The Keepers isn’t much of a true crime documentary, at least in the traditional sense of the genre. And that’s to its immense credit. Netflix’s seven-part docudrama flirts with the genre but resists its pitfalls; this series is no whodunit, no he-said-she-said narrative that concludes with neat resolution. Instead, director Ryan White has made a compelling and sprawling series that’s just as much about the pain and resilience of women as it is about widespread sex abuse in the Catholic Church and the murder of 26-year-old Baltimore nun Sister Catherine Cesnik.
Murdered in 1969, Sister Cathy was a teacher at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School. Her murder is still unsolved, a mess of local and state police departments who, either through incompetence or corruption, have never made any arrests in the case. Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two Keough alums who are now grandmothers in their late sixties, have spent the better part of their retirements searching for Sister Cathy’s killer, digging through archives and hunting down moldy documents, the pair has become amateur sleuths of sorts. It’s a testament to Sister Cathy’s influence on the girls at Keough that, decades after her murder, her students still bristle at the lack of action.
It’s Hoskins and Schaub’s investigation that’s the foundation of The Keepers, grounded as it is in the scrappiness of two determined women with a Facebook account. But as the two women take their search public, reaching out and contacting other Keough alums, they discover that Sister Cathy may have known about the widespread sexual abuse by Father Joseph Maskell, a counselor at Keough. The Keepers pivots then to the stories of women who were initially only known as Jane Doe and Jane Roe. The two women sued the Archdiocese of Baltimore in the 1990s, alleging that Maskell sexually abused them. The Keepers reveals that Doe and Roe are Keough alums, Jean Hargadon Wehner and Teresa Lancaster.
Wehner and Lancaster are just two of the handful of women (and one man) who have come forward with rape and sexual assault allegations against the now-dead Maskell. The treatment of Wehner and Lancaster in the series is yet another departure from the way true crime traditionally handles rape allegations. Wehner and Lancaster’s claims, as well as those of the other victims, are never litigated on screen. White never brings in experts to deconstruct their stories or poke holes in them. Instead, the two women recount their stories of victimization and abuse in terms so plain and so straightforward that it makes for brutal—if necessary—television. This kind of narration is rare, The Keepers resists the stereotypical images of victims that are, by now, standards of true crime: the liar, the unreliable narrator, the tempting teen, or the crazy woman.
Instead of flattening the women into the accessible narratives that are often the baseline of true crime, The Keepers allows them to be flesh and blood women, to narrate their stories, and to contextualize their abuse on their own terms. They are complicated, they are angry (“those fuckers,” Wehner says with righteous spite at one point), they are loving, they are victims, and they are survivors. The women of Keough are women whom history, time, and power have colluded to silence and The Keepers understands that these women—their unfettered and uncensored stories—are more important than a tidy documentary.
At one point, Wehner alleges that she was taken to the body of Sister Cathy by Maskell and threatened with a similar fate if she revealed his abuses. Wehner recalls desperately wiping maggots off of Sister Cathy’s body. The women of Keough think that, perhaps, Sister Cathy was murdered because she knew about Maskell’s abuse (which, the victims allege, included collusion and active participation from another priest as well as police). Perhaps that’s why Sister Cathy was murdered; the maintenance of the authority of a priest and the Catholic Church deemed more important that a young woman’s life.
That hypothesis doesn’t seem too far-fetched, given what we know now about the widespread sexual abuse that took place in Catholic communities across America but, as Wehner notes, her allegations—made publicly in a lawsuit in the 1990s—came before Spotlight published their investigations on the Archdiocese of Boston. It’s clear that, at any rate, the abuse of girls and their decades of silence were exacted as a price to maintain the power of the church in Baltimore. Clearer still is that even local and state authorities seem invested in protecting the Catholic church as evidence goes missing and Maskell is never once arrested.
But then, things are never that simple. In the course of its seven parts, The Keepers offers up three other suspects for Sister Cathy’s murder. It can be confusing as the show tracks down every lead, treating every piece of evidence as an unearthed gem, but then investigations, particularly when there’s seemingly no interest from the state or its prosecutors, are messy affairs. Everyone has their own theory and White is happy to let everyone chime in so the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions. It’s in these moments that The Keepers is unable to muster up any critical distance from its subjects, even when it’s called for (White’s aunt is a Keough graduate and that’s how he became aware of the story).
At one point, Schaub and Hoskins meet with a group that includes an anonymous Baltimore police officer dubbed Deep Throat. The group is entirely white and, during that meeting, there are accusations made that the former Baltimore State’s Attorney Sharon May purposefully hid evidence (Deep Throat alleges that it was a box of nude photographs of girls that belonged to Maskell) and actively engaged in a cover-up. May responds to the allegations saying that no such evidence existed but, given Baltimore’s history of racial strife there’s something uneasy about the accusation leveled at a black woman. White doesn’t seem very interested in Baltimore’s history of segregation and he doesn’t bother to mention that Keough was built to fulfill the needs of working class white people who segregated themselves in the suburbs; that without segregation, Keough wouldn’t exist. That Maskell’s crimes took place in an entirely white community and his abuses were swept under the rug by a hierarchy of white men who relied on institutions designed to preserve their power also seems important and yet remains underdeveloped in the docudrama.
Similarly, one of the men The Keepers presents as a suspect in Sister Cathy’s murder was a gay man. The story, recounted by the man’s sister-in-law, is steeped in the menacing gay man trope (he was weird, he was mentally unstable, his lover once chased her off the road while wearing a nun’s costume) and the man’s eventual suicide is treated as evidence that he was involved in her death instead of something that was sadly common among LGTBQ people in the early 1970s. That The Keepers is invested in the truths of women is important, but replacing the almighty truth of the Catholic church or civic authorities with another narrative equally invested in the absolutes misses how the abuses at Keough were ignored in the first place. Such truth is rarely maintained without the politics of prejudice and it would have been nice of The Keepers could have invested in itself a bit of self-reflective criticism at these points.
Ultimately, however, The Keepers should be lauded as an important deconstruction of true crime, a blueprint on how to go forward as the genre continues to grow. Though Sister Cathy’s murder remains a mystery, The Keepers is a hard and compelling reminder that institutions built for the preservation men’s power will do anything to maintain themselves without any regard for the women trampled on or discarded in their wake. Perhaps that the greatest irony of The Keepers: For most women, that realization isn’t much of a mystery.