“The Keepers” is a riveting documentary about two unsolved murders and sexual abuse at a Catholic high school for girls in the City of Baltimore called Bishop Keough. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 10 —so all Netflix subscribers are encouraged to see this one. Spoiler Alert: This post will be examining various aspects of the documentary—so for those who have not yet seen the whole thing, you may wish to stop right here and return later on.
Even though I highly recommend this documentary, I was perplexed by a few things. At the end of the series, we meet Charles Franz, the dentist. He is portrayed as a key figure because his mother lodged a complaint with the Catholic Church in Baltimore that Maskell had been abusing her son. The Church didn’t deny the allegations, but moved Maskell elsewhere—actually to Bishop Keough High School. This is important because the Church would later claim that it had no knowledge of Maskell’s criminal conduct until Jean came forward in 1992.
The reason I’m perplexed is that in an earlier episode, we’re told that a “no-nonsense” Principal named Sister Marylita Friia told Maskell that he had just 15 minutes to pack up his things and get out of Bishop Keough in 1975. We’re told that Sister Friia took this action against Maskell because of numerous complaints from parents. Oddly, the film breezes right along and we never hear about this incident anymore. Why? Is Friia still alive? If so, why wasn’t she interviewed? What were the nature of the complaints against Maskell at that time? Isn’t getting kicked out of Keough the second disciplinary action against Maskell (after Franz’s family got Maskell removed from his school) by the Church? That makes the Church’s subsequent protestation of ignorance even weaker.
Next, Bishop Malooly had an odd reply when the filmmakers confronted the Church about his meeting with Franz in the early 1990s. According to Franz, Malooly and Church lawyers were frightened by the prospect of Franz’s abuse coming to light and so offered to buy his silence with a new boat, which Franz quickly rejected. Malooly denies attempting to buy Franz’s silence but admits that he met with Franz for “counseling purposes.” But wait just a second—counseling for what Malooly? It seems that Malooly has conceded enough even without admitting to the boat gambit. The key point is that the Church was aware of Franz’s abuse (again in the early 1990s) and yet pretended that Jean was the first person with a complaint against Maskell.
The film leaves viewers in the dark as to why Franz did not step forward when Jean’s lawsuit was all over the news. Had he come forward, the Church’s defense would have crumbled. Like other victims, he probably was not ready to have his experience reported on the news. That’s certainly understandable, but viewers are left guessing because the question was never asked, at least in the film.
Another angle that was totally underdeveloped in the documentary was the fact that Maskell had a brother in the Baltimore Police Department. The film mentions this in passing 2-3 times but always breezes right along. That was very odd. Is Maskell’s brother alive? If so, was there any attempt to interview him? What rank did he attain before he retired or died? Several Baltimore cops were interviewed but no questions about Maskell’s brother on the force? That was peculiar.
The film reports that the Church sent Maskell and other priests to a place called the Institute for Living. One of the counselors/therapists who worked there explains that the Church would tell the Institute a priest was suffering from “depression,” but that the priest would say he was sent there because he had sex with a minor and the Church was worried about the incident coming to light. The film is unclear about whether that priest was Maskell or another priest. In any event, this is another discrepancy with the Church’s claim that it had no knowledge of sex abuse by priests. This is because, as the film relates, the Institute declined to take on more patient-priests unless the Church would provide the real reasons behind the referral. Either the filmmakers didn’t press the Church on this point with written questions at the end, or they didn’t include it in the film for some reason.
One of the infuriating aspects of the scandal is the incompetence or corruption found in the investigative authorities. Here are a few examples. First, Sharon May was the prosecutor in charge of the Sex Offender Unit. She appears in the film to defend her conduct while in office. Over and over again, she repeats her point that to prevail in court a prosecutor must have sufficient proof. But her defense is pathetic because the film shows that she was either unable or unwilling to do any investigative work to gather evidence and build a case against Maskell and others. Police found boxes and boxes of records that Maskell had buried in a cemetery and Sharon May essentially folds her arms and declares “That’s just not enough! I can’t go to court with that.” Pathetic. Law school students could have done much better than May.
Second, it is also evident that there is much tension between the police working for Baltimore County and those working for Baltimore City. Both agencies were working on the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik. Gary Childs, a cold case detective with the County is interviewed toward the end of the documentary and he has to stop the interview to call the City police about a letter from Cesnik that was received after she went missing. Childs seems to know a few things about the letter, but has never read its contents and is unsure who has the letter now. He seems to be getting the runaround from the City (i.e. perhaps something like, ‘we had the letter but it is no longer in the file,’ or whatever) but is unwilling to call his counterparts out on it.
The police keep saying the investigations are “on-going” as if they’ve been working very hard but it is apparent that the police are mainly concerned about how the documentary is going to make them appear to the public. The Cesnik case is 50 years old and the police only recently exhumed the body of Maskell to gather his DNA to run tests against other evidence at the crime scene. What a coincidence that the police have exhumed the body just when the makers of “The Keepers” appear in Baltimore interviewing witnesses and asking lots of questions about the case!
The FBI cultivates an image of being the “premier” investigative agency in the world, but that’s simply good public relations. As the documentary shows, the Bureau has completely failed the Malecki family. Joyce Malecki’s body was found near a military base so the FBI took the lead on the matter. County investigators backed off and deferred to the Bureau. Now there’s finger-pointing between the agencies: The FBI says it determined that Malecki’s murder had no connection to the military base and turned the matter over to the county. The county says the case was never surrendered by the Bureau so it took virtually no action on the murder case. Even after several decades, Bureau officials have declined to release some 4,000 pages of documents it has on the case. And, incredibly, the Bureau told the Malecki family that even though it has fingerprint and DNA evidence from the crime scene, it didn’t have enough staff and budget to run that evidence against existing databases. What?!
Toward the end of the documentary, the dogged amateur sleuths, Gemma and Abbie, zero in on a few suspects who may have played a part in the murder of Cathy Cesnik. Brian Schmidt, now deceased, gave a recorded interview to Alan Horn where he divulged that he was around the men who did it when he was around 10-12 years old. Although the men tried to keep him distracted and in the dark about what they were up to, Brian is pretty confident that he pieced it all together afterwards. Brian identifies his Uncle Billy (Schmidt) and his friend “Skippy,” as having moved Cathy’s body from the apartment complex to the property near the family business. Brian identifies another man, his “Uncle Bobby,” who was tasked with keeping Brian distracted in the woods while the other men carried Cathy’s body from the car trunk to a spot in the woods.
The odd thing is that the film breezes right along without following up on Brian’s mention of an “Uncle Bobby.” We hear much about Uncle Billy and his eventual suicide. We hear some stories about Skippy and how he seemed to disappear. Why not more about Uncle Bobby? What’s his full name? Is he still alive? Maskell introduced Jean to a man he called “Brother Bob.” And Brother Bob told Jean that he killed Cathy. An obvious question is whether Uncle Bobby is also Brother Bob. It is peculiar that the film doesn’t tell us more about all this. For example, Jean recalls some identifying marks on Brother Bob’s torso so one is left wondering whether anyone in the Schmidt family can confirm or dispel those marks about Uncle Bob.
“The Keepers” is a terrific but heartbreaking documentary. Let’s hope that it generates more pressure on the obstinate law enforcement agencies to uncover the full and complete story.