Netflix crime series "The Keepers" sparks calls for archdiocese to release priest's files

A crime series has prompted new calls for the Baltimore Archdiocese to release documents about a controversial priest.

"The Keepers" is a Netflix documentary series following Father Joseph Maskell and his alleged abuse of teenage girls at a Catholic high school.

It explores whether Maskell, who died in 2001, was connected to the unsolved murder of a nun.

More than 40,000 people have signed an online petition since the documentary's release, reports CBS News' Jan Crawford. 

"When I heard what happened, there was no doubt in my mind that Maskell did that," said Teresa Lancaster, an alleged victim of Maskell.

"The Keepers" begins with the unsolved murder of a nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik. 

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Netflix series "The Keepers" 

Netflix

Cesnik was a beloved teacher at an all-girls Catholic high school in Baltimore in the 1960s. She was murdered in November of 1969; her body was discovered in a landfill outside the city.

The series explores the theory that she was killed after finding out that the school chaplain -- Father Maskell -- was allegedly sexually abusing students at the school. It raises questions about whether Maskell was connected to Cesnik's murder to prevent her from exposing him.

"He said to me, 'if you tell anyone, I'm going to shoot you. Case closed,'" Lancaster said.

Lancaster says she was abused by Maskell when she was in high school.  She was one of two women who filed a $40 million lawsuit against him and the Archdiocese of Baltimore more than 20 years ago.  The suit was thrown out because the statute of limitations had passed.  She hopes the renewed public interest and the online petition will put pressure on the church to make the priest's file public.

If the priest's file were to be made public, Lancaster said, "That would mean the world to me.  That in and of itself would be the church taking a positive step. It would be them coming clean so to speak."

"To my knowledge, the church has never voluntarily released any documents pertaining to the clergy abuse crisis," said Terry McKiernan of Bishopaccountability.org.

McKiernan's organization, which has no affiliation with the church, has published abuse documents from about a dozen archdioceses and religious orders. But he says, in each case, the files were released only after the church was legally forced to do so.  

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Teresa Lancaster  

CBS News

The Baltimore Archdiocese has paid nearly half a million dollars to more than a dozen people Maskell is accused of abusing. In a statement, they say state law and church policy precludes them from releasing his records because they include "personnel records, health records" and "attorney-client communications."

"The Keepers" is just the latest crime drama to lead to public outcry over perceived injustices.  The podcast, "Serial," along with television series like "The Jinx" and "Making a Murderer" have both pushed audiences to dissect evidence on social media and led to re-examination in each case.

"The Keepers" director Ryan White says the audience could now be a critical component to accessing Maskell's file—and cracking the case.
    
"The amount of information that is coming in now from the documentary, the amount of people willing to speak up, makes me very hopeful that we can still solve this murder and also receive some justice for these child sex abuse victims," White said.