clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Netflix’s new true crime doc, The Keepers, isn’t Making a Murderer. It’s far more haunting.

The primary mystery is the murder of a nun. But it’s what she knew that will devastate you.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In 2015, Netflix captured lightning in a bottle when the company premiered its original true crime documentary Making a Murderer. And for a few moments, Netflix’s new true crime docuseries The Keepers taps into the same charged verve as that earlier series, channeling its subjects’ frustration, desire for vindication, and anger while digging into the decades-old murder of a nun and its possible cover-up by the Catholic Church.

But The Keepers is a different beast from its predecessor, one that doesn’t prompt its audience to don a tinfoil hat or leave them teetering on a cliffhanger. Instead, it will make you feel a haunting numbness, a triumph of its empathetic approach to a complicated tale.

The Keepers, in spite of how it’s been marketed by Netflix, isn’t really about the unsolved 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik; instead, the seven-episode series finds its deeply affecting narrative in the events that took place before and after her death. The murder itself is like a corner piece in a jigsaw puzzle — a very important component, but in the end, just a fragment of a bigger picture.

And what makes that bigger picture so maddeningly compelling is the way The Keepers explores a pathology of abuse and its effect on victims, chronicles the strange inescapability of trauma, reflects on how society treats the word of women, and reveals the shattering reality that justice can feel so empty.

The Keepers is a story about survival, systemic abuse, and the failure of the justice system, all wrapped in a murder mystery

Minutes into The Keepers’ first episode, the series unveils its flashy, tantalizing mystery: the question of who killed one Sister Catherine “Cathy” Cesnik. Cesnik was a nun who taught English and drama at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland. She shared an apartment with a colleague, Sister Mary Russell, and on November 7, 1969, she left to buy an engagement present for her sister and did not return. Cesnik’s body was discovered on January 3, 1970 — two months after she disappeared — and her killer was never found.

What filmmaker Ryan White does with The Keepers’ next six episodes is investigate why Cesnik was killed, not who killed her. He traces a web of relationships and a system of abuse that Cesnik was tethered to at Archbishop Keough by interviewing her former students, the people who were part of her life, and the authorities who seem to have dropped the ball in investigating her death.

At the time, Cesnik’s murder was sensational, and it gripped the area. But the series implies that there was a lack of competence by the police in investigating it. According to the Baltimore Sun, Cesnik’s case became dormant after 1977.

White eventually comes to a rattling deduction: Cesnik was killed because she found out about a pattern of sexual abuse that victimized the girls of Archbishop Keough, and threatened to do something to stop it. Her colleague Father Joseph Maskell, the alleged abuser of these girls (who are now older women), had something to do with it.

According to the accounts of dozens of anonymous victims who came forward in the 1990s to the Maryland state’s attorney’s office, a 1994 lawsuit brought forth by two former students (which was subsequently thrown out due to a statute of limitations), and multiple people connected with the school who spoke to White, Archbishop Keough was a hub of systemic sexual abuse. The man at the center of that abuse was Maskell, a man whose victims the archdiocese of Baltimore has been paying settlements to since 2011.

The most extraordinary thing about The Keepers is how White gives Maskell’s alleged victims the space to tell their stories. The docuseries’ beating heart is Jean Hargadon Wehner, one of the two former students of Archbishop Keough who, with another woman named Teresa Lancaster (both filed the lawsuit as Jane Does), brought the 1994 lawsuit against Maskell, the school, and the archdiocese of Baltimore.

Wehner’s stories about Maskell are full of despair and helplessness — Wehner says Maskell raped her multiple times, sometimes bringing in men she didn’t know to assault her — and you see the devastating effects his abuse had on her faith and psyche, her relationship with her husband, and her family over the years.

With the introduction of Wehner and other alleged victims of Maskell, The Keepers ceases to function as the true crime tale it initially appears to be. Instead, it paints a mordant landscape of abuse, serving as an exploration of the ways the Catholic Church in Baltimore tried to hide what was happening at Archbishop Keough.

The Keepers works because of its subjects’ willingness to talk — even if they don’t come off looking very good

White and Netflix will no doubt bring attention to Cesnik’s murder and the sex abuse cases at Archbishop Keough, but their work hinges on the investigative labor of Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two alums of Archbishop Keough who have each spent several years researching Cesnik’s case. Hoskins and Schaub are polar opposites — the former is a gruff, gravel-voiced talker, while the latter is softer-spoken — but their love for Sister Cathy brings the two very different women together.

Watching Hoskins and Schaub talk to White about the process is a little like watching the Oscar-winning 2015 film Spotlight, which detailed the ongoing sex abuse and cover-ups in the archdiocese of Boston. There are several scenes where Schaub — who will remind some viewers of the characters in Fargo because of her stern sweetness — pores over microfilm in her local library’s archives and examines the contents of folders full of Freedom of Information Act requests (which she requested) and other important documents. Those scenes are flanked by Hoskins talking to retired police officers, asking questions like whether they believe Cesnik’s body was moved after she was killed.

The women become two of the documentary’s heroes, as they attempt to get to the bottom of Cesnik’s murder. They are the show’s eponymous “keepers,” as they keep the legacy of Cesnik’s spirit alive in working to bring her justice.

But The Keepers also has plenty of villains.

Without a doubt, the most baffling thing about The Keepers is how White got state and law enforcement officials to speak so candidly — and on camera — about Cesnik’s murder and the abuse at Archbishop Keough. The officials White interviews on camera are strangely comfortable, seemingly unfazed about the heinous allegations of sex abuse that went on at the school.

Sharon May, who was the head of the sex crime division at the Maryland state’s attorney’s office in the ’90s — including when Wehner’s Jane Doe lawsuit was brought against Maskell, Archbishop Keough, and the archdiocese of Baltimore in 1994 — speaks to White like she’s participating in a particularly strange and dark episode of The Office.

She explains that even though more than 30 anonymous women called her department about Maskell’s abuse prior to the lawsuit (the first public accounts against Maskell began in 1992, and Wehner says she moved forward with the suit because no action was being taken), she didn’t really have enough evidence to prosecute him. She explains that the individual accounts couldn’t be used in conjunction with one another. She doesn’t really say why her team didn’t investigate the claims more rigorously, though; many of her accounts end with her team being a day late and a dollar short — she recalls one anecdote about obtaining a warrant to search Maskell’s home and missing him.

At one point, White asks May about a series of files that Maskell buried in a local cemetery, which May and her team dug up.

To any regular person, a priest buying a cemetery plot to bury files would seem extremely suspicious, and those files important. But May doesn’t seem too concerned with what was in them, as she tells White there wasn’t enough information to use as evidence.

When White asks what happened to the files, May gives a roundabout answer that she doesn’t really know. Similarly, when asked about why there isn’t any paperwork pertaining to the cases of the women who came forward with allegations against Maskell, May nonchalantly says that her office didn’t have computers back in the ’90s, and that the victims’ allegations and testimony were probably written down on paper, and that’s why they don’t exist today.

Paper records of sex abuse, in May’s world, are basically sandcastles at low tide.

It’s deeply frustrating to watch people who are supposed to be protecting women like Wehner fumble at their jobs. That’s not by accident. White wants to make it crystal clear.

The Keepers is deeply unsatisfying, and that’s the entire point

Compared with a story like Making a Murderer or the true crime podcast Serial, The Keepers doesn’t really have the same sense of urgency, because most of the people involved — Maskell, a suspected accomplice in Cesnik’s murder, and some key witnesses — are deceased. And even if the series were to solve Cesnik’s murder and reveal her killer, it wouldn’t necessarily be a fist-pumping moment, because that person is very likely dead.

But finding the murderer, or feeling satisfied, isn’t really the crux of the show.

The Keepers is designed to be a study of how fiercely difficult it was for women like Jean Hargadon Wehner to report their stories of abuse. It’s uncomfortable watching her recognize her need to please God, and slowly realizing that even though the spirit of the Catholic Church is about morality, the people who operate within it are bent on defending it.

Later in the series, she talks about trusting Baltimore’s archdiocese lawyers, not realizing that those lawyers have a loyalty to protect the church first and her second. Though the lawyers and officials had her testimony, they would give her many runarounds as to why they weren’t going to act on punishing Maskell or bringing Wehner’s case to light.

There’s also Teresa Lancaster, who came forward with Wehner in the 1994 lawsuit. Lancaster has a brighter story and eventually became a lawyer herself. But her testimony and Wehner’s were ripped apart as the two women were called liars and accused of fabricating their stories.

Their accounts, like the 30 or so from other women that were apparently written on disintegrating paper, were lost, thrown out, and generally disregarded.

White is adamant about showing how both church and state ignored these women, underscoring society’s historical tendency to ignore women who desperately need help. We don’t know how many more women Maskell might have hurt or how many women the police or the Maryland state’s attorney’s office could have protected. It’s gut-wrenching to think of how these women, and women like them around the country and throughout history, suffered, and how no one tried to help them. The Keepers hopes you’ll never forget that.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.