In Jean Hargadon Wehner’s home, a stone marked with the word “courage” sits on a small table next to a black-and-white portrait of a young nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, a teacher at Archbishop Keough High School who was killed in late 1969.
Close by is Wehner’s senior portrait from the all-girls Catholic school, where she graduated in 1971. In the faded photo, Wehner smiles, but her eyes look off blankly into the distance. It’s an image familiar to the millions of people who watched “The Keepers,” a 2017 Netflix documentary in which Wehner shared her story of being brutally raped, physically and psychologically tortured and sexually trafficked by Father A. Joseph Maskell, a chaplain and counselor at Keough.
The seven-part miniseries riveted viewers when it was released, as Wehner and other Keough alumnae, including attorney Teresa Lancaster, recounted being tormented by Maskell, who they said targeted vulnerable girls after hearing their confessions. The documentary also followed two Keough grads from the same era, Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, as they navigated a complex web of clues in an attempt to determine who killed Sister Cathy — and whether she was targeted because she knew about Maskell.
Now, the pending release of a massive investigative report on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore has the women of “The Keepers” on edge. Soon after the documentary was released, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General embarked on an in-depth review of priests in Baltimore and other clergy who shielded predators and moved them from one parish or school to another. As the release of the 456-page investigation is delayed by legal wrangling, the women wonder if anyone will ever be held accountable for all they have endured.
“There were so many people who turned a blind eye toward what happened,” said Wehner. “I think it’s very important that the whole report be disclosed. It validates us. It legitimizes us. It says to our family and friends that we didn’t make it up. And then we can begin to heal.”
Since “The Keepers” first aired, more people have come forward saying they were also abused by Maskell, a priest who was also a psychologist and the chaplain of several local police departments. The archdiocese has made payouts to seven Maskell survivors since 2017. In total, the archdiocese has spent $1.1 million in payments and counseling support to 23 survivors of Maskell, according to spokesman Christian Kendzierski.
Keough, which merged with the all-girls Catholic school Seton High in 1988, was shuttered by the archdiocese in 2017 due to declining enrollment. The buildings where the women allege they were raped have now been demolished.
The show has been profoundly life-changing for the four women, who spent the first six decades of their lives in obscurity. Now, strangers call out their names and pull them aside to share stories of loved ones who have survived sexual abuse. Wehner and Lancaster wrote memoirs describing abuse they say Maskell inflicted on them and their long journeys toward healing; Hoskins also wrote about her quest to uncover Sister Cathy’s killer. And a Facebook group that started as a place for Keough alumnae to discuss the abuse and Sister Cathy’s unsolved death has swelled to 145,000 members since the release of the show.
“‘The Keepers’ was a huge healing part of my life,” said Wehner, 69. “What ‘The Keepers’ did is give me a voice.”
Now Wehner and the women from “The Keepers” are pushing for the full release of the attorney general’s report, which according to court filings details a “pervasive” history of sexual abuse, with more than 600 child victims of 158 priests over eight decades.
Wehner and Lancaster said investigators from the attorney general’s office tell them that the report will contain new details about Maskell and the events at Keough in the late 1960s and early ’70s. While the archdiocese says it will not oppose the release of the full document, it is also paying for lawyers who are filing motions to keep legal arguments about the the report sealed. The lawyers represent people who are named in the report but not accused of abuse; the archdiocese says it has a duty to help them exercise their legal rights.
On November 17, the attorney general’s office asked the courts for permission to release the report. The investigators say they delved into the “complicit silence” on the part of church leaders and school administrators that allowed these priests to continue in the ministry, often being moved from parish to parish as complaints surfaced. On Friday, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge ordered the case sealed, meaning hearings and motions about releasing the report will not be made public.
Investigators found 115 of the accused priests were prosecuted or previously identified by the archdiocese. The church has maintained a public list of accused priests since 2002.
The investigators uncovered allegations against 43 additional priests who had not previously been publicly identified, of which 13 are still living. Those 13 names have been redacted to avoid legal challenges that could further slow the release of the report.
Through their attorney, Kurt Wolfgang, of the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center, Wehner and Lancaster have filed a motion asking for the full disclosure of the report with no redactions.
“We deserve to know who aided and abetted my abusers,” said Lancaster, 68.
Lancaster was a star student who had started experimenting with marijuana when she first went to see Father Maskell. Her parents had been horrified to discovered marijuana paraphernalia in her purse and Lancaster thought the priest could allay her parents’ worries. Instead, she said, Maskell removed her clothing and began to sexually abuse her.
The priest forced her to use douches and enemas in front of him, took her to a gynecologist and raped her while playing Irish music, she writes in her memoir. The book is titled “Safe in Socks” because, she said, Maskell would allow her to keep her socks on while he abused her. “A lot of times, I would just focus on my socks,” Lancaster said.
For about two decades, through the births of her four children and the death of her first husband, Lancaster kept the abuse secret. Then, in the early 1990s, she received a letter asking her if she had been aware of sexual improprieties at Keough. She felt strangely relieved; it had been so surreal and for nearly 20 years, she had wondered if she had been the only one.
Meanwhile, for Wehner, a mother of two and devoted church volunteer, fragments of troubling memories were starting to return. She remembered Maskell telling her that she was evil. The priest began calling her out of class for “counseling” sessions in which he raped her while telling her that he was purifying her with the Holy Spirit, she said. Wehner eventually recalled Maskell standing guard while other men raped her, including police officers and a man whom she knew only as “Brother Bob.”
Wehner also says she recalls Maskell taking her to see the body of Sister Cathy, who disappeared in November 1969. She remembers Maskell saying, “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?” The nun’s badly battered and decomposed body was found in a wooded area in southwestern Baltimore County in January 1970. No one has ever been charged in her death.
After Wehner began to remember the abuse, she and her husband met with representatives of the archdiocese, who told them to try to find others who could corroborate her story. They said that Wehner was the first person to come forward with allegations against Maskell, although years later, as detailed in “The Keepers,” a Baltimore dentist named Charles Franz said that Maskell molested him when he was an altar boy at St. Clement Church in Lansdowne , where Maskell was assigned before Keough. Franz said his mother complained to the archdiocese at the time; the archdiocese says it has no record of this.
The letter that Lancaster received had been written by a member of Wehner’s large Catholic family. Wehner is one of 10 siblings, and her brothers and sisters, as well as their spouses and children, pitched in to help find other survivors. They obtained a Keough alumnae directory and, in the era before email and social media, painstakingly mailed letters to the hundreds of women who attended the school between 1968 and 1975, when Maskell worked there.
About 35 women responded to Wehner’s lawyers. Of them, Lancaster had the clearest memories. She also had a letter from the gynecologist, Christian Richter, confirming that he examined her at the request of the school counselor. She even still has the Read’s Drug Store bag in which she brought home a strong psychoactive drug that was prescribed by a psychiatrist friend of Maskell, she said.
Without ever having met or conversed, in 1994, Wehner and Lancaster became co-plaintiffs in a suit against Keough and Maskell, who was then working as a parish priest. However, despite hours of grueling depositions, the suit never to went trial, because at the time the statute of limitations for cases of sexual abuse was three years.
Wehner and Lancaster dealt with their frustration in different ways. Wehner retracted back into her quiet life, raising her children and then caring for her husband until his death from cancer, while continuing to be plagued by— and working through— memories of Maskell.
Lancaster became a lawyer. She had always wanted to be an attorney like her father, but the abuse caused her to question her sense of self. She got married a week before graduating from Keough and became a stay-at-home mom. But in the 1990s, she went back to school for her undergraduate degree, enrolled in law school, and became a lawyer focused on helping other survivors of sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, the archdiocese removed Maskell from his post at St. Augustine Church in Elkridge and sent him to The Institute for Living, a Connecticut mental health facility. In 1995, Maskell moved to County Wexford, Ireland, where he obtained a job as a psychologist with the local government-run health agency, according to The Irish Times. He later worked in private practice in Ireland and remained there until his health declined in 1998. He moved back to the Baltimore area and stayed at Stella Maris, a Catholic Charities nursing home in Timonium, until his death in 2001. Maskell was never criminally charged; he denied the allegations against him in media reports in the 1990s.
About a dozen years after Maskell’s death, Ryan White, a producer whose aunt had attended Keough, began working on the documentary. He introduced Lancaster and Wehner for the first time in 2016.
Meanwhile, Hoskins and Schaub, classmates from Keough, reconnected through a Facebook group for people trying to solve Sister Cathy Cesnik’s killing. Though united by a common goal, the two are quite different. Hoskins, 70, fiery and direct, is a former Maryland Teacher of the Year. Schaub, 70, a retired nurse, is methodical and seeks evidence.
In the Netflix series, Hoskins and Schaub function like a pair of private eyes with Baltimore accents, interrogating the retired police officer who was working when Sister Cathy’s body was found, a now-former priest with whom the nun had a close friendship, and two neighbors of the nun with questionable pasts and possible evidence tying them to the crime. However, like the police who have investigated the killing for more than a half century, they were unable to solve the case.
Baltimore County Police Department spokeswoman Joy Lepola-Stewart said Cesnik’s murder “is still actively being investigated and there are no new developments that can be released at this time.”
Both Hoskins and Schaub continued to look into Sister Cathy’s death after the show ended. Schaub worked with reporters and investigators in Ireland to learn more about Maskell’s time there — and to find out who wrote the recommendation that allowed him to obtain a government job.
Hoskins teamed up with Shane White, producer of the “Foul Play: Crime Series” podcast and has made several podcast episodes revisiting the case against Maskell and killing of Sister Cathy. She has written a memoir, entitled “Keeping On: How I Came to Know Why I Was Born,” and maintains a robust social media presence. But she has also come to the realization that she needs to step back from the investigation for her mental health.
“I was banging my head against the door,” she said. “I had to say to myself, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m worn out.’”
Schaub, too, feels doubtful that Sister Cathy’s killer will be found, unless advances in DNA technology or a deathbed confession leads to a suspect. But she is grateful that the series allowed the stories of the survivors to be told.
“Us looking into Sister Cathy’s murder really opened the Pandora’s box to let survivors tell their stories,” she said.
Hoskins said that more than 100 people contacted her after “The Keepers” aired saying that they or someone they knew had been abused by Maskell or a person connected to him.
All four women say they have encouraged people to contact the attorney general’s office with allegations.
The women attribute some significant victories to the show. They see “The Keepers” as raising awareness of the ways in which sexual predators groom not only their young victims, but their parents and other adults.
Maryland lawmakers raised the age limit for filing civil abuse cases in the sexual abuse of minors from 25 to 38 shortly before “The Keepers” aired. In the coming legislative session, Del. C.T. Wilson, himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a longtime champion of survivors, plans to propose a bill that would abolish age cutoffs in the future.
“The average age that abuse victims come forward is 52,” said Lancaster. “And many come forward in their 60s and 70s.”
For Wehner, the show has also brought about healing. After spending years mired in secrets, it felt freeing to share her story publicly. A devoted mother and grandmother, she also works as a life coach, Reiki practitioner and reflexologist, helping others heal.
“I still deal with a certain amount of fear,” she said. “But I have become more integrated, more grounded and healthier.”
Since the show aired, Wehner said she has recovered another memory of the abuse and has identified the person she knew as “Brother Bob.” She declined to name him, but said she has given the name to the attorney general’s office. She sat down for two lengthy interviews with the attorney general’s investigators, she said, and kept in touch over the years, even meeting periodically with them via Zoom during the height of the pandemic.
“It’s been over five years and we still have a voice. We still have a responsibility to tell our stories,” she said, her voice cracking and tears beginning to flow. “I tell my story because I know there are others who can’t.”
Baltimore Banner reporters Tim Prudente and Pamela Wood contributed to this report.