The Keepers – Episodes 3 & 4: Or How the Church Failed

The following has specific details, aka “spoilers.”

Episodes 3 and 4 of The Keepers titled “The Revelation” and “The Burial” are appropriately named.  These episodes look at how Jane Doe (Jean Hargadon Wehner), who we met in episode 2 comes to remember her abuse and her connection to Sister Cathy Cesnik and how the Archdiocese of Baltimore failed to do what was right.  Along with this, is the suggestion that the Baltimore police and the courts did not do all that it could and that there is a very real possibility that intimidation has silenced and squashed the investigation into the abuse at Keough High School and the murder of Sister Cathy.

The more things become known, the more things are unclear.  I don’t know cinematography and all that stuff from anything, but much of the third and fourth episodes consist of voice overs, distorted photographs, reflections of buildings in puddles, and trees blowing in the sky. At one point when “The Revelation” focuses on Jane Doe’s memories and how she recovered them – especially when dealing with Sister Cathy’s murder – the film goes to buzzard-like birds in trees with ground shots of a dead deer and a little bunny seemingly caught in the crosshairs of a hunter.  The mood set is ominous.

While we don’t see a bunny being shot, we do understand that the Jane Doe’s fear at what she begins to remember over twenty years after leaving high school and how she processes those memories are nearly as horrible as the second episodes frank testimony of what happened to her.   With these memories and the support of her family Doe first goes to the Church she still loves and seeks its help.  Moving through meeting after meeting with Archdiocesan officials and lawyers, she is pressured to reveal others who were abused to corroborate her case.  Effectively stonewalled by the Church, she turns to her extended family and a new lawyer to investigate and develop a case against her abuser.  From this point in the early 1990s, the search for other victims or anyone who knows about abuse at Keough results in reportedly over a 100 witnesses.  Despite all the testimony, a legal case was not brought against Joe Maskell for supposed lack of evidence and the suggestion of a conspiracy by the police, the Church, and the justice system to make it all go away.

The fourth episode, “The Burial,” looks at both the burial of evidence (Joe Maskell literally buried his files in a cemetery) and the attempt to kill the civil case against the Baltimore Archdiocese, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and Joe Maskell.  With no movement in a legal case, a civil case would be the only means of seeking justice, especially with Maskell still active in parish ministry at this point. The civil case, however, was never allowed to go forward because a judge ruled that recovered memories were not admissible and the statute of limitations was up on the abuse allegations.  This was the heyday of recovered memory and attempts to discredit them.  The documentary includes clips from Sally Jessy Raphael Show, which featured an expose on planted memories and recovered memories in the mid-1990s.  It is also the point as one psychological expert tells when we did not know as much as we do now about post-traumatic stress disorder. Jane Doe and Jane Roe (Teresa Lancaster) and their case never comes to trial and they were denounced as confused and delusional.  (Yes, that’s right, the legal team from the Archdiocese called them hysterical women.)

The Church failed.  “The Revelation” begins with what might be hope that someone in the Church leadership would do the right thing, only to hide behind the need for “corroboration” and the charge that the victims had to protect the Church and keep quiet.  I watched “The Burial” and followed Doe and Roe endure invasive, insulting, and abusive depositions and gather courage with the support of their families to go into court, only to be silenced.  Towards the end of the episode we get a quick glimpse at Teresa Lancaster’s life after this failed case. She went on to get her college and law degrees and she works to defend people who need justice.  We see Lancaster watching news coverage of the demonstrations for justice after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody.  She remarks about Mr. Gray’s death at the police’s hands in a way that suggest that some Baltimore police have a history of acting unjustly, including her case.  This is a brief moment in this episode but it is problematic.  There is so much to unpack about race and justice in this that is not touched by the filmmakers that it runs the danger of oversimplification.

At what seems to be a natural end to this episode, “The Burial” continues with a return to the dynamic duo, Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, who spearhead the investigation into Sister Cathy’s death, and their Facebook page devoted to solving Sister Cathy’s murder.  It is this page that drew alumnae and others who were abused together.  It drew Jane Roe to identify herself.  We know right away that there will be more revealed in the next episode as we see Jean Wahner discussing her greatest fear and biggest block in her memory.  There is one of her abusers she cannot identify, but she calls him “Brother Bob.” We learn here that he was the reason she kept silent after Maskell showed her Sister Cathy’s body.  And we end with the question, “Who is Brother Bob?”

We still haven’t heard much from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, something I very much want.  Of course.  Yet, I am still stuck with other questions already raised.  The biggest one for me is why did the Church fail to do what was right?  To even see what is right?  What were the moments in history, the psychology, the sociology, the theology that were corrupted even that allowed for one group of people to ignore its own mission to serve itself instead of justice?

Yeah, the episodes are still kind of intense and hard to watch.

The Keepers – Episodes 1 & 2

I heard about The Keepers on Netflix about two weeks before it aired for the first time.  I have waited another week before starting the series. I watched the first two episodes this afternoon in one sitting.  I had to stop before I continued with the next episode.  I am not opposed to binge-watching shows like all the cool kids are doing, but I as the second, gut-wrenching episode came to an end, I knew I would sit on my couch consuming one episode after another until it was over.  I had to get up and walk away.  I knew if I kept watching, I would miss something important.

The way many of us watch programs now is hurried.  We start a series and in many cases we can run right through the entire season of a show in a week or less.  (My husband and I are currently making our way through the eleventh season of Midsomer Murders; thankfully there are many more seasons to go.)  I still watch a few shows on “regular networks”and I must wait week-to-week for a new episode.  As much as I hate a cliff hanger, I do love the anticipation of that new season.  I often record these shows on my DVR and watch them later, so I don’t have to sit through commercials.  (I started this speed watching of programs when I was in graduate school in the 1990s and “taped” my soaps.  One just didn’t admit to watching soap operas in women’s history programs in the 1990s.)  In graduate school I also learned to speed-read books (of sorts).  I now know how to “read” a book in an afternoon.  Slowing down to really absorb and consider what an author has presented takes patience (not to mention time).

And time is what I need to absorb the significance of what went on in the late 1960s – early 1970s at Archbishop Keough and Catholic Baltimore at this time.   This new documentary series examines the cold case of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, SSND in 1969.  The first episode introduces the murder – or murders.  Another young woman went missing four days after Sister Cathy and was found dead soon after. Her murder has not been solved either.  So far in the first two episodes, we hear from former students and victims of abuse, the family and friends of the murdered women, some journalists who investigated the cases, and some former police officers and detectives involved in the case.  The police so far have a marginal role thus far.  Some former School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) appear and their testimony of religious life in the 1960s in the context of Vatican II is interesting.  So far, no SSNDs or Roman Catholic Church representatives have appeared.

As a historian of women religious and twentieth-century American Catholicism, I watch these episodes with an eye towards history of this period.  Recent scholarship has begun to look more thoughtfully at women who left religious life and the consequence of clerical sex abuse.  What happened to the Church in the twentieth century that produced such priests-abusers?  Why were there school sisters who could not or would not call out such atrocities in schools and parishes?  And, as the second episode suggests, why were there men in positions of authority – like law enforcement – contemporaries and friends of the chief priest abuser in this account – who not only protected this man, but participated in the abuse?

The second episode is difficult to sit through.  When I heard about this series, I worried to myself – will it be salacious?  Will it exploit?  Is this another example of horror that is numbing us into not caring?  (Or rather, numbing me?)  I think this is why I waited to watch it.  Now that I have started, I will continue to the end.  I hope.  At the center of this episode is the testimony of Jane Doe – who is identified, as is her family, and provides frank and at times stoic accounts of what she endured.  As I listened, I found myself questioning what I had heard.  What did she say happened?  It can’t be real.  And here’s the thing – so much of what we see in programs and the news is horrible.  The line between real and made up – fact and fiction – is blurred.  Reality programs are contrived for better viewing and ratings.  Crime dramas are “ripped from the headlines” and depending on what channel or service you watch, those stories are sanitized or laid bare in a way that one questions the intent of all that exploitive violence.

No, the testimony of the women in The Keepers is real and it deserves time.  It deserves me sitting with it and letting it sink in fully.