On the success of Making a Murderer, Netflix has rolled out other daring crime programs, including the frustrating but fascinating film Casting JonBenet, and the investigatory murder mini-series The Keepers. And while Investigation Discovery channel has made a brand out of cheap thrills and cold cases closed, Netflix is daring to offer up true crime explorations that are far more nuanced, complicated, and uniquely riveting.
Directed by Ryan White, The Keepers is centered around a seemingly simple question: Who killed Sister Cathy Cesnik? In 1969, a nun who’d been teaching at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland, went missing. Her car—covered in mud and littered with sticks and grass—was discovered parked oddly and illegally across the street from the apartment she shared with a fellow nun. Her body would be discovered three months later, partially unclothed, abandoned, and with a large hole in the side of her head. Or as one interview subject succinctly states: “Sister Cathy wound up in a garbage dump with her skull caved in.” Of course, the local Catholic community was shocked. But none were so affected by this horrible news than the sister’s students, especially those who were convinced she’d died because they’d told her their terrible secrets.
The case of the murdered nun takes investigators down a rabbit hole of sexual abuse at the hands of priests, and a sinister coverup by the Catholic Church and its many, many high-powered allies. The Keepers digs so deep, it uncovers dirt nearly fifty years later that is freshly shocking. As the story evolves, it sprawls, looping in the horrific stories from molested victims, snatches of family gossip about bloody clothes and unexplained anger, and interviews with the cops and prosecutors who repeatedly threw their hands up, claiming that 35 to 100 victims of abuse did not make one strong enough case to prosecute one priest, Father Joseph Maskell, who allegedly committed a long litany of sins and crimes against the students under his care for decades.
While much of Netflix’s original programming is addictive and highly binge-able, The Keepers is only the former. It’s my habit to rip through a Netflix series in the course of a day or a weekend, but the reveals and frankness of White’s documentary series were so harrowing I had to take breaks to catch my breath. The first episode is admittedly slow, laying out the particulars of Sister Cathy’s murder at a snail’s pace. But the rest of the series becomes so heavy with information, and probing questions, you can’t walk away from it for too long. You, like the 60-year-old Keough grads independently investigating the case, need to know the truth, no matter how many repulsive roots it brings up with it.
Over the course of seven episodes, White follows the leads that amateur detectives/former students of Sister Cathy, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, unearth. These plucky and brusquely charismatic sixty-somethings take us to estranged uncles, mysterious brothers, and often back to Maskell’s unholy office, where girls were trooped in to be insulted, examined, raped, and even instructed to swallow the priest’s semen, because it was “the holy spirit” flowing from him to offer them salvation. “Every time it was over,” one survivor recalls, “I thought, ‘Maybe this time God will forgive me (my sins).’”
If you can’t stomach that disturbing reveal, The Keepers might be too much for you. Personally, I’m glad I stuck through it. Because as bleak and torturous as its charting of crimes and injustices becomes, the women at its center shine on with resilience and to get answers and find justice. Together, these survivors and their allies of friends, family, and old schoolmates will no longer be shunted to the shadows or shamed into silence. And goddamn they are inspiring!
Chief among these women is Jean Hargadon Wehner, known as “Jane Doe” when she attempted to get Maskell arrested, telling her story to the Baltimore police and Catholic Church officials in the 1990s. Her courage inspired others to come forward. And today, they inspire her back as she makes her story public with this documentary, and makes her a reluctant leader in this fight for justice, not just for her or Sister Cathy or the untold numbers of Maskell’s victims, but for every victim of sexual abuse who is pushed by a society that doesn’t want to deal into remaining silent and ashamed.
I’ve spoken before about how I grew up Catholic. So a lot of the culture of which these women spoke was very familiar to me. Priests in Catholic communities are treated like celebrities, adored and fawned over. The idea that they could do something as odious as these women detail is not just shocking, it’s shattering to ideals, to the community, and potentially to one of the most powerful religious institutions in the world. So rather than acknowledge these victims and put a priest through the same rigors of any other accused criminal, too often it’s decided to look the other way, because it’s just too damning to the world around us to recognize the deeply rooted evil that can be found in even our most sacred spaces. Nevertheless, Jean—and an small army of other women and men—persisted.
The Keepers lacks the sharpness of Making a Murderer, the esoteric charm of the podcast Serial, and the meta gimmickry of Casting JonBenet. But in taking on such a vast, complicated story, it can be forgiven for a lack of slickness or style. Its sloppy B-roll and simple interview setups are devoid of panache, but allow the focus to stay ever on the voices of these women who have so long been bullied to bury their stories and hurt. Through them, The Keepers weaves a tapestry of radiant pain and righteous outrage that is electrifying, and as they channel these emotions into action, resistance and rebellion, becomes rousing.
White doesn’t shy away from showing us their highs and lows. Just as impactful as their moments of stalwart defiance—like when Jean shouting, “Those fuckers!”—are the moments where they break down. Sometimes realizing just how deeply terrible a memory or new discovery is, White leaves the shot run as the interview subject’s brave smile cracks. Her face crumples, and she lets the sorrow wash over her. She’s not defeated, but she’s down. Recognizing the human toll of these crimes is crucial to understanding their importance, even decades later. So while part of me wished White would turn the camera away to spare them or offer Jean or Gemma or Michael a damn tissue, I understood that this moment too was playing witness to the story, to their story. Because it’s not all wins and cracking clues. A lot of it is getting gut punched by the trauma, losing to a system not set up to catch a predator priest, yet carrying on anyway.
I tend to turn to true crime stories because I revel in the finale. Yes, something deeply horrible happened. But in the end, the killer was caught. Justice was achieved. The victim was avenged. The Keepers is not this kind of true crime story. With 47 years passing between Sister Cathy’s death and now, many of the key suspects are dead or senile. Some of its questions may never get satisfying answers. But that doesn’t mean the stories of Maskell’s survivors don’t matter. They call to us to hear them, and The Keepers gives them a megaphone to unleash the memories, injustices, and difficult truths that have spent decades clawing their ways into the light. Hearing these women’s stories is hard, but they are owed—at the very least—our listening.
With Serial and Making a Murderer, it seems true crime has turned a corner. No longer is pondering solutions to cold cases something for niche message boards. No longer is sharing serial killer theories relegated to dark corners of the internet. True Crime has gone mainstream. We’re all detectives now. Shows like The Keepers urge us to question authority, challenge assumptions, and dig for the truth. And with that, The Keepers becomes more than the sum of its parts, expanding to what others will unearth because of it. It’s a call—not to arms—but to investigation. And on May 17th, Netflix subscribers will be offered the chance to dig in, yarn wall out, and join the cause.