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).