Synopsis – A seven-part docuseries about the unsolved murder of a nun and the horrific secrets and pain that linger nearly five decades after her death.
My Take – Netflix strikes again! If you are a fan of the 2015 original true crime documentary known Making a Murderer, this seven-part true crime is a delight to watch, thanks to its superb musical accompaniment, sheer simple fact telling along with other excellent factors. Netflix’s latest documentary miniseries, ostensibly revolves around the 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, whose case remains unsolved nearly 50 years later. But she’s only a small part of a bigger puzzle—which is how Sister Cathy, who’s painted with a saintly brush throughout the series, would have wanted it. Like Making a Murderer—the series to which any Netflix true-crime series will inevitably be compared— this Ryan White directed series is concerned with mechanisms of power and how they are maintained and for a few moments, Netflix’s new true crime docuseries taps into the same charged verve as that earlier series, channeling its subjects’ frustration, desire for vindication, and anger while digging into the decades-old murder of a nun and its possible cover-up by the Catholic Church. But rather than delving into the twists and turns of a criminal case, it asks why certain crimes aren’t investigated & will make you feel a haunting numbness, a triumph of its empathetic approach to a complicated tale. The series is a scathing indictment of the Baltimore Maryland Archdiocese and its cover-up of abuse by priests in collusion with other locals, leading to the murder of a 27-year-old nun, Cathy Cesnik, a popular English and Drama teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in 1969. Decades later, the murder still haunts some of her students, particularly Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins – two women whose fierce devotion to their former teacher transforms them into “senior Nancy Drews” and a persevering freelance journalist, Tom Nugent, who have spent the intervening time trying to make sense of what happened, long after the brutal extermination of Cesnik became an official “cold case”.
Their loyalty and unflinching determination to discover the “truth” was and is an on-the-job learning curve; their use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other investigative methods, including old- fashioned footwork and interviews, begins to unearth an impenetrable darkness that enshrouds the case with widening implications. Buried execrable secrets eventually thrust themselves into the light making us gasp at the physical and mental sufferings of these people, & an agony that time never can expunge along with confusion and guilt. Minutes into the first episode, the series unveils its flashy, tantalizing mystery: the question of who killed one Sister Catherine “Cathy” Cesnik. Cesnik was a nun who taught English and drama at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland. She shared an apartment with a colleague, Sister Mary Russell, and on November 7, 1969, she left to buy an engagement present for her sister and did not return. Cesnik’s body was discovered on January 3, 1970 — two months after she disappeared — and her killer was never found. What filmmaker Ryan White does with the next six episodes is investigate why Cesnik was killed, not who killed her. He traces a web of relationships and a system of abuse that Cesnik was tethered to at Archbishop Keough by interviewing her former students, the people who were part of her life, and the authorities who seem to have dropped the ball in investigating her death. At the time, Cesnik’s murder was sensational, and it gripped the area. But the series implies that there was a lack of competence by the police in investigating it. According to the Baltimore Sun, Cesnik’s case became dormant after 1977.White eventually comes to a rattling deduction: Cesnik was killed because she found out about a pattern of sexual abuse that victimized the girls of Archbishop Keough, and threatened to do something to stop it. Her colleague Father Joseph Maskell, the alleged abuser of these girls (who are now older women), had something to do with it. The series dives into many topics, starting from the murder of a nun who was going to be a whistle blower on sexual abuse in the school she was teaching in & continues with the women who survived this abuse in high school and came forward years after to try and reconcile themselves – and to find the killer of the nun they so admired during their school years. It’s about them futilely trying to find justice from the Roman Catholic Church. It’s about a web of corruption that extends from the Church to the Police Departments. Most impressively it demonstrates the power that a group of self- motivated and courageous women can put onto their communities to attempt to find justice and accountability from those who commit horrendous crimes. It was obscene the pressure the Roman Catholic Church put on the victims. Their obfuscation to deny their responsibility shows how experienced the Roman Catholic Church has become through the ages at denial of their sins. The first thing everyone should know going in, is that if you are a survivor of sexual abuse, this might be traumatic for you. As it goes into gory, horrific detail of the most evil deed a man can commit. This is a hard show to watch, to listen to, and to be forced to sit silently and be powerless to do anything; to comfort the survivors, to condemn the lawyers, to scream at the judge, we are forced to be victimized too in a way. Because you will be taken in to a world of malicious evil, and corruption and be witness to the ugliest miscarriage of justice and abuse and be completely impotent to help or do anything the most remarkable feature of this series, is the dichotomy, the polarity here. On one side, you have the evilest filth the human race has produced and on the other, the most remarkable, beautiful, brave and graceful women that this planet has to offer, that was really part of what affected me so deeply, the humanity shown here especially in Jane Doe. I cannot imagine what they endured and had to walk through, if not for the support of their amazing families, things would have been quite different for them. What you will see unfold before you is both horrifying and deeply moving. The human beings here searching for both truth and acknowledgment are just the most inspiring and brave people. It reminded me of why we (all of us) should never put all our trust in powerful Institutions. We need to be vigilant. All powerful Institutions have a habit of lying to protect the Institution, rather than those they are supposed to serve.
We discover early on that the police and assisting governmental officials ignored salient facts during their investigation – reports are missing, records are transferred and now gone – all indications of the dominant influence of the Catholic Church in Baltimore on many of the institutions of power. The allegations of abuse revolve around one man, Father Joseph Maskell, who worked with Cesnik at Archbishop Keough High School and who, the series posits, was somehow involved in her murder after she threatened to expose him. The accusations leveled against Maskell in the series are absolutely sickening, as is the fact that he never faced justice in his lifetime. Director Ryan White skillfully parcels out details from episode to episode, often ending on a question that’s answered in the next chapter in a presumed nod to the binge-watching format. This way, over the course of seven episodes, he can transition between juicy true-crime theories and devastating accounts of institutional apathy with minimal shock to viewers’ systems, covering everything from the controversy over repressed memories to a particularly grotesque investigation into the life cycle of maggots. Our “detectives” uncover a pattern of horrific child abuse by Cesnik’s colleague, Maskell who would target the most vulnerable students; young girls who had a history of family trauma, and call them into his office for “counseling.” The beauty of innocence is also its bane; to navigate through corruption requires an armor that the tender skin of youth has not yet developed – those who scald that fragile shield are craven reprobates. Chief among these women is Jean Hargadon Wehner, known as “Jane Doe” when she attempted to get Maskell arrested, telling her story to the Baltimore police and Catholic Church officials in the 1990s. Her courage inspired others to come forward. And today, they inspire her back as she makes her story public with this documentary, and makes her a reluctant leader in this fight for justice, not just for her or Sister Cathy or the untold numbers of Maskell’s victims, but for every victim of sexual abuse who is pushed by a society that doesn’t want to deal into remaining silent and ashamed. Director Ryan White intersperses the past and present – through newspaper headlines, interviews with people whose lives touched on Sister Cathy and those who were victimized in Archbishop Keough High School, and eventually feel compelled to speak up – still believing that their oppressor, the Catholic Church would be their savior – not their foe in the daunting fight for truth and justice. We witness the long-arm of the Archdiocese which utilizes its power to quash dissent, quietly protecting the offending clergy by transferring them from school to school compounding the abuse. A hushed pall of silence – a cloud large enough to hover over medical personal, the police, and governmental agencies sanctioned a fog of evil to multiply and continue to destroy lives. Sure, the documentary series lacks the sharpness of Making a Murderer & the esoteric charm of the podcast Serial, but in taking on such a vast, complicated story, it can be forgiven for a lack of slickness or style. Its sloppy B-roll and simple interview setups are devoid of panache, but allow the focus to stay ever on the voices of these women who have so long been bullied to bury their stories and hurt. Through them, the series weaves a tapestry of radiant pain and righteous outrage that is electrifying, and as they channel these emotions into action, resistance and rebellion, becomes rousing. I tend to turn to true crime stories because I revel in the finale. Yes, something deeply horrible happened. But in the end, the killer was caught. Justice was achieved. The victim was avenged. The Keepers is not this kind of true crime story. With 47 years passing between Sister Cathy’s death and now, many of the key suspects are dead or senile. Some of its questions may never get satisfying answers. But that doesn’t mean the stories of Maskell’s survivors don’t matter. I personally believe in the credibility of the victims, applaud them for sharing their stories and their pain, and applaud the women who will not let Sister Cathy’s murder be buried and unwittingly uncovered the abuse that I also believe was at the root of it. On the whole, ‘The Keepers’ is a gripping, moving, and horrifying tale of sadness, which uses the best tropes of a true crime to give us a series which stimulates your empathy and makes you think. The Keepers is more of a meditation on memory and truth than a murder mystery, and the telling of the tale is a resolution in itself. The “keepers” of the title aren’t just the keepers of the status quo, but the keepers of the secrets that threaten that status quo and it’s in the telling of those secrets that the only justice left to the victims will be served.
Directed – Ryan White
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – Netflix