The Keepers [2017] – A Gut-Wrenching Look at Systemic Sexual Abuse

The Keepers

For the past decade or so quite a few documentaries and feature films have surfaced to shine its spotlight on the hideous, dark caverns of abominable Catholic Church cover-ups. The recent Oscar winning movie Spotlight (2015) chronicled the impressive efforts of investigative journalists to unearth the truth regarding the sexual abuse of underage boys and girls by Boston Catholic priests. It showcased how for decades the priests used their authority to abuse children and continued to receive full protection from the Church. The truth was hushed in the press and squashed within the premise of police precinct. Even before Spotlight, there was Alex Gibney’s rage-inducing Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012). It reports a priest’s sexual abuse of group of boys at Milwaukee school for the deaf. Twist of Faith (2004) was another significant documentary about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps the most disturbing picture on the subject was Amy Berg’s Deliver Us from Evil (2006). The documentary confronted then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) on Vatican’s alleged cover-up of sexual abuses committed by an Irish priest (other high officials of Vatican were hinted to have taken part in the cover-up exercise). Amy Berg also featured the priest, who had molested several children for decades. Despite being well aware of the repeated patterns in Catholic Church Scandals, Netflix’s new 7-part mini docu-series The Keepers (2017) manages to shock us to the core.

Directed by Ryan White (Good Ol’ Freda and The Case Against 8), The Keepers in its initial episode delves into unsolved 1969 murder case and seems to boast the aim of solving a cold case through close re-examination of evidence and suspects. But the murder case soon becomes a smaller part of a bigger mystery and act of injustice. The 1969 murder serves as perfect starting point to showcase the complex web of abuse at the Baltimore all-girls school. Like Netflix’s another blood-boiling docu-series ‘Making a Murderer’, The Keepers is a true-crime epic about denied justice. But at the same time The Keepers doesn’t provoke us to do some armchair sleuthing. It doesn’t possess Jinx’ style confession of the alleged murderer and its primary aim was not to finger a point at one direction. There are many layers to the murder case, some of them brought to light in the documentary and some still deeply and deliberately buried.

It was November 1969. Dennis Hopper’s counter-culture road movie Easy Rider was playing at the local theater. The suburbs of Baltimore were bathed in tranquility. Peoples lived in neighborhoods where they didn’t bother to lock the doors. The 1960s was the decade of change for American women (beginning of second-wave feminism). Amidst all the deep cultural changes that transformed the role of women, young girls of Baltimore went to Archbishop Keough High School. The teaching staffs were mostly comprised of priests and nuns. Students of Grade 11 particularly adored one sister named Cathy Cesnik. One girl recalls the angelic 27 year old nun coming into the class to read ‘The Scarlet Letter’. She is painted with a saintly brush which makes us recall our own single most favorite teacher. Sister Cathy, unlike many nuns and priests, lived with Sister Russell Phillips in an apartment outside the public school premises (a kind of experiment to better understand their pupils). On November 7, 1969 Cathy Cesnik went to a shopping mall to buy a present for her sister Marilyn’s wedding. She didn’t return to the apartment. Hours later, Cathy’s car was found few meters from her residence, parked at an odd angle. The search for the sister went on for two months, until her body was found at a remote garbage dump. The killer was never found.

Abbie Shaub (left) and Gemma Hoskins

The first hint that there was more to Cathy’s murder than meets the eye comes in the form of another murder, committed shortly after Cathy’s disappearance. Joyce Malecki, age 20, from the same Baltimore neighborhood was abducted, killed and dumped in the similar fashion. But the police and FBI repeatedly stated that there’s no connection between the murders. The cases remained sensational until 1977 and later went cold. In 1994, a woman only known as ‘Jane Doe’ came forward and revealed that she had been the victim of horrifying sexual abuse at the hands of Father Joseph Maskell, while studying at Keough High School. Moreover, Jane Doe claimed that she confided to Sister Cathy about the abuse. The incendiary detail in her statements is that she was taken by Father Maskell to see the body of Cathy as a note of warning.

Keough alums Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Shaub were the two important women who had kept alive the public interest in the (close to 50 year old) case. They both adored Sister Cathy and spear-heads the social media campaign – Justice for Sister Cathy and Malecki – to know what really happened to their teacher and the young girl. Gemma meets different people who provide her small clue in the case, whereas Abbie is a hard-working researcher. Apart from Gemma and Abbie, freelance journalist Tom Nugent and Father Gerry Koob (Cathy’s best friend) were plagued by the mystery behind Cathy’s murder. It was only in the second episode the scope of The Keepers broadens. It begins to project a more devilish undercurrent of continued systemic abuse by a pedophilic priest, who was staunchly protected by the Archdiocese of Baltimore (and possibly by law and justice department forces) up until his death in 2001.

Director Ryan White’s aunt went to the Keough High School and was Sister Cathy’s student. His aunt was shocked when the identity of Jane Doe was finally revealed (in 2014) because she was her classmate. Donning the role of documentarian White flew to Baltimore and met Jane Doe whose real name is Jean Wehner. Jean is the heart of the series and the reason for delving into dark and deeper crevices of the horrific past. Ms. Wehner claims Father Maskell – a well-studied psychological expert — carefully chose his victims (in Jean’s case she was abused by her uncle as a child). She was repeatedly molested, raped, and psychologically tortured not only by Father Maskell, but also by group comprising of cops, priests, and other big-wigs of the city. In 1994, after Jean’s lawsuit many other students of Keough came forward with similar stories of abuse, accusing Father Maskell. Out of those hundreds of people, very few have decided to tell their horrific experiences in front of camera (five are shown in the series but 40 women talked with director White). The story of Jean Wehner and the similarly abused women turns the series into devastating chronicle of institutional apathy at its worst. The most indelible, horrific revelation is that Father Maskell was reported for sexual abuse by a boy’s parent in 1967. The Archdiocese simply transferred the pedophilic monster to Keough all-girls High School. Even after media and law enforcement attention on Maksell (from 1994), the Catholic Church kept on transferring him to different parishes, providing him with unbridled access to children. Furthermore, the docu-series states the inability to relax the stringent laws (regarding statue of limitations in child abuse cases) as the Church continues to hire lobby firms and block the respective bills.

Jean Wehner

Ryan White’s aesthetic approach while examining the case details follows the footsteps of Errol Morris – father of true-crime documentary investigation. Errol Morris’ reenactments were mostly based on known facts. He didn’t establish contrived theories as truth through visual embellishments. But the theories in Cathy’s murder case and other testimonies (related to Maskell’s abuse) were not wholly proven beyond reasonable doubt. However, director White doesn’t use visual reenactments for sheer sensationalism. It keeps alive the puzzled and confused nature of the case. Having worked for the documentary for more than two years, the director and his crew may have concrete belief in one particular theory, but they don’t put forth any single idea to iterate ‘this is what exactly happened to Sister Cathy’. The ending segments in each episodes were brilliantly designed (the editing on the whole was astounding. Nearly three editors and three assistant-editors worked for the mini-series). The ending introduces new angles to the incidents, provoking our interest to immediately start watching the next episode (the introduction of Jane Doe and the alleged suspect Edgar in the final segments of different episodes were chilling to watch). The Keepers is also not a simple ‘he-said-she-said’ story. Each of its claims and theories are firmly backed by rigorous research and double checks. Abbie, Gemma (dedicated large part of their life to the case), and journalist Tom Nugent couldn’t be dismissed as amateur sleuths since their investigation approaches were as thorough as a certified detective’s work (from investigating on the lifecycle of maggots to the significance of a pendant their work is impeccable).

What makes The Keepers very successful is the way the threads of murder/mystery and the Jean Wehner’s meditation on truth are balanced out. Unlike Making the Murderer or the acclaimed podcast Serial, Cathy’s case doesn’t have the sense of urgency. From the suspects to investigators, most of them are dead; evidence lost or squandered. It’s the same with Jean and other woman’s accusation of child abuse and Church’s indifferent behavior; either most of the victims are dead or the justice system repeatedly cites statue of limitations. So the crux of the documentary isn’t just to provide adrenaline-pumping twists. Consequently, Ryan White cleverly focuses on women like Jean Wehner and their strong inner spirit to report the stories of abuse. He never loses sight of the inconceivable ordeal suffered by Jean and others, as both teens and adults, not to mention the shared pain experienced by their husbands and children. White clearly details how the justice system and Church deliberately silenced these women’s voices. Despite digging up heap of files in a cemetery (buried by Maskell which might have been evidence of the pedophilic ring) and getting 30 anonymous phone calls from different abused women, the sex crime division stayed nonchalant. In another appalling instance, important evidence regarding Cathy’s murder seems to have gone missing. Far worse is the murder investigation of Joyce Malecki whose case details are yet to be divulged by FBI.


The Keepers, on one hand is the thorough examination of the dark crimes perpetrated by nasty individuals belonging to huge, allegedly noble institutions. This part may put us in the doom-and-gloom mood. Yet, on the other hand the documentary bestows immense hope for humanity amidst all the feelings of fury, tears, and helplessness. Jean, Teresa and others’ determination would provide great hope for many damaged souls who are tired of solely carrying the terrible truth (Jean’s very final address about ‘voices emanating from cracks’ reduced me to tears). In fact, Ryan White says he was astonished by the number of authentic e-mails he receives every day (after the Netflix premiere) from anonymous people confiding dark truths of abuse.

The Keepers (432 minutes) is a compelling true-crime documentary series that’s both a walk through unsolved crime story and examination of the emotional impact faced by survivors of sexual abuse. It doesn’t provide any definite closure for the victims, but the fact that silenced keepers of truth are raising their voices against very evil people instills us with an unforgettable viewing experience.


Ryan White Interview — wbur

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