Reviewing: The Keepers

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Sometimes it’s hard to generalize when we know there is such diversity in our world. Other times, when you’ve seen the same thing or heard the same story over and over again, it is easy to say that everyone is the same. With the release of Netflix’s new docu-series, The Keepers, I’ve become thoroughly convinced of two things: many people are corrupt beyond salvation, and many more people are masochists.

*Spoilers ahead.*

I don’t know why myself and so many others are so addicted to stories like the ones told in films and shows such as Making a Murderer and The Keepers, but I’ve become somewhat convinced that it is because we like to put ourselves through the ringer every once in a while, to keep ourselves in check. I also wonder why those normal citizens working tirelessly to solve the question of who killed Sister Cathy Cesnik would put themselves through so much pain and frustration. Yet, this is where the story begins.

The seven-part documentary details the events surrounding the murder of a nun, Cathy Cesnik, and the priest, Father Joseph Maskell, that she worked with in an all-girls Catholic school in Baltimore in the 1960s. The first episode details the facts of Cesnik’s disappearance and the finding of her body. We are presented with the simple question: Who would want to kill a nun? Fast forward several years and an anonymous former student of Cathy’s reveals that she was taken to see Cesnik’s body by Maskell, who had been sexually abusing her through most of her time at school.

From this controversial admission, we jump off into stories of sexual abuse, corruption, murder, and a cover story. The Keepers is a hauntingly respectful retelling of abuse at the hands of a priest and the potential reasons why Cesnik was murdered. The show essentially consists of two stories: that of the murdered nun, and that of the abusive priest. We are presented with the facts of the murder, which led to the exposure of extensive sexual abuse of over 100 girls at Seton Keough High School. From this point on, the focus is placed solely on the tales of the abuse survivors as they tell their stories.The producers of the show treat each player with respect and sincerity, allowing them to tell the story in their own words without shying away from the emotional trauma they experienced. It is difficult to watch, but it is important that they included the tears and the anger because these are the parts we need to see when dealing with a story like this.

Later in the series, intertwined with survivors’ stories, is the investigative interviews conducted by the producers and directors. We hear from former and current law enforcement officials dealing with the case. We hear from journalists who covered the case. We hear from families who suspect members of their own of involvement in the murder. We hear from a suspect himself. The producers do not hesitate or shy away from accusatory questions and offer as many opportunities to all of their sources to voice their own opinions. When one name is mentioned, they bring them into the story, even when the source seems unreachable, they manage to find them and bring them out into the light (more or less). Each episode provides a small twist when you finally learn who Jane Doe is, or hear Deep Throat speak, or see Edgar Davidson trying to process the situation in his old age.

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Jane Doe: Jean Wehner.

They also address critics that Jane Doe faced, as many of her memories of abuse were recently recovered from the recesses of her mind. While Maskell was abusing her, she describes disassociating, which would have caused her mind to repress the trauma of the abuse. Years later, when she is safe with her husband and family, her mind allows those memories to come back. Yet, during this time, the topic of recovering lost memories is widely controversial and many believed there is no such thing. Many believed they were false memories placed their by powerful suggestions. But when you see Jane Doe, Jean Wehner, speak about what happened, her conviction is so strong, her emotion so moving, I can’t believe anyone thought (or thinks) she is lying. Especially when proof is shown later.

The show lives up to its home’s reputation— extremely binge-worthy and infuriating.

I never was particularly religious, at least not in a conventional sense. Perhaps this is why I have a somewhat morbid interest in these types of stories. But they always enrage me, and The Keepers is no different. All of the events described in the show happened prior to the large exposure of abuse and corruption in the Catholic church by the Spotlight team of The Boston Globe. Yet all of the stories and the people who attempted to expose the truth were there all along. They were simply swept under the rug. I think the most infuriating thing is the twist in the last episode when we learn that Maskell had committed the same type of abuse before. Yet, when the boy’s mother notified the Archdiocese, they simply moved him to Seton Keough where this all continued on a much larger scale. But when asked of former abuse reported about Maskell, the Archdiocese denied that there were any complaints prior to Jane Doe.

Here is solid, hard evidence of corruption within the church. I don’t understand how people could trust their institution, where they are supposed to learn morals and ethics, when the institution itself does not follow its own doctrines. It makes my blood boil.

And through it all, you have the survivors and the gumshoes, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, who guide us through the case and slowly pick away at governmental side of the cover-up. We see Schaub continually requesting information from governmental agencies with barely a written response in return. Again, how are citizens supposed to trust the institutions that are supposed to protect and serve (which also means delivering justice even after our lives have ended), when they are so deeply corrupted that information is simply “lost.”

My only slight critique of the show is that I would have liked to know more about Cesnik’s life before she became a nun, and during her studies before she became a teacher at Seton Keough. We are only given a partial description of who she was through her students’ eyes, and later her sister’s. But she always appears as this kind of elusive ghost throughout the story. We have more background on Maskell than we do on the victim, which seems somewhat backward to me. There were ethereal descriptions of her empathetic character and loving personality and her deeply held faith. I just wanted something more that made her seem tangible, rather than the legendary fable she has become.

While I think The Keepers did a fantastic job at telling a very important story that I hope will have positive consequences in the near future, I worry about its place in our current society. In a time when we are so divided, the issues presented may serve to divide us even further from the institutions we have been conditioned to trust all of our lives.

But maybe that’s a good thing — to not blindly trust, and to question and act when you feel something is wrong, even if it’s for someone else.

What did you think of The Keepers? Can justice ever be adequately obtained for Cathy Cesnik? The abuse survivors? What should the church do in response to the facts the documentary exposes? What is the importance of telling these stories and how do people move forward in trusting/working with the church and/or government? Let’s talk.

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