I have a strange relationship with the city of Baltimore because my dad, who died in a tractor accident in 1992, came of age there in the mid-1960s. He came to revere the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and volunteered in a campaign against housing segregation there. He first smoked pot there. He rebelled against his parents.
By 1966, his family had moved to Urbana, Ill. because my grandfather, who taught English at Johns Hopkins University, accepted a position at the University of Illinois. My dad split for San Francisco; there was little reason to maintain ties with Baltimore.
Baltimore was and is a heavily Catholic city, as the new Netflix documentary series, “The Keepers,” observes. My dad’s family was Catholic, too; my grandfather had studied to be a Jesuit priest at one point. As far back as I can remember, my dad always identified as a lapsed Catholic. He only came to the Disciples of Christ church — where my mom, my sister and I attended — for fellowship dinners, and then only after the worship service had concluded. In his later years, he attended Sufi dance ceremonies. The only remnant of his Catholic faith was our subscription to the Catholic Worker, the radical anarchist-pacifist newspaper founded by Dorothy Day.
My dad had no reservations about telling the reason why he left the faith. I was probably 10 when he told me about how a nun in junior high had told him to stop crying after he had been called to the office for being involved in a fight. He said he was never able to cry after that. He also told me about a priest who was known to molest boys. The Catholic boys would take turns sleeping over at the priest’s house. My dad was savvy enough to come up with an excuse for not staying over with the priest. It would be a well over a decade before the Boston Globe brought recognition of the widespread nature of sexual abuse by priests and the church’s systematic cover-up of the crimes.
It appears that my dad and, more significantly, his two younger sisters were fortunate. Three years after the family’s departure for Urbana, a horrific saga unfolded at Archbishop Keough High School, an all-girls parochial school. In November 1969, a nun who had formerly taught at Keough named Catherine Cesnik was murdered, as told in “The Keepers.” The seven-part series strongly suggests that Cesnik was murdered to prevent her from exposing Father Joseph Maskell. Multiple women, who were students at Keough in the late 1960s and early ’70s, allege that Maskell raped them and orchestrated sexual abuse by other men. Maskell died in 2001. The documentary series focuses on the dogged efforts of two Keough alumni — Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub, who anchor the years-long investigation — to uncover the truth. It provides an important reminder of the evil of institutions when their authority goes unchecked.
Let’s pray that Catherine Cesnik and the girls she tried to protect receive the full measure of justice. As for my dad and his siblings, I can only thank God they shook the dust off their feet and left that town.