On the surface, Netflix’s The Keepers is the story of Cathy Cesnik, a Catholic school teacher in Baltimore who disappeared and was murdered in 1969.
But an unsolved murder and disappearance are only the beginning.
“The story is not the nun’s killing — the story is the cover up of the nun’s story,” says Cesnik’s former student Abbie Schaub.
Bit by bit, director Ryan White pieces apart Cesnik’s disappearance; who hurt her and why, and the mysterious Jane Doe who unraveled the church’s darkest secrets — the very secrets for which Cesnik may have lost her life.
Cesnik’s car was returned to her apartment while she was still missing. Her body was found two months after her disappearance, and her murder remains an open case in Baltimore. In 1994, a former student at Keough High School — then referred to as Jane Doe — came forward after uncovering deeply suppressed memories of being sexually abused by her school chaplain, Joseph Maskell — Cesnik’s supervisor. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements to people accusing Maskell, who died in 2001, of abuse.
The Keepers starts out with Cesnik’s murder and two former students still investigating the events surrounding it, but by the second episode it shifts to the story of Jean Hargadon Wehner (the former Jane Doe), who dissociated completely from her high school trauma, but came forward once she started to remember.
In a particularly chilling scene, Wehner recalls being taken to Cesnik’s body in the woods by Maskell, who leaned in close while she begged for help.
“See what happens when you say bad things about people,” Wehner says he told her.
By episode 4, there’s little left that isn’t suspicious. Clergymen were sent for psychological treatment and withdrawn when the doctors asked for more information about their patients. Dozens of women came forward after Jane Doe to report abuse at the hands of Maskell, who apparently visited Cesnik the night before she disappeared (his body was exhumed for a DNA sample, which didn’t match Cesnik’s case).
The Keepers is often difficult to watch; These women, now senior citizens, describe awful episodes of abuse and exploitation at the hands of Maskell. It’s terrifying how clinically these women recount most of the events, as well as their feelings of confusion and guilt — they were made to feel that they had sinned and wronged and that any discomfort was their own fault.
In the wake of the show’s release, new information may come out.
“Our office has received quite a few important calls that we intend to share with the police,” attorney Joanne Suder told The Baltimore Sun. Suder represents victims of Maskell’s abuse who continue to seek counseling and settlements from the archdiocese.
There are shades of Making A Murderer and of Spotlight (though as one woman notes, this was years before Boston reporters exposed the crimes of the local clergy), but the closest comparison that can be made is to This American Life‘s S-Town — a compelling case that starts with a murder and becomes a character study, this time wrapped in conspiracy.
After three episodes, The Keepers presents you with the story of men in power immune to the fear of retribution. It shows you the lasting effects of abuse on women, many of whom admitted in their testimonies that the abuse affected their relationships and mental wellbeing for the rest of their lives.
“Our best hope for solving this case at this point lies with the people who are still alive. And we hope that someone will be able to come forward with conclusive information about the murder,” a police spokeswoman told The Sun. And even then, we may never know the full story.
The Keepers is now streaming on Netflix.