“Necrophilia includes the desire of certain people to control others—to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line.”
― M. Scott Peck,
I had never heard of Sister Cathy Cesnik before.
No reason I should have. In 1969, I was in 8th grade and far more worried about passing Ms. Anderson’s English class than I was about some random murder in Baltimore. The only person I knew with any connection to Baltimore was Edgar Allen Poe and I only knew him tangentially because of the aforementioned English class.
Sister Cathy’s murder is the focus of a new documentary series on Netflix titled “The Keepers.”
I am a fool for well-told documentaries. Storytelling has long been the barter of my people. When they had nothing else to swap, they always swapped stories. Sometimes, while staying at Granny Leona’s in the foothills of the Smokies, I would sneak onto the party line phone just to eavesdrop on other people’s stories.
I bet some of you did that, too, huh?
Party line phones were much better than Social Media sites.
Sometimes one of the talkers might hear a person click on. They’d ask whoever it was there were talking to: “Did you hear that? I think somebody is listening in.” Then they’d holler, “Hang Up! This ain’t your call.”
If Granny Leona caught me doing that, she’d bless me out good.
I think my love of good storytelling was birthed from being a quiet observer and eavesdropper as a kid. Snooping came easy to me. I guess it was a given I’d grow up to be a journalist, heh?
The storytelling in The Keepers is riveting.
Sister Cathy, a young and vivacious English teacher, was beloved by her students at the Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore. It is one of her former students, in fact, who along with a friend become foot-soldier investigators into the decades-old murder. Cesnick went missing one night in November 1969 while shopping for an engagement gift for her sister. Her body was not discovered until January 1970 in a secluded area not far from her residence.
The documentary takes a look at all the possible murder suspects. The Keepers earns its name because of all the many people who had information that may have led to the arrest and conviction of the murderer, but for a whole host of reasons kept that information to themselves.
Sister Cesnik reportedly had information about a priest abusing students at the school. That information may have cost her her life. There are all sorts of reasons why children don’t report abuse. Fear is the most compelling reason. Shame is the other. The two things a sex abuser who is well-trained in religious dogma is most poised to exploit.
But, as I learned while writing the story of Karly Sheehan, abuse rarely happens in a vacuum. People know. They see. They know. Or at the very least, they suspect. Yet, despite having their suspicions confirmed over and over and over again, most people are far more willing to believe a lie than they are the truth.
Here’s a fact: On average, a child has to tell an adult three times that they are being abused before the adult will take action.
Do you have any idea how hard that is? Especially when, as in most cases, that child is being threatened, as the girls at Keough reportedly were by the school’s chaplain and get this – counselor. Keep in mind this was 1969, prior to DNA testing. Prior to Social Media. Prior to information at the ready. These girls were brought up in a world tightly controlled by men. Sister Cisnek was teaching in a world tightly controlled by men.
When they finally did come forward – decades later – they were persecuted by male attorneys working on behalf of the Catholic Church.
These girls – women now – simply could not catch a break. They were ridiculed by the public at large. Called money-grubbers. Called sluts and whores. This, of course, is another reason why those who are sexually abused don’t step forward. Deep down a sex abuse victim feels like it’s their fault they were abused. Society perpetuates this false sense of shame every time it defends an abuser.
One of the shining moments in the series is the husband of one of the victims. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say, when the victim attributes her own sense of safety and self-worth to the ways in which her husband stood with her, I wept. If wish that every person who has ever been abused – sexually or otherwise – could have such a person stand with them.
I think what resonates so deeply with me about this particular storyline, however, is how it seems we have learned so little in the decades since Sister Cesnik turned up dead in a frozen field. Why are we so willing to believe the lies of abusers over the truths of those abused?
That is especially true if the abuser is a very powerful and wealthy man.
The more wealthy he is the less likely we are to believe that he would really do unimaginable abusive things.
Instead, we place the blame on the victims.
After all, why would a man of such standing do such things?
It must be fake news.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the forthcoming CHRISTIAN BEND: A novel (Mercer University Press).