Directed by Ryan White
Debuts 5/19/2017 on Netflix
All 7 episodes watched for review
“You can’t bury the truth so deep it won’t come up.”
Abuse of children in any form is beyond heinous, but there’s a distinct cruelty when the abuse is suffered at the hands of a member of the clergy. To people of the Catholic faith, priests and nuns are the closest human link to the divine — the living, breathing agents of God; not angels in a picture book, not saints long turned to dust and bone housed in ornate reliquaries. They’re flesh and blood. Which also means they’re human. And there is nothing more flawed than a human being. For years, the Catholic church covered-up mountains upon mountains of evidence of abuse, busing abusive priests from one parish to the next, seemingly unconcerned with how many fragile young lives they were destroying. The clergy is supposed to be a physical representation of the all-loving light of God — imagine how it must feel when that light hurts you?
Netflix’s new seven-part docuseries The Keepers is being sold as another entry in the increasingly popular True Crime genre, a genre recently bolstered by the podcast Serial, HBO’s series The Jinx and Netflix’s own Making a Murderer. And indeed, at the heart of The Keepers rests an unsolved murder mystery, steeped in conspiracy. But that’s not really what this show is about. Instead, The Keepers is a reflection on shattered lives and crumbling faith. It is a chronicle of remarkable, damaged people poking through darkness to find some sort of light. There is relentless evil here — but there’s good, as well. The end result is a remarkable, ultimately heartbreaking saga with no easy answers. You won’t come away from The Keepers confident that you solved a mystery, but you might come away changed.
In November of 1969, Sister Cathy Cesnik, a young, much-loved nun and Baltimore Catholic high school teacher, vanished seemingly into thin air. She had gone out to run errands, but at some point all sight of her ceased. The only clue to turn up was her car, left parked with the key’s still in the ignition across the street from her apartment. Two month’s later, Sister Cathy’s body was found. There were no leads, and the case remained unsolved and all but forgotten until the 1990s, when a surprising witness came forward. The witness was known in records only as “Jane Doe”, and she claimed to have been a student of Sister Cathy’s. She also claimed to have seen Sister Cathy’s dead body shortly after the nun vanished — shown to her by a priest named Father Joseph Maskell.
As presented here by those who knew, and were abused by him, Joseph Maskell, who worked in the same school as Sister Cathy, is a creature of almost unspeakable evil. A foul, manipulative monster who thrived within the church’s system of covering up abuse. One by one, The Keepers interviews women who were under his care. Maskell would summon then from class to his private office, where he would systematically rape and abuse them, all under the guise of teaching them a lesson or saving their soul. And that wasn’t all — Maskell operated a sex abuse ring, bringing in outside men — many of them police officers and local politicians — to take part in the abuse. According to Jane Doe, who is revealed to be a woman named Jean Wehner, she had confessed the abuse to Sister Cathy, and Cathy was determined to put a stop to it — and that’s what got her murdered.
Director Ryan White dramatically puts the pieces together. He talks with Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, former students of Sister Cathy turned amature sleuths, trying to get the facts straight. Then there’s the priest who had a close relationship with Cathy, and urged her to leave the church and marry him. Also thrown into the mix: a former cop who was at the crime scene when Cathy’s body was found, who agrees to be helpful, but not too helpful; two different women who both have startlingly similar stories claiming their respective uncles killed Cathy; a reporter who has been tracking the case for almost his entire career; and the family of another woman who was abducted and murdered around the same time as Cathy. At the center of it all though is “Jane Doe”, Jean Wehner, still coming to terms with her traumatic past. She had repressed the memories of her abuse for so long, and not they’ve come back to haunt and unmoor her. Wehner is astoundingly brave; an individual of immense resolve, fighting against her past. Hovering above it all is the specter of Joseph Maskell, the abusive priest who inexplicable carried a gun around and ruled over his child sex ring like a demonic despot. Stacks and stacks of evidence reveal in black and white how the church tolerated and sheltered Maskell, enabling him to ruin as many young lives as he possibly could.
As a docuseries, The Keepers doesn’t always work. White introduces threads that never amount to much — the disappearance and murder of a second woman around the time of Cathy’s death raises an eyebrow but is completely forgotten after being introduced; an over-dramatic moment that introduces a character set-up to be scary and possibly dangerous seems silly after we meet the individual and he turns out to be completely harmless. But there’s such raw, aching human emotion and drama here that the flaws are easy to overlook. Most of all, there are the people here like Jean Wehner, who continue to reach out for the truth, and, most of all, believe that no matter how dark things get, the truth will eventually come out. They have faith in that, and faith is a hard thing to come by.