I approached the Netflix documentary The Keepers with some trepidation. The story is grisly to say the least: a young nun was murdered in 1969 and the perpetrator *may* have been a priest accused of sexually abusing high school girls. It sounded depressing and like something I’d seen before. I was wrong, In the hands of director Ryan White, The Keepers is more than just a fascinating real-life whodunit, it’s a moving story of survival.
We meet some remarkable people (mostly women) as the 7-part documentary unfolds. They include Sister Cathy Cesnik’s devoted former students Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub who are the most effective real life amateur detectives ever. The central figure of the film is clerical rape survivor Jean Wehner. She’s a brave, feisty woman who was given the runaround by Archdiocese of Baltimore who are still lying about the activities of the demonic priest around whom much of the action revolves: Joseph Maskell.
Because the series is set in Baltimore, comparisons to The Wire are inevitable. They’re also spot-on as Kathryn Van Arendonk points out at Vulture:
When I say that the series is like The Wire, this is a large part of what I mean: The shape of events at Archbishop Keough High School becomes clear through a multiplying, crisscrossing network of individuals with their own personal narratives, telling different pieces of the story from different vantages and wildly diverging interests. In one scene we watch Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub talking about how important it is to find justice for their beloved high-school teacher. In another, we see Jean Wehner struggling to recount her memories of abuse by the school’s chaplain. In yet another, the filmmakers interview Sharon May, who blankly explains why she never brought charges against the school during her time in the district attorney’s office. The total view of what may have happened at Archbishop Keough High School in 1969 only becomes clear from a distance, as an interlocking network of many, many stories.
Ryan White and his team ran down many diverse leads; most of which are plausible but all of which cannot be true. They chose to let the viewers decide. Wise choice. Most of the leads do, however, involve Maskell and the Archdiocese that chose to cover up his crimes. The church was lying about serious issues as recently as 2016. So much for reform.
For those interested in reading more about the people we meet in The Keepers, here are two more links:
- An interview with co-producer and director Ryan White wherein we learn that the film was made because he’s a Balmer boy and his mother and aunt know Jean Wehner.
- An excellent piece at the Independent about the activities of Joseph Maskell when he was in Ireland. Quite naturally, he chose to live in an area whose Catholic authorities were known to be protective of pervy priests. Anyone surprised?
The filmmakers seem to have inspired a renewed cold case investigation led by a detective who appears to be sincerely interested in solving the case. But the problem never seemed to be with the police, it was with the Archdiocese and the Baltimore state’s attorneys office. If there was a cover-up, it’s on them and the local political system. Joseph Maskell was not worth protecting: he should have died in prison instead of a church run hospice.
I give The Keepers 4 stars, an Adrastos Grade of A, and an exuberant thumbs up. This was just the sort of documentary that Siskel and Ebert championed when they were still with us. It’s a classic and I don’t say that lightly.