The Keepers screenshot

The Investigation of a Nun’s Murder Delivers a Death Blow to the False Memory Narrative

The Keepers, a documentary series about the 1969 murder of a Catholic nun, is currently available on Netflix. This article contains spoilers. [Updated 9/23/2017]

The Keepers follows the progress of a devoted amateur team of investigators as they uncover a trafficking ring run by a Catholic priest in Baltimore in the late 1960’s. Victims, mostly teenage girls at the time, recount being raped not only by the priest, but a cast of shady characters including police officers and politicians. They also recount that the priest, a psychologist, drugged, and hypnotized them. 

The nun at the center of the story, Sister Cathy Cesnik, was a beloved, young teacher at Archbishop Keough High School. Four girls reported to her that the priest had abused them. Cesnik transferred out of Keough, and disappeared one night in November. Her body was found a month and a half later.

The central witness in the documentary is Jean Hargadon Wehner. In 1994, she, along with another trafficking victim, Theresa Lancaster, brought a civil suit against the Archdiocese of Baltimore as Jane Doe and Jane Roe respectively. In the mid-90’s however, the public was well on its way to fully accepting as conventional wisdom the concept of false memory. Maryland’s statute of limitations in cases of sexual assault is only 7 years, and the court, after hearing arguments from false memory proponents, refused to allow an exception for delayed recall.

Despite this defeat, the women persevered and persisted, and twenty five years later, their voices, along with dozens of others, ring out through filmmaker Ryan White’s vehicle. Indeed, the courage of the women, the investigators Abby Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, and their advocates, is extraordinary, and lovingly on display throughout the series. Real change is brought about when ordinary people refuse to yield.

Over the course of the seven part series, director White masterfully builds suspense by floating unsupported Jean’s account of being led to see Sister Cathy’s body, a memory she herself describes as “dissociated”. The claim hovers over each episode until at last validation is presented, and then White turns unequivocal. Through interviews with two psychiatrists, he delivers a scathing indictment of the false memory narrative and one of its major proponents, Dr. Paul Mc Hugh, a witness for the defense in the 1994 suit.

The concept of false memory is now so ingrained in the public consciousness it is akin to an auto-response. Most people are completely unaware of its dark history, and certainly its lack of scientific validity. Just to clear the air, here are some facts.

  • The term “False Memory” was invented by parents accused of sexual abuse.
  • False Memory Syndrome is not a diagnosis, has never been clinically proven to exist, and is not included in the DSM.
  • The False Memory Syndrome Foundation board contained one admitted pedophile, and two former US human experimentation program contractors, Martin Orne, and Louis Jolyon West.
  • The studies that false memory proponents claim prove their concept tested narrative memory, and belief. The findings cannot be applied to memory formed in the midst of trauma which involves different neural pathways.

Elsewhere on Borne, Brian Moss cites the founders’ own words exposing the questionable ethics, connections, and funding of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. But let’s be clear about the ways in which humans can survive overwhelming trauma, thanks to Dr. Leslie Lothstein of Yale University in The Keepers:

Some things we experience are so unbearable and so painful, that we shut them out. The major systems for protection of the self, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal fight flight response, the polyvagal response, to play dead, to dissociate, to be unaware of something, they’ll come right into play, in order to protect the self from harm.

It Gets Darker

Jean is not the only survivor of the trafficking ring who reports experiencing dissociation or amnesia. The girls were chosen based on their confessions to the priest, girls with troubled histories, addictions, and previous traumas. Before, during, and after the rapes, they were drugged, hypnotized, psychologically terrorized, and threatened. One of them was set with the task of recording the details of the girls’ reactions to these “sessions” for the priest. The priest at the center of the ring, Father Maskell is a psychologist, and has extensive military connections. The site of Sister Cathy’s murder, and the center of the trafficking ring is Baltimore, a short drive from Fort Meade, the NSA, and several other military and spook installations. The body of another young woman whose murder the investigators believe is connected to the same ring, was found at Fort Meade. The murder took place and the ring was active during the height of MKUltra related experimentation programs.

Although I’m limited in what I can state publicly, I believe Ryan White and the amateur investigators have been digging into a network that stretches beyond the Archdiocese and Baltimore Police. I believe that the girls were being used as test subjects in a less than tidy subproject of US psychological experimentation programs, with Father Maskell as a contractor. That’s why the records were buried in the cemetery. That’s why the cover-up extended to the highest levels of local government and through to the FBI. That’s why Sister Cathy was murdered. I believe this because I recognized one of the perpetrators, and I have never been to Baltimore.

Watch The Keepers and see for yourself.


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