The Keepers: Netflix's look at nun's murder is true-crime storytelling at its best
It is hard to imagine a true-crime docuseries that has more winning story elements than The Keepers.
More elements than Netflix's Making a Murderer, HBO's The Jinx or even the Serial podcast that dealt with young love, death and a Muslim man who is still in a Maryland prison for a crime he might not have committed.
The seven-part production that arrives Friday on Netflix features a decades-old unsolved murder involving a beloved 26-year-old Baltimore nun, Sister Catherine Cesnik, who went shopping at a local mall on a Friday night in 1969 and never returned to her apartment.
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Alongside that core narrative is the allegation of a horrifying sexual abuse ring that preyed upon high school girls at the school where the nun taught. And at the centre of the ring is a priest who served as guidance counsellor, a clergyman whom survivors describe as a monster, the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell.
In 2016, The Baltimore Sun reported that the Archdiocese of Baltimore had reached settlements with a dozen former students who said they were sexually abused by Maskell at Archbishop Keough High School in the 1960s and '70s. In February, Baltimore County police exhumed the remains of the priest, who died in 2001, to take DNA samples for comparison with evidence from the garbage dump where Cesnik's body was found in 1970.
Not enough to move to the top of your on-demand viewing menu this weekend?
How about an alleged cover-up of the sexual abuse ring and murder that involves the church, police and political leaders in Baltimore and Maryland? The monster-priest was chaplain to several Baltimore-area police organizations, and he drove girls to secluded spots at night, where police officers raped them, according to testimony of survivors.
Recollections of the rape and torture former students say he inflicted on his teenage victims might be too grim to bear as a viewer if not for the modern-day storyline of a group of survivors and former students of the nun, who are now mostly retired and in their 60s, coming together on Facebook to keep Cesnik's memory alive and to try to solve the crime.
Led by Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, they are the keepers of Cesnik's memory and the keepers of a faith that justice will ultimately be served for her death and for the horrific abuse endured by children at Archbishop Keough High School.
These Baltimore baby boomers serve the same narrative purpose in this docu-series as the team of Boston Globe investigative reporters who doggedly documented the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the alleged coverup of those crimes by church authorities in the Academy Award-winning docudrama Spotlight."These unassuming internet sleuths become a force of decency and righteousness in the series amid all the evil and darkness generated by those who wore the collars and cassocks and were supposed to be the keepers of the faith.
The public Facebook group Justice for Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki had 972 members as of last Friday. morning. (Malecki was another murder victim whose disappearance came within days of Cesnik's.)
"I think there's a real power in the story of women of that age, retired grandmothers, coming together and saying it's not too late to ever get answers," Ryan White, who directed the series, said in a Baltimore Sun interview.
"A lot of the documentary is following this group of women who come together first to solve the murder of their favourite teacher and through that have created this community that's allowed dozens and dozens of abuse victims to start talking about it for the first time," White added. "It's about them finding a community and safe haven and cooperation and other people who believe them. And that's been really powerful to witness."
After seeing the four hour-long episodes Netflix made available for screening, I agree about the power of witnessing their journey – one that unfolds via social media, a realm not typically associated with members of their generation.
The Keepers opens in an attic with Tom Nugent, a former The Baltimore Sun writer who has reported and written extensively about the case of Sister Cathy Cesnik and the abuse of children by Catholic clergy in Baltimore.
White films him in an impressionistic manner, framed against an overhead hanging light as he talks about the murder and rummages through old newspaper clippings and boxes. It's a visual signal to viewers that they are about to take a journey into the past – one filled with shadows, hazy memories and a darkness that some would rather see packed away and forgotten in a dusty, cobwebbed attic.
I liked the concept, but I wasn't sure, in a TV sense, that Nugent was going to work as the guide on this journey. Being of a certain age myself, I know hard-driving older reporters can come across onscreen as aggressively talkative and certain that they have more wisdom on the topic at hand than anyone else in the room.
I felt myself struggling as a viewer during that first hour to find my footing – to locate a central voice, point of view or recurring stream of visual imagery that I could comfortably settle in with and trust. Because of that, the hour felt a bit choppy and slow.
In fairness, White had a wide array of characters to introduce, and he did accomplish that effectively. By the end of the hour, he also shifted the focus away from Nugent toward Hoskins and Schaub as guides into the web of sexual abuse, murder, memories, cove-rup and lies at the heart of The Keepers.
Dramatically, Nugent remained an important presence. He is part of the same movement toward truth and light as the former students, survivors and other members of the Facebook group. And who is more a keeper of this history than him? But this is still entertainment television, and I felt better taking that journey with Schaub, Hoskins and some of the survivors lighting the way.
No one locked me into this series like Jean Wehner, who became known as Jane Doe in the 1990s in a lawsuit against the Baltimore Archdiocese.
"Jane Doe was the first woman who came forward with abuse allegations against Father Maskell," White said. "She is, I would say, the main character of The Keepers. It follows her journey – what she was going through in 1969 and 1970 at Archbishop Keough High School. It goes through her journey in the '90s in trying to bring this forward to the Catholic Church, to the authorities. And it goes through her journey now in the modern day."
White introduces Jane Doe at the very end of the first hour as a hook to get viewers to Episode 2. Go with the flow, and you won't be disappointed.
Hour No. 2 opens on her voice, and the second Wehner starts talking to the camera, you are in her thrall – totally into the series.
The testimony she provides is harrowing. It sounds like testimony at a post-war trial on the torture of prisoners. Except this was a teenage girl at a Catholic high school in Baltimore in 1969, and according to Wehner and others, the nuns knew about the horrors taking place in the guidance counsellor's office and did nothing.
When Maskell's voice came over the public address system calling a girl to his office, the nuns would tell her she had to go, even as some girls broke into tears or threw themselves to the floor insisting they wouldn't. One survivor tells of trying to get kicked out of school because it was the only way she could think of ending the trips to Maskell's office.
White gives expression to and amplifies Wehner's testimony with soft-focus, gauzy images of school girls in uniforms of blazers, skirts and saddle shoes walking across campus, down hallways and into classrooms. They are images of innocence and joy.
But one video sequence shows a girl in uniform shot from behind walking slowly down an empty hallway, her head bowed. At the end of the hallway is a door that closes with an ominous click as she walks through it.
That imagery reappears and resonates through the series. The fact that I cannot get the image of that lone girl out of my mind is testimony to White's skill as a filmmaker and visual artist.
Part of the journey of this series is into the memories that Wehner and other survivors had suppressed and then recalled later in life. Repressed memory is a controversial topic, and White explores some of the issues connected to it, along with the court cases based in part on it in Baltimore in the 1990s.
Beyond the dramatic and artistic power of this series, I am glad that White has also given us a nonfiction account of who stood for decency, goodness and righteousness – and who didn't – in connection with these crimes.
I hope some old police detectives, prosecutors, defense lawyers, clergy and politicians are asked by friends and family who see this series about their behaviour in the face of what was going on in the Catholic Church in Baltimore.
Netflix sells entertainment, and The Keepers certainly provides that.
But it also offers no, it demands – some community soul searching into what was allowed to happen in some of our schools and then covered up for almost 50 years.
The Keepers begins streaming on Netflix on Friday.