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.

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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.