The Keepers–Another Spotlight

The Keepers review

Sister Cathy Cesnik

In this seven-episode true-crime documentary from Netflix (released May 19 of this year), The Keepers explores the 1969 death of 26-year old Catholic nun and Baltimore schoolteacher Sister Cathy Cesnik and touches on 20-year-old Joyce Malecki’s murder four days later. Both slayings remain unsolved. The cover up that follows has echoes of Spotlight (see my review of January 16, 2016).

Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two retired 60-something grandmothers and former students of Sister Cathy’s at Archbishop Keough High School, still feel disturbed by the almost-half-a-century-old cold case. Who savagely beat and then murdered beloved teacher Sister Cathy? Starting a Facebook group in 2014 to reach out to others to share information about Sister Cathy’s murder, these two badass senior citizens–as intrepid and analytical as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple–uncover a cold case like no other that the Baltimore police or Catholic Church has had to contend with.   Abbie and Gemma create a safe space for people who had been afraid to speak up.  And the role of social media is astounding as a tool for criminal investigation. These two amateur sleuths use the internet brilliantly!

The Keepers, which some viewers may compare to Making a Murderer, spotlights a ring of child sex abuse so savage that the collateral damage– including addiction and suicide– may have affected over one-hundred students at the all-girl Catholic high school. We witness an incredibly raw, harrowing, eye-opening journey that implicates those we are raised to trust most: family, church, and state.

A lot of people were threatened by Sister Cathy, if she were to talk.The Keepers suggests a strong link between the police’s deliberate mishandling of the case and the archdiocese’s intentional cover-up in this devout Catholic community.

Attention is first drawn in 1994 by Jean Hargadon Wehner–who is the first to come forth and reveal the possible perpetrators in Cathy’s murder. She also files a $40 million lawsuit alleging sexual abuse at the hands of the high school chaplain, Father Maskell. She reports that he showed her Sister Cathy’s body in the woods when she was his student– as a warning against speaking out.  “Do you see what happens when you say bad things about people?” She kept her secret for almost thirty years. “I put what happened to me in a box, so I could survive,” Jean explains.

Netflix has masterfully produced an intense whodunit on several levels: 1) We see the community blinded by what is happening, and at times, believing the authorities over their own children; 2) We see how cruel, violent behavior in the name of religion can manipulate the innocent and inexperienced into submission; 3) We see how the lack of sexual education and candor led to rampant manipulation of children; 4) And we see how post-traumatic stress shuts down memory as a self-protective mechanism in order to deal with unhealed wounds.

This powerful exposé spotlights corruption by the Catholic church, the police department, and the court system. At the end we see an outraged Jean Hargadon Wehner scream out, in a raw hoarse cry, — “Those mother fuckers!”

 

Note: As of May 23, the Baltimore City Police Department has created a Facebook page to help solve the murders. Leads and possible witnesses in the investigations continue after the last day of filming. Additional social media sites have become involved (subreddits in particular).

“Spotlight” –Illuminating Corruption and Cover-up

SpotlightIn this Academy Award-nominated film, Spotlight (on my Top Ten Films for 2015) reveals the 2002 exposé into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child molestation and rape by priests taking place over two decades.

Unflinching in its focus, “Spotlight” underscores a subtle outrage and sense of resignation about the power of institutions. We watch as the “Spotlight “ team—named for undercover exposés of difficult-to-prove cases– chases down leads; goes through archives with missing documents; and interviews priests, judges, and victims. The investigative Spotlight team at the Boston Globe is defined by their tenacity as they overcome powerful political interests committed to crushing their investigation.

Investigative journalism seems so “old-school” in our sound-bite, entertainment culture, but Spotlight deftly recognizes the heroism of the Boston Globe’s team, in a similar fashion to “All The President’s Men”. Igniting an almost unbelievable, worldwide scandal, the Boston Globe clearly demonstrates a conspiracy on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to protect priests while silencing the victims and their families. The impact on a predominantly Catholic city, the guilt of those who chose to ignore its victims and the adversarial response of the Catholic Church are not the major themes of “Spotlight”.

“Spotlight” excels at building up the sense of injustice and outrage over the young victims who have no voice. Only the Catholic archdiocese and the legal system that is entwined with it have the powerful voice of defense and obfuscation. Despite the fact that we all know the repercussions of this narrative, seeing it through the eyes of these reporters has its own power.

The ensemble cast–John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, and Mark Ruffalo as the main reporters, and Liev Schreiber and Michael Keaton as their editors—keeps the focus on the true story of institutional corruption and cowardice that fails the young victims of sexual abuse. Perhaps one of the most unforgettable and stunning scenes is between Rachel McAdams (playing a reporter) and a priest who tries to explain his motivation for child rape. McAdams’s quiet, perfectly calibrated and understated response is truly an award-worthy performance in and of itself.

Like its predecessor “All The President’s Men”, “Spotlight” is a paen to the courage of journalists who feel compelled to tell a story full of ugliness that few want to see.

[As a postscript I would have also liked to see the voice of a young victim in flashback, and the toll incurred on him as a young adult when he finally comes forth to tell his story. The victims all had unhealed wounds, based on secrets and lies they had to endure for decades.]