The unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a 26-year-old Baltimore nun who disappeared in 1969, will be the subject of a seven-part Netflix docuseries launching May 19, the streaming service announced Monday.
Secrets within secrets, crimes upon crimes, layers upon layers and journeys within journeys.
That's the way documentary filmmaker Ryan White talks about his Netflix docuseries "The Keepers," which revisits the unsolved murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a Baltimore nun who went missing in 1969.
There is nothing simple or black-and-white about the way he sees this dark Baltimore story that has refused to go away for almost half a century. Thanks in part to social media, it seems more discussed now than it has been for decades. That conversation is only going to get more intense when Netflix makes all seven parts of the series available May 19.
"There's definitely a large focus on the murder of Catherine Cesnik and the details surrounding that murder," he said in a telephone interview this week about the series. "But what we discovered during the filmmaking process is that everything wasn't as it appeared to be. There were a lot of layers that if you peeled them back went a lot deeper."
While the murder of Cesnik is the most visible crime, White says the film also dives deep on what he calls "foundational crimes that were happening before and after, and still filter down to today and may be linked to her murder."
Victims allege that a ring of sexual predators targeted students at Archbishop Keough High School, where Cesnik taught.
One of the suspects in her death was a Catholic priest, the Rev. Joseph Maskell, a guidance counselor at the school and chaplain for various local and state police departments.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore has settled claims with at least a dozen women who allege that they were sexually victimized by him while students at Keough. Their accounts of being forced to go to his office where they knew what awaited them are harrowing. Maskell died in 2001.
One theory of the murder is that Cesnik, a widely admired teacher and confidante of many of her students, was killed because she was about to blow the whistle on what was happening to them at Keough.
"What we discovered during the making of this series is that it's really difficult to unravel the abuse and coverup crimes from the murder of Sister Cathy," White said.
The California-based director, whose resume includes a documentary on tennis star Serena Williams and a look at the backstage battle to repeal a California law banning same-sex marriage, said he has a personal connection to the Baltimore story. His mother was born and raised here, and his aunt was a student of Cesnik's at Keough.
"My mom and aunt grew up in a big Catholic family a few blocks from Archibishop Keough High School," White said. "My mom went to [Institute of Notre Dame], because Keough wasn't around when she was a freshman. But by the time my aunt was ready for high school, Keough was there, and they sent my aunt there and she was Sister's Cathy student and a friend of Jane Doe [a student who was the first to go public with accounts of abuse]."
White recalled a recent conversation with his aunt about Cesnik and the way the memory of her teacher brought her to tears even after all these years.
"And that was just my aunt, who was not an abuse victim," he said. "So you can imagine the people who were close to the nun or were confiding in Cathy or were related to Cathy — how much that pain still lingers, too."
Nowhere was that intensity more apparent than in the Facebook group where former students and survivors came together online in 2013 to discuss Cesnik's murder and their experiences in the 1960s and '70s at Keough.
Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik, a gifted teacher and friend
The public Facebook group Justice for Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki today has 763 members. (Malecki was another murder victim who disappeared within days of Cesnik.)
"I think there's a real power in the story of women of that age, retired grandmothers, coming together and saying it's not too late to ever get answers," he added. "And that's a lot of what the documentary is about."
That's one of the journeys within the journeys of "The Keepers" — tracking this group of baby boomer women as they investigate Cesnik's death and, in the process, create something powerful for themselves.
"A lot of the documentary is following this group of women who come together first to solve the murder of their favorite teacher and through that have created this community that's allowed dozens and dozens of abuse victims to start talking about it for the first time," White explained. "It's about them finding a community and safe haven and co-operation and other people who believe them. And that's been really powerful to witness."
And in the world of streamed video, you can explore lives outside demographics dictated by Madison Avenue.
"This is a demographic that doesn't get a lot of coverage in both fiction and documentary," White said, "so I was pleased to get to meet these women and be side by side on their journey."
No story is followed more closely than that of Jane Doe, Jean Wehner, according to White.
"Jane Doe was the first woman who came forward with abuse allegations against Father Maskell," White said. "She came forward in the early '90s, and she is, I would say, the main character of 'The Keepers.' It follows her journey — what she was going through in 1969 and 1970 at Archbishop Keough High School. It goes through her journey in the '90s in trying to bring this forward to the Catholic Church, to the authorities. And it goes through her journey now in the modern day."
Calling her the "nexus" of the story, White adds, "She is the connector of the abuse to the murder of Sister Cathy. A woman who lived in Baltimore all her life, she's a member of a big Catholic family, and incredibly courageous and brave."
Great documentaries are the product of wise choices made by producers and directors when faced with multiple possibilities and limited resources at the start of a project.
In November 1969, a 26-year-old nun, Catherine Cesnik, was reported missing. Her beaten body was discovered two months later in a Baltimore County field. Nearly 45 years later, her murder remains unsolved.
The story of Cesnik's unsolved murder has a lot of obvious appeal, starting with a kind of true-crime aura that it shares with hit projects like Netflix's "Making a Murderer," HBO's "The Jinx" and the podcast "Serial." It also is steeped in the kind of sexual abuse, coverup, crime and corruption in the Catholic Church that was chronicled so compellingly in the Academy-Award-winning feature film "Spotlight."
A lot of directors might just saddle up and ride those proven thoroughbreds to the finish line. The series hasn't been made available to me yet, but White appears to have gone beyond with narratives like the one focused on the Baltimore-based justice group.
"A major theme of this series is justice and injustice, and I believe, as an outsider having witnessed it now, that so many of the institutions and people that are tasked with protecting citizens or protecting children failed these people — and have failed them repeatedly over the last 45 years," White said.
"And, in many cases, they've buried that truth," he added. "So what this grassroots movement has done is to allow some sense of justice — not literal justice or our typical definition of what justice means — but has allowed a kind of community justice for these people who know this has happened to them."
White said the story of these women is "a real tribute" to the people of Baltimore.
"What I think, perhaps, is singular to Baltimore is this type of passion these women have created. These women remind me of my mom and my aunt and this real Baltimore spirit of coming together and saying, 'We're not going to let this go just because it's been silenced. We're going to still keep it alive,'" he explained.
"I hope for Baltimore audiences that really comes across in the series."
All seven episodes of "The Keepers" will be available for streaming May 19.