“Who killed Sister Cathy?” It’s the question that’s vexed and intrigued Baltimore residents for almost a half-century, ever since the body of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a beloved English teacher at a local Catholic high school, was found two months after she disappeared, in 1969. It’s also the tagline of The Keepers, the riveting new Netflix docu-series that’s poised to be the next phenomenon in true crime.
Fans of Making a Murderer and The Jinx will be obsessed, but The Keepers is far from your average whodunnit; it’s an investigation of secrecy, abuse, and whistleblowing in the Catholic church, the power of social media-based connections, and the woman at the center of it all: Cathy Cesnik, a devoted educator who may have lost her life trying to protect her vulnerable students. It’s a case from another time with eerie and unfortunate echoes in the present and a sobering picture of how far those in power will go to keep their misdeeds under wraps.
Glamour talked to director Ryan White (The Case Against 8, Good Ol’ Freda) about the new series and his role in shaping it, below.
(Caution: Light spoilers ahead for the first episode of The Keepers.)
Glamour: How did you get involved with this project?
Ryan White: My aunt was a student at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore; she was actually Sister Cathy’s student. She had her for tenth grade English, so she was someone whose entire life was affected by the murder of her favorite teacher. There’s a woman [in the series], she’s introduced at the end of episode one, called Jane Doe, and she’s kind of the main character throughout. Her name’s Jean Wehner. My aunt found out that Jane Doe, who has always been this mystery throughout her life, was actually her friend. So [my aunt] emailed me and said, “Oh my God, we always wondered who Jane Doe was. It turns out it’s a friend of mine who I had no idea lived through this and had this horrific past. Would you like to meet her?” I flew up to Baltimore and met with Jean, and that began a few months-long process of flying back and forth to Baltimore and having conversations with her. She and I sussed each other out, while she decided whether [a docu-series] was the best next step for her to come forward and put her face and name on her experience.
Glamour: It seems like so much of this is getting solved—maybe solved isn’t the right word—but the information about the case is being spread through word-of-mouth and Facebook groups. With the rise of social media and [true crime] podcasts, what do you think of all the armchair detective work?
RW: I think “armchair detective” is often a [phrase] that has a negative connotation. What’s happening in The Keepers is much more important than that. And you’re totally right: This is something that could not have happened 15 years ago, before social media. Social media in many ways has driven this bubbling back up. Gemma [Hoskins] and Abbie [Schaub] began the Facebook group [about Sister Cathy’s murder], and it just snowballed into a movement. Besides Jean, that was our other big drawing point to The Keepers, the idea that these retired grandmothers had created this grassroots community and movement in Baltimore to find out the truth because the institutions that typically deliver truth and justice had buried it. I was incredibly drawn as a storyteller to Abbie and Gemma and the movement they didn’t even mean to begin. They just wanted to start a conversation around what happened to their favorite teacher and why it was never solved. Two years later, here we are.
Glamour: There’s such an interesting gendered aspect to this story. The men of law enforcement let the investigation go, so now the women who were the students are taking it up. Is that something you thought about?
RW: This is a women’s story, which is ironic because I’m a man and a part of telling it. But somehow, all of my films are about strong women! I guess that’s what I’m drawn to. Gender plays a huge role. We’re so conditioned at this point to hearing about abuse in the Catholic Church and thinking of male victims, and this story is outside of that norm in that it’s all high school girls. It involves boys as well, but at the epicenter of the story is a girls’ high school. The main perpetrator is a male who controls the school and is called “Father.” He’s the one hearing the confessions of the girls going in to seek forgiveness, many of them talking to a priest about previous child abuse that they had [experienced], that they felt some guilt or shame about, and then were turned into victims at their own high school by the people they trusted. Jane Doe, and then another woman called Jane Roe, tried to bring it forward in the ’90s, and they’re totally silenced again by all of the authorities.
There’s kind of three time periods in The Keepers: the ’60s, the ’90s, and the modern day. The real power is in the modern day, with this movement of these women saying, “We will not be silenced.” What’s been incredible—and horrifying—to watch is the number of survivors who have come out of the woodwork in this community that Gemma and Abbie created, which was originally about solving the murder of their teacher who was protecting these girls—or trying to protect them. It’s now led to this community for people to say, “This happened to me too, and I thought no one would ever believe me.” You’ll see a lot of that in the series—these women meeting each other for the first time. Many of them don’t even know each other; they’re from different classes, but they share this common horrific bond.
Glamour: When you entered the investigation, what were the biggest roadblocks to finding more information?
RW: Abbie spends most of her time in the stacks of libraries or in the state archives searching for documentation for all of these things that she knows should exist—filings, Freedom of Information Act requests, public information requests—and looking through hearing transcriptions from the ’90s. A major story that came up over and over is the fact that things are missing that are supposed to be there. We knew from the very beginning we had a huge challenge; this was a story in which the evidence and the documentation was deliberately buried. We’re searching for who might have buried that, but that was our biggest challenge.
This case widens to be about much more than just a Catholic girls’ high school, and we began focusing on some of the larger religious and governmental institutions in Maryland. Our major resistance came from the Catholic church, the Archdiocese of Baltimore. As someone who was raised Catholic and had a very positive experience growing up in the Catholic church, that was incredibly disappointing to witness. They refused to participate in the documentary, and they refused multiple times to release their internal files on Father Maskell, which could put a lot of questions to rest. The only thing they would agree to is to provide written questions with written answers. Every archdiocese employee that I reached out to referred me to spokespeople and lawyers, and I would get responses from them. I felt a real concerted effort from them to stonewall us. I don’t know why. I would think they’d want to be transparent, to have healing in their community, but they continue to operate with this program of secrecy.
Glamour: I feel like that’s been their MO since the Crusades. It’s very internal.
RW: It’s scary. That power is scary because so much of The Keepers is about the lack of a separation of church and state, especially in Baltimore, and the power of the Catholic Church to run a city. If the state and its officials and institutions are “under” or feel power exerted by a religious institution, then there are going to be a lot of victims in the crosshairs.
Glamour: What was your guiding principle in terms of what information was a legitimate theory being put forward versus what’s a rumor that you don’t want to spread? True crime documentaries are so popular; you have a lot of power. You could potentially ruin someone’s life by putting them forward as a suspect when in truth they weren’t involved. What’s your guideline there, ethically or journalistically?
RW: That’s a great question and something I do not take lightly. I don’t think any of my team took it lightly. There were many heated, passionate conversations around that throughout the filmmaking process. I really think a fascinating part of The Keepers that I kind of knew from the beginning was that there’s so much folklore and urban legend around the disappearance and murder of Sister Cathy. [The Keepers producer and Ryan’s childhood friend] Jess [and I] would go to a local bar and ask people if they remember it, and everybody had some sort of story of it. Everybody knew somebody who knew information about it or had a neighbor or an uncle who might have been involved. So much of what I think we were doing at The Keepers was looking at all of these narratives and versions of the truth or non-truth and representing them for what they are. It’s fascinating: Two families popped up during the making of the series and essentially said, “Someone in our family killed her, and we’ve always known that.” Episode five really looks at those two family narratives and why those men were suspects in the murder. One is still alive, and we talked to him about it; he admits certain things in the documentary which doesn’t necessarily mean he was involved in the murder, but he was a suspect. So was the other man.
The Baltimore County police were willing to participate. They were the [opposite] of the archdiocese; they recognized that showing transparency, despite the fact that many of their officers probably made mistakes over the years in this case, was worth it. They took us through their investigations of various suspects over the years and could confirm if someone should be considered a suspect. That was also part of making us feel more comfortable in what stories we presented and what stories we didn’t.
Glamour: What responsibility did you feel about honoring Sister Cathy’s life and who she was as a person, rather than just a victim? A lot of crime stories—true crime and fiction—use the victim as a jumping-off point to investigate other things, which is valid but does obscure the victim. It seems like in your story, [Sister Cathy] and her life are very central.
RW: She is the central figure. I feel so connected to her at this point, having learned so much about her, imagining what she would have done with her life. She is the central figure. The other central figure is her student, Jane Doe—Jean—who is still alive and was confiding in Cathy. So, one woman dies 47 years ago and one is still alive, somehow, after suffering all this trauma for the last 47 years. It was so important to me to keep Cathy “alive” in some way, in this documentary, through the people that she was trying to save. Likewise, you’ll see in episode five, we find sister Cathy’s [familial, not religious] sister. Her name’s Marilyn. Marilyn has picked up the torch, in a lot of ways, for this investigation. She has a lot more agency and power than Abbie and Gemma do because she’s the most directly related to Catchy. Meeting Marilyn was a very emotional moment because it was Cathy’s sister. They were best friends, and it really brought Cathy alive to me. That will really come across in the second half of the series: who Cathy was, before she was this nun hearing these horrors. I hope the takeaway of The Keepers is that the focus is on the victim. The perpetrators and Father Maskell, who died a free man, should have been held accountable, but let’s not forget the victims who suffered because of him.
All seven parts of The Keepers drop on Netflix May 19.
This interview has been condensed and edited.