Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Keepers

Although the title of The Keepers (2017, dir. Ryan White, Netflix) may be explained somewhere in the seven episodes, my sense is that it has a double-meaning—those who keep the memory alive of Sister Kathy Cesnik, a teacher at Keough High School in Baltimore, MD, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1969. Her murderer was never arrested, although several investigators believe they know who was responsible.  The title may also refer to the Catholic Church in Baltimore, which fought (in collusion with local law enforcement and others) to protect from prosecution a priest, Father Joseph Maskell, who sexually molested numerous high school girls at the school.  At least forty individual female students gave evidence about his activities to the Baltimore police. The story is horrific.

The principal investigators are two former students of Sister Cathy.  Now in their sixties, they have over a period of years uncovered reams of information about the abuse of Keough High students and the murder of their teacher.  They are among the main figures highlighted in the documentary, along with several victims, notably Teresa Lancaster and Jean Wehner, who play a major role in the documentary, especially Wehner. Circumstantially, the crimes seem linked—Sister Cathy had talked to one of the victims and intended to inform the authorities, including the archbishop of the diocese.  She disappeared before she could do so.  Maskell visited Cesnik the night before her disappearance. Jean Wehner reports that Father Maskell took her to view Sister Helen’s body and warned her that “this is what happens to people who tell stories.”

The reliability of recovered memories is an issue this series raises—we’re reminded that recovered memories were called into question during the 1990s, and that more recently their credibility has been defended.  The series should have considered this issue in more depth, since so much that it reveals depends on the credibility of recovered memories.  The power of the Catholic Church to hide the crimes of some of its priests, even at the considerable cost of suffering of innocent victims, is also a major issue (the film Spotlight--2015; dir. Tom McCarthy-- examines similar criminal behavior by priests in Boston). Several student victims of Father Maskell, including Wehner, received financial settlements from the Church in 2016. The rules and policies of bureaucratic institutions—the Church, the Baltimore law enforcement agencies, the FBI—become a frustrating obstacle to recovering more information about the crimes. They are all, of course, male-dominated institutions.

The episodes of The Keepers continually remind us (or at least me) of the passage of time, the ravages it can inflict physically and mentally.  Time is a major theme. We’re often reminded that the investigators who uncover major portions of this story are approaching the ends of their own lives.  This becomes a motivation in their investigation of Sister Cesnik’s death and the crimes against the students at Keough.  They worry that when they pass from the scene, Sister Cesnik and the victims of Father Maskell will be forgotten. They want to be sure that does not happen.

This was a difficult series to watch.  There’s a certain manipulative quality to it—most episodes end on the verge of a new revelation, and so we’re enticed to watch the next one. Obviously, the documentary has been structured and edited to provoke and maintain viewer interest.  The series works both through providing documentary evidence and through circumstantial innuendo and implication—it clearly argues from the point of view of the victims and their belief in what happened. Certainly, there is another side to the story, but the accused priest himself is dead. There may be valid reasons for some of the bureaucratic policies that make it difficult for the investigators to receive the information they want, and for the victims to receive justice.  But mostly these policies become obstacles to truth.  They benefit from the inertia of huge institutions that resist change.  Protecting these institutions at some point becomes more important than the welfare of human lives.  Too much time has passed, too many people have died, too many memories have faded—the truth of the crimes is left unrevealed.  Yet the victims who stepped forward to testify, especially the victims who appear in this series, make clear that something horrible happened. This series ends with no real resolution—it leaves us angry, disturbed, unsettled.

Most of the victims of Father Maskell (and others) attended high school at the same time as I.  Each episode opens with a yearbook photos of girls who attended Keough High School.  They looked like girls I knew during my high school years—similar dress and hair, the same hopeful and smiling faces. 

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