

In 2013, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles released 128 files of clergy who were the subject of a 2007 sexual abuse settlement.

Milwaukee and Chicago are among other archdioceses that have released records in recent years. Milwaukee church authorities released files in 2013 as part of a bankruptcy case. In Chicago, some records were released in 2014 as part of a settlement with victims; later that year, Cardinal Francis George ordered the release of additional files shortly before he retired.

Under Maryland law, victims of childhood sexual abuse have only been able to sue over the abuse until they are 25. A new law taking effect Oct. 1 will extend the statute of limitations until the victim is 38.

White said Maskell's files could answer questions about what diocesan authorities knew about him in the 1960s. "The Keepers" includes interviews with Charles Franz, who in the series says his mother reported allegations about the priest in the late 1960s — before Maskell worked at Keough.

Church authorities say they have no record of Franz's mother complaining in the 1960s.

In addition, White believes diocesan paperwork could shed light on the church's own investigation after it received allegations of abuse in 1992 from Keough alumna Jean Wehner who later became known in court proceedings as "Jane Doe" and relates her story in "The Keepers."

The archdiocese initially removed Maskell from ministry when Wehner reported the allegations, but he was returned the following year after officials said they couldn't corroborate what she said. Maskell was again removed from the ministry in 1994 when more people came forward.

"My point is if [the church investigation] really came up empty-handed, then there's no personal information to redact, so show us that investigation," White said. "Prove that you tried to corroborate [Wehner] instead of burying her — and they won't do that."

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