To Live in a World with Justice

The Keepers Episode 7 RecapIn early June, I watched the fifth and sixth episodes of Netflix’s The Keepers.   Then, we went on a bit of trip and then I got distracted, but after long last, I watched the last episode of this documentary series that seeks to find justice for Sister Cathy Cesnik and for the people who were abused by Joseph Maskell.  I kept looking at episode seven on my list of shows to watch; I heard other people talking about it.  Then The Keepers was nominated for an Emmy.  Well, I thought to myself, I better finish it.  And so I have.

Honestly, episodes five and six left me muddled.  Why did this documentary series get made?  The introduction of possible suspects in the fifth episode – two men whose family came forward with stories of truly disturbing and violent behavior – is followed by episode six and the confusing and underdeveloped look at Sister Cathy’s friends, Gerry Koob who claimed to love her and Helen Russell Phillips who was her roommate.  (Russell, as everyone calls her, is a huge mystery. At times she is accused of being complicit in the murder and at others it is suggested she was frightened into silence.)

As I said, these episodes left me muddled.  I tried to take a step back to think about the information – the testimony – as a historian.  When I read diaries, personal journals, and letters, I have to evaluate what the author was really saying, what was left out, what was the perspective.  I can rely on other documentation to fill in the gaps.  When I conduct oral history interviews, I have to remember that the same rules apply.  As a historian, writing the account of a past event requires that I work very hard to not preference one source without criticism.  At the end of the sixth episode – which I watched right after I finished five – I was left wondering what more is there to this?

Episode seven, reintroduces the Archdiocese of Baltimore as a spectre in this murder.  Maskell was accused of abuse before the Archdiocese transferred him to Keough HS.  Before all the violence, abuse, terror, and very possibly the murder of Cathy Cesnik, the Archdiocese of Baltimore knew that Joseph Maskell sexually abused a child.  They moved the problem.  What did the Church authorities think would happen?  (I know, I know, stupid question to ask.) The filmmakers return to Joyce Malecki and drop information about the Malecki family living in the same parish at which Maskell was assigned, St. Clement’s – the same parish from he was moved because of accusations of abuse.  Joyce’s brothers comment with frustration and sadness that when they die, the mystery of their sister’s murder will die with them, unsolved.  One brother died in 2016.  There is no justice for Joyce.

A bill continually is proposed to the Maryland legislature to extend the statute of limitations to report sexual abuse, because victims of abuse do not always have the ability to come forward.   The bill never makes it to vote; it is killed by the committee.  The filmmakers show us that the Archdiocese of Baltimore (through their legal representatives) are the chief opponents of this bill and it is suggested that the Church influences the committee leaders to kill the bill.  At no time is a priest, monsignor, or bishop on camera.  The Archdiocese denies any foreknowledge of Maskell’s actions. We are left with more questions – or one question – Will there be justice?

If the filmmakers wanted to call attention to these murders and the abuse, this series accomplished this goal. If they wanted to call attention to the horrendously wrong and bad position the Church took in the face of sexual abuse, they did that too.  One thing they apparently did not want to do is explore religious life in the 1960s and 1970s.  Everywhere it is dropped into this documentary series – the all-encompassing Catholic culture of Baltimore in the 1960s that allowed priests like Maskell to rule without question and justice to fail.  We hear about the changes of Vatican II to priests through Gerry Koob, who wanted to leave the priesthood because he fell in love with Cathy Cesnik.  We hear brief encounters of Eucharistic celebrations in Russell and Cathy’s apartment, and the experimentation conducted by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.  Yet, does anyone know what that means?  Experimentation in religious life could be anything.  In the case of Sisters Russell and Cathy, it meant they lived in an apartment instead of a convent.  It meant they might not wear their religious habit. (Why do the filmmakers keep showing viewers images of Sister Cathy in full habit, but barely touch that she wore secular clothing towards the end of her life? Did she not wear the habit because she was in a public high school or because her community decided to experiment with secular dress?) We learn in the seventh episode that the SSNDs forced sisters “experimenting” to chose the convent or to leave religious life all together.  Did they really give members of their community ultimatums and make it that clear cut?  From what I know of religious life at this time, it wasn’t that simple.  But, I am a historian of women religious and a casual observer would be yet again reminded that Catholic religious life was an abusive and oppressive existence and thank goodness all those women left religious life.  Yes.  In some cases, it was.  But it isn’t as simple as that.

Let me just remind my one reader that I am not an apologist for the Church.  I don’t like oversimplification of the lives of women religious.  It is not in the interest of the filmmakers to explore religious life in in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now, if they wanted to solve the mystery of who killed Cathy Cesnik (and possibly Joyce Malecki) they did not do that either.  They really wanted to.  Some of the interviews with one of the suspects and with the representatives from law enforcement left me with the impression that they thought by simply asking the question, they presumed they would get an answer. “Did you kill Cathy Cesnik?”  “Why yes, I did.” Case solved.  At one point in the midst of the interview with Baltimore police officials, the amateur sleuthing which in one way shined light on this case and the possibly corrupt mishandling of it, also may have compromised the case going forward. We end with Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins committed to finding Sister Cathy’s killer and Jean Wehner (Jane Doe) assuring her interviewer that Archdiocese of Baltimore, the perpetrators of abuse, and the officials who protect them, won’t be able to hide their guilt for much longer.

Will they?  Will justice prevail?  I don’t have the answer, nor does The Keepers.

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.

All Good Things Must Temporarily Pause Until the Next Time

ArchiveBoxes.jpgWell, finished Day Two of the research trip.  It was also Quiche Day at the convent.  There were about five different types of quiches to be had, plus salad. I think the quiche was made with a real crust with real butter, not the fake Pillsbury dough crust I usually use when I make quiche or pie.

On the whole it was a good day.  I got through more than I thought, despite having to accept I wouldn’t get through everything.  (I feel like that could a metaphor for life or something.)

I looked at a series of files that spanned a decade, which allowed me to see some change or evolution (historians love change over time). I read mostly correspondence and some news clippings.  Many of the letters I looked at were “circular letters,” which are correspondence to be circulated among the members of the different local houses or convents within a community.  Often they are from a provincial or generalate superior and are a means of circulating information.  Like a lot of official correspondence, they can skate over the surface of information, except when laying out details of communities Rule or customs, but they do say something.  When they are a part of a larger span of letters or files, it is interesting to see what other records reveal in conjunction with the circular letters.  How do we interpret what we read? How do we evaluate?

There is more to examine in this collection as is there in the entire Mercy Heritage Center.  The Mercys archivists have done good work with records management.  Much of the records that were transferred to Belmont were in good order with finding aids.  The Center staff are processing the collections and working to digitize the records for future researchers.  I highly recommend looking into its collections and visiting.  And besides, it might be Quiche Day when you are there.

 

 

Never Enough Time: How to Keep Up the Pace in the Archives

Day one of the Great Fall Research Trip down, one day left.  (Hey, it’s Fall Break, not Spring Break, or Summer Holidays. Fall-only-two-days-Break.)  Things have changed since the first time I entered an archives.  Sure, pencils still rule the day, but now one can use digital camera things to take pictures! (As long as they are approved by the archives.  Don’t go snapping pictures unless you have permission!)

The trouble with archives is that they are full of cool things to read and look at.  Yes, this is a true statement.  Now, do all those cool things apply to one’s current research? No.  Of course not.  They may however be of use at some point.  Or they may have the potential to be of use.  Or they are just very interesting and therefore the shiny object which could drag a researcher down a rabbit hole.  It is important to stay focused and keep moving.

And now we have digital cameras to take pictures of the shiny things for free!  But no, we will stay time-on-task because if the copies are free, my time is not and cannot afford to come back before I need to produce a conference paper.  Here, however, are a few helpful tips for keeping up the pace:

  1. Skim and search for keywords: Most historians learn (especially in graduate school) to read quickly.  If you have any sense of what you want to find or explore, look for those keywords. And the copy everything around it. (Remember, with digital camera, you can read that document in full later.)
  2. Get the full citation: Make sure you get the whole citation for future reference.  Literally.  Sure, sure, you may think you will remember it or have everything you need, but you will one day need to email all of your friends and listservs and then maybe grovel to the archivist to find that source’s citation and you will waste time.  Trust me.
  3. Bring mints: You don’t have time to take a break for snacks or lunch or whatever.  Keep your head down and your blood sugar up.  If you must break for lunch, make it quick. If you can, bring food that doesn’t require refrigeration.  Unless you go to a religious archives where they invite you to lunch at the convent, which is really awesome.  Again, religious archives have cool things.
  4. Don’t hydrate too much: This seems self-explanatory and slightly indelicate to explain why.  Besides you aren’t supposed to have liquids in the archives. This is not one of those new-styled libraries where there aren’t any books, but they have coffee shops. (To be honest, I do like that I can get coffee in libraries, but I am morally opposed to having the coffee, or any other food or beverage, near books.)
  5. Occasionally stretch your legs: You may find yourself getting tired when you spend eight hours in an archives.  Stand up, stretch, maybe take a quick stroll down the hall (especially if you didn’t heed the above advice).

The first day also reminded me (as if I needed reminding!) how good religious archives are.  There are wonders to be explored and there are good people working in these archives.  The Mercy Heritage Center has lots of cool things and I would highly recommend it.

Something About a Bike and Getting Back on It

This morning, I got on an airplane and took a nearly two-hour flight to use an archives.  I am currently settled in a local hotel organizing my notes and contemplating some grading that I really need to do.  I am about to spend two days at the Mercy Heritage Center and explore some files I hope will help me write a paper I will give next April.  Suddenly, after a couple years of not having something to research, here I am.

Is it like starting over or starting again? The subject of my paper has to do with the Sisters of Mercy – not new – but it is in an area I haven’t really explored before – so new.

When the Mercy book was finally published, I had to start thinking about what the next project would be.  (This isn’t the first time I have thought about this.) I am not in a solid work place. (By solid, I mean a contract more than a year or tenure-track.  Fine – whatever – making due.)  But what this means is that I have to figure out how to be engaged with scholarship while making it affordable. And fit into my schedule.  (I don’t claim that I am the only person in the known world to have such things to consider.)

And I would really like to write another book.  I think I have another one in me.  It’s either that or write a historical murder mystery involving crime-solving nuns.

I have lists of projects or potential projects and this is the first time one of those items moved from the “potential” phase.  I used a call-for-papers for a conference at the Cushwa Center to help propel me back into research mode.  (Since my paper was accepted, I have to write it. Funny that. That said, a paper proposal is a very good way of kicking oneself in one’s posterior.) One reason this trip is at all possible is that I get a little research funding in my current position.  Without it, I would have to fund my plane, hotel, car rental, food, and photocopies out of my own pocket.  This is not cheap.

So, I got on a plane and here I am.  Ready to get started.  New leaves are turning over.  Horses are being climbed onto again.  Bikes are being ridden again.    Maybe I’ll even go to the gym again and get in shape.  New day.

A Historian Walks into a Religion and Theology Conference and…

Yesterday, I had another full day at the AAR/SBL in Atlanta.  In the morning I attended a session on Anti-Catholic Protest, saw some friends that I met while working at the LFP, and then participated in the Women’s Caucus’ publishing Roundtable.

In the morning, I attend the North American Religions Section’s panel Protesting Catholics: The “New Anti-Catholicism” and the Politics of Public Religion in North America.  Amy Koehlinger, Oregon State University, presided, and Anthony Petro, Boston University, Hillary Kaell, Concordia University, Montreal, and Kathleen Holscher, University of New Mexico presented.  Robert A. Orsi, Northwestern University, responded.

[Disclaimer: I did try to attend a panel that did not involve a Catholic theme.  Really.   I just really wanted to see what these presenters had to say.]

This panel looked at more recent events in Catholic studies and included a examination of AIDS activists and use of camp in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Petro), Québécois feminist protests in Montreal in the early 2000 (Kaell), and contemporary Native American protest (Holscher). The last presentation looked specifically at the recent canonization of Junipero Serra as a means of looking at the larger protest movement.

This panel was engaging, thoughtful, and challenging. Like the West/Sales plenary from the day before, I need more time to really process the ideas offered.  One takeaway is the idea that Catholicism or Catholicity is not fixed.  The recent assertion that there is a “new” Anti-Catholicism originating from liberal democracy and more specifically from the Left was challenged by the panel.  Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative, Anti-Catholic and Catholic do not fit the reality of these protest movements.   I found Hillary Kaell’s paper about Québécois feminist very compelling as she argues that these activists are seen as a part of a French Canadian Catholic culture.  With Petro, Holscher, and later Orsi’s response, I took away a better understanding of (what I secretly believed, thank you panel) a broader Catholic belonging.  The conversation actually reminded me of Terrence Fishers’ The Catholic Counterculture Among the many things Fisher does in this book is talk about how Jack Kerouac is formed by Catholicism. (Fisher talks a lot about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement in this text, too.)

The other thing I took from this panel and haven’t quite finished chewing on it is a new understanding of Public Catholicism.  I call this a new understanding on purpose, because of David O’Brien’s 1996 book, Public Catholicism.  The book was not mentioned, but I imagine it was in the back of people’s minds.  O’Brien writes about an earlier period and a different immigrant/American church. What the panel (and Holscher in particular) articulated was something different.  And here is what I am chewing on.  How is it different and what does that mean?  Or is it different?  Still chewing.

After that, I spent the afternoon looking around, having lunch with a friend, and catching up with people I haven’t seen in a while.  I hadn’t expected to see many of these lovely people, so that made my afternoon quite fun.  Then, came the roundtable.

I must confess, I was a bit nervous.  I didn’t know anything about the Women’s Caucus.  What would the roundtable be like? How would the presentations go? Would I keep to time? (Nope.) Would anyone want to be in my breakout group?  As it turned out, it was a wonderful experience and I got to meet some lovely people all engaged in the project of advancing and incorporating scholarship by and about women in a thought and meaningful way (read: not as additive or other in the cannon).

I have a lot to say about this panel and this post is getting long. And I have to head to the airport!  More soon.  For now, thank you AAR/SBL 2015, it was an interesting and enjoyable time!

AAR/SBL 2015: It’s Bigger on the Inside

I was asked yesterday by a friend if the American Historical Association’s annual meeting is like the AAR/SBL.  Before I came to this conference, I thought it had to be sort of the same.  You know, lots of tweed, people who look like they could use fresh air, the occaisional panicked looking job candidate, and playing spot-my-historian-heroes to pass the time when I am not trolling the book exhibit. And so far, there is a lot of that.  Except the book exhibit (haven’t been there yet).  And I don’t recognize a lot of names/faces. The AAR/SBL, however, seems much bigger.  Much bigger.  Maybe I haven’t been to a conference of this size in a while or maybe I have been to a lot of AHA meetings, but the annual history conference (that coincidentally meets in Atlanta as well) doesn’t seem so massive.

I am impressed with the number of sessions/groups/panels that there are at this conference which brings both the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature and some associated groups together every year.  What I have seen and heard is impressive.  As one not versed in theology, I must confess some papers are bit over my head.  I, however, appreciate the questions asked.  I will have to digest it all, but I hope I can come away from this experience with much that will help my own work.

In the morning, I attended the Vatican II Studies Group session, Catholicism vis-à-vis Modernity and Beyond: Religious Liberty, Other Faiths and “Signs of the Times.”  I enjoyed Francesca Cadeddu’s paper on John Courtney Murray and religious freedom (Debate on Religious Freedom in the Light of Dignitatis Humanae and Its Reception).  I also found Nancy Dallavalle’s presentation The Risk of Catholicity: Dignitatis Humanae Comes to the Synod on the Family quite thought provoking.  Dallavalle talked about a culture of risk which exists now.  By this she means the real and perceived understanding or a world at risk.  She pushed her audience to consider how a Catholic outlook can exist with this outlook.  More specifically she states:

Dignitatis Humanae (1965), particularly its dyad “freedom” and “truth,” attempts to position the person vis-à-vis the state, for a church that must engage across all variety of political systems. This paper will introduce the notion of “risk” as a complicating factor in this dynamism, as perceptions of risk (whether from non-state violent actors; or economic policies or sanctions; or juridical actions) drive us to both join and sunder our community-making relationships. Bringing the immediate context of DH into dialogue with the discussion surrounding both “religious freedom” in the U.S. and the upcoming Synod on the Family, this paper will thus examine the rhetoric of “risk” as it proposes a theological perspective on the inner resilience of “catholicity.” from Dallavalle’s abstract

The other highlight (and I almost didn’t go) was the plenary , Racial Injustice and Religious Response from Selma to Ferguson with Imani Perry, Princeton University, Cornel West, Union Theological Seminary, and Ruby Nell Sales, SpiritHouse Project, Atlanta, GA. This description is from the program abstract:

The annual meeting focuses on “Valuing the Study of Religion,” which includes pondering how religion has been valued—and devalued—in public spaces. Addressing a variety of social spaces from the legislature to the streets, this panel analyzes religious responses to racial injustice. In 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, attending to injustice seems more morally urgent than ever. Considering both the historical trajectory that led us to this painful moment and the religious resources activists have employed, this conversation brings together notable voices to offer their assessments of the contemporary situation. Ruby Sales, the human rights activist and public theologian who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s and later founded a non-profit organization dedicated to “racial, economic, and social justice,” will join Cornel West, distinguished religion scholar and democratic intellectual, in a conversation with Professor Imani Perry, a celebrated scholar of African American Studies and Law who has written eloquently about racial injustice and “pathways to freedom, equality, and enriched democracy.

I have lots of thoughts and reaction to this plenary, but I think sitting on them a bit longer would serve me well before I start making trite comments.  It was a powerful plenary and I am glad I went.  In passing, however, West and Sales engaged a growing generational debate about the new and evolving movement for racial justice (Black Lives Matter).  This has to be unpacked.

[Look at me using conference language.]

Tomorrow is another day and I haven’t even visited the Book Exhibit yet.  Who knows what new worlds I will find there? Apparently there are two levels!