Who killed Sister Cathy?
If you already finished Netflix’s new docuseries The Keepers—or spoiled things for yourself and read up on the case online—then you’ve already discovered that we still don’t know. But we may be close.
The series, which was promoted as the next Making a Murderer before it even aired, cracks opens the cold case of the 1969 disappearance and murder of 26-year-old Baltimore nun Sister Cathy Cesnik, and exposes a web of secrets that includes a ring of child sex abuse covered up by the Catholic Church and the seemingly connected murder of a neighboring young girl, Joyce Malecki, just days later.
It’s all guided along by the intrepid sleuthing of Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, both retired grandmothers in their sixties who were students of Sister Cathy and, after starting a Facebook group for others to share information about their teacher, have devoted the past three years lives to seeking justice and answers.
They’re the ones who explain the suspicious nature of Cathy’s disappearance, coming after she was about to report that the school’s chaplain, Father Joseph A. Maskell, had allegedly led a ring of horrific sexual abuse against some of her students. They’re also the ones who introduce each of the other suspects with possible connections to Cathy’s death.
There’s her gay neighbor Billy Schmidt, who confessed to family members that he was involved before killing himself; a Salem cigarette butt, the brand that Schmidt smoked, found next to Cathy’s body. And there’s Edgar Davidson, the only living suspect, who arrived home with blood on his hands the night Cathy died, later gave his first wife a necklace that may have been purchased by Cathy for her sister the night of her disappearance, and drove with both feet—a trait that investigators say likely belonged to the person who took Cathy.
For all the detective work done throughout the series, the beating heart is “Jane Doe,” the woman who brought Cathy’s murder back into the headlines in 1994 when she filed a $40 million lawsuit alleging abuse at the hand of Father Maskell—and that he had shown her Sister Cathy’s body in the woods when she was a child as a warning against speaking out.
Jane Doe’s real name is Jean Hargadon Wehner, whom White met through his family. His mom and aunt grew up with her. His mom even went to prom with her older brother. Jean is our eye into the level of cover-up and conspiracy that may have been going on in the Catholic Church to keep not just the sexual abuse quiet, but also perhaps even Cathy’s murder.
Now that we’ve finished The Keepers, we called up White to talk through our lingering questions and frustrations. And what about season two? (Well, that answer was a swift “absolutely not.”)
Read ahead for our talk through The Keepers’ unanswered questions.
I am still screaming from when Jean finds out the archdiocese doesn’t acknowledge Charles Franz’s abuse and yells “Those fuckers!”
I wanted to scream myself in that moment. But I withheld it.
To see her unleash like that was cathartic as a viewer. I can’t imagine what it must have been like in the room with her after spending so much time with her.
[Those moments] are few and far between. She’s a very special person. Each time you spend with her it’s an emotional experience that can go in any direction. Jean doesn’t use bad language. She’s a good little Catholic girl. That was a moment where her frustration, anger, and rage just came out so raw. I knew I was going to use it right away.
Was there ever a point where you thought you might be able to solve this?
In the beginning we definitely didn’t set out to solve the murder. Three years into it, though, and being at the finish line, I do think it’s completely reasonable that this murder could be solved. That’s not because of us. If you saw in the documentary, there’s no smoking gun moment or Robert Durst talking into the microphone. But what we saw was that the more we dug and the more, especially, that Abbie and Gemma created this safe space that people could come to and give more information, then people who had been afraid to talk or spoke off-the-record were willing to go on-the-record. That happened at an amazing pace. And that developed a lot of leads in the murder that I think were happening until the last day of filming. My hope is that the end of this period will force the hands of the institutions in some way to get answers, and I think the answer to who killed Cathy is one of those.
What is the biggest outstanding lead? Or a path that should be pursued more after this comes out?
Well a couple of weeks ago we found out that they exhumed Maskell’s body. We interviewed them in December and they exhumed his body in February. It leaked a couple of weeks ago after the trailer came out and the local media in Baltimore found out that they exhumed the body and took a DNA sample from it. That alone is a huge sign that the Baltimore County Police are finally taking this seriously, or at least a show to the public that they are looking into it. It of course begs the question of why they hadn’t done that when he was alive.
Do you think the DNA evidence they’re comparing it to is the cigarette butt?
I’m assuming it is the cigarette butt we talked about in episode six. I don’t know if they have other DNA samples. I know that when we interviewed the Baltimore County Police they brought out a few different boxes of evidence that we couldn’t open up. We could only look at the outside. But I believe the clothes were in there. I would be very surprised if the DNA matches the cigarette butt that was next to Cathy at the crime scene because I heard a million versions of the truth and theories and so forth, but almost none of them involved Maskell killing Cathy at that place.
(Note: Baltimore Count Police has since stated Maskell’s DNA did not match crime scene evidence.)
It was extremely frustrating try to get the FOIA requests honored by the FBI in relation to the Joyce Malecki murder. I’m curious if the requests have been fulfilled yet, and, if not, what you think is going on there?
As of [May 16] the FOIA requests were still unanswered. Since we wrapped the documentary and even since the trailer came out and Abbie tried to use that as proof to them that this was being documented, the date got pushed back again by months and months and months. It’s been almost three years now and the date keeps getting pushed back. I don’t know what to think. Right now I’m thoroughly frustrated and almost embarrassed for the FBI for the way they’ve dealt with this. And that’s not for lack of trying. I’ve given them many opportunities to talk to me about it. It’s just been a bureaucratic nightmare to just get a response or a call back. I don’t know if I could attribute the FOIA requests taking this long to a cover-up, or just to sheer ineptitude. I don’t know. But it’s frustrating, to say the least.
That plays a large part in the end of the series, which leaves in the audience’s mind a heavy suspicion of there being a connection between the two murders. Throughout this process, what kind of hunches have you developed about the connection between them?
You have to be there. The proximity of Joyce Malecki’s house to Maskell’s house is chilling when you walk it yourself. I had never been to her house. We kept repeatedly going to that green home that Maskell lived in, where he also abused people. Joyce Malecki’s house is two blocks up the hill. So when her brothers were saying they walked past his house every day, they’re not exaggerating. That’s how you would walk to get to school, right past Maskell’s house. So of course it could be completely coincidental that Sister Cathy was related to Maskell and that Joyce was related to Maskell. It could be and the lack of proof I think makes it the responsible thing to say that it could be completely coincidental. But again two women go missing four days within each other in the exact same neighborhood. One works with Maskell and one is his congregate. I think it begs the question of whether it could be connected. But your guess is as good as mine. All the information I have is included in the documentary. I’m sure there’s a lot more information in the 4,000 pages of files, and I will be the first diving in if they actually release them.
What was your experience like talking to Edgar? What did you make of his reaction to details of the story that could have linked him to the murder, and also his reason for inventing stories of his own and dialing into the radio show?
Talking to Edgar was uncomfortable. I’m not by tradition a confrontational documentary filmmaker, and I’m definitely not used to asking people if they were involved in a murder or trying to catch them in a piece of evidence. But I think the scenes with Edgar, the way we edited them, they’re pretty raw. We let it out play out. And that’s how it felt in the room. Very uncomfortable, but the guy, for the most part, seemed willing to answer the questions even if it made him look guilty. Because so much of The Keepers is about folklore and especially family secrets that turn into family legend, we knew we never were going to include that story his family was telling unless he was willing to corroborate at least some of it.
And he really did corroborate things.
I was shocked sitting down with him that everything his first wife had told us, he was saying, “That happened. Yes, that happened. I did lead her to believe. I told her…” It really put into focus a part of the story that you wondered whether it could be completely true, and therefore I thought warranted being included. Edgar very well could have not been involved in this. In fact, I even throw him that bone during the interview. I say, “Perhaps you just wanted people to believe that you were a part of this but you weren’t really?” And he took that bone and he said yes. And I think that’s a complete possibility. But because of the circumstances, we as a filmmaking team thought it was important to still include.
One conclusion that a viewer might jump to after finishing the series is that in some way Maskell, Billy, and Edgar collaborated on this somehow. Is that a theory that you find valid?
I count nothing out now. So much of the story was completely unbelievable at the beginning, and I’m now in this dark, ugly abyss that I never thought could ever have existed. There were undoubtedly a whole network of people, and I probably only know the tip of the iceberg, that were part of this child sex abuse in Baltimore, and therefore there were a whole lot of people that were threatened by Sister Cathy if she was going to talk. And that runs from the top down, from the most powerful of people to the people that performed dirty work for them. It could also run down to the abuse victims themselves.
How so with the abuse victims?
Some of the survivors said they understand that some of the people who were abusing them may have been taken to that dark place by Maskell. So perhaps if you have someone who’s troubled or mentally ill, and I’m not naming Edgar or Billy here, but if you have someone who is vulnerable in that kind of way and involved in your crimes you can get that person to do something for you. So I wouldn’t rule out a theory that multiple people we were following were involved and involved with Maskell in some way. But I also can’t rule out a theory that new people are going to pop up that also could have been part of that network of abuse and with the murder.
Another thing that lingers with me is the necklace with the green gem. Do you think it was really purchased by Sister Cathy? Or is this a case of people searching for answers and clues latching onto it, but it’s really just a necklace that Edgar purchased?
Mhmm. I wish I could answer that for you. If I could it would’ve been in the documentary. I don’t know. I don’t know. These are the things that were interesting to me while making The Keepers that I really wanted to explore. The same thing I was talking about earlier: do we use this family’s story if Edgar is going to dispute it all? And then he corroborated it. Part of that was the necklace. We proved that the necklace came from that time and area. So it could just be a necklace that Edgar just gave his wife for whatever reason.
Do we know for sure that Cathy even purchased the necklace?
There’s no proof that Sister Cathy ever finished a purchase that night. We tried hard to find jewelers from the time or the stores of the time and people that might have worked there. There’s nothing in the newspaper records or the police records that confirmed she ever bought a gift. So it very well could just be complete coincidence.
Are you interested in a season two of this? What would that look like?
I’m not interested right now. (Laughs) I’ll never say never. I don’t want to be that asshole who is making a season two when I told everyone I never would. To me, the story of The Keepers rested mostly in two people, and that was Cathy and that was Jean, and this connection that they had. My journey on The Keepers began through Jean. I met her through a family connection. She’s the first person I met in Baltimore. I sat down with her at a dining room table for five hours and listened to her. She’s the only reason I made The Keepers. If she wasn’t interested in doing it, I didn’t want to do without her. We were on an incredibly raw, intimate, eye-opening journey for me and a harrowing, painful one for her for the last three years.
How did you know when it was time to stop the journey and the investigating and the search for answers, and just put the series out there?
We never really talked about when we would end it, but then it just happened. One day we looked at each other and we said, “This is the time to take your experience into the world and bring your truth to light.” Right now, I’m really satisfied where she and I ended on that journey. Of course I hope that the series could be the beginning of a lot of answers, and that would include who killed Cathy and it will hopefully include justice for these child sex abuse victims. But the human part of it, which is what I’m really drawn to as a filmmaker, for better or worse, I feel like we had reached the end of that arc. So that’s why I’m really happy with the seven episodes and where they take the audience and where they end.
Maybe if nothing else, there could be a spinoff of Gemma and Abby as detectives solving crimes.
(Laughs) Oh man. I’m not making that either. But I’ll tune in for it if someone else does.