Mild spoilers for The Keepers follow below.
The “docuseries” format has become somewhat en vogue as of late, with HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer expanding the whodunit nature of an episode of Dateline into a six, seven, or eight-hour comprehensive look at a cold case or some crime with a hook. At first blush, Netflix’s The Keepers (which landed on the streaming service on May 19th) looked to be in the same vein of these other watercooler series. The show promised to delve into the mysterious disappearance and murder of a nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, in 1969, examining the circumstances, the many suspects, and other relevant aspects of the case. But in watching The Keepers, it becomes clear this is a very different kind of docuseries. It certainly dives into Sister Cathy’s murder and presents some compelling evidence, but it soon evolves into something much more emotional and, in that respect, more worthwhile: a chronicle of systemic abuse from the points of view of the survivors.
As The Keepers starts investigating the mysterious disappearance of Sister Cathy Cesnik, it’s soon revealed that Cesnik may have uncovered horrendous sexual abuse that was going on at the school in which she taught, the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School. Specifically, women came forward with allegations that two priests at the school, most prominently Father Joseph Maskell, had been forcing female students to perform sex acts on him and others. The theory, then, was that Sister Cathy was determined to out and put a stop to the abuse, and was murdered in order to silence her.
I won’t go much further into the story than that, as the docuseries lays the case out in a compelling manner, but what makes The Keepers special is its intense focus on the survivors. This isn’t some buzzworthy series with a short half-life that’s merely interested in presenting a plausible answer to a cold case and setting Reddit on fire. Even as the show delves deep into the potential suspects, it always returns its focus to the survivors, namely, the incredibly brave Jean Hargadon Whener who was the first Keough student to speak out publicly about Maskell’s crimes.
As the show wears on, it expands its net of survivor interviews, giving these women a platform to speak about these despicable crimes. Sexual abuse is not unique to the Catholic community, but the systemic cover-up of the abuse has been well documented in recent years, and director Ryan White isn’t afraid to shine a spotlight on the fallout from Maskell’s crimes as well as the response within the Keough community. It’s disheartening, infuriating, and disgusting to watch unfold, but that doesn’t hold a candle to how these women must have felt for the past four decades.
White understands this, and rightly focuses on these testimonials from the survivors, speaking about their experiences not just during their time at Keough, but in the years following.
Abuse has permanent, devastating effects on the victim, and The Keepers brings this to light in a striking, upsetting, but necessary manner. How can we expect to prevent this kind of abuse in the future if we follow suit and dismiss it as “not our problem” or something best handled quietly? No longer are these victims shamed as liars, or silenced with threats—The Keepers gives them the space to tell their story, and as intriguing as Sister Cathy’s murder mystery is, it’s merely an entry point to an emotional and poignant tale that ultimately paints Sister Cathy as a hero who died trying to do the right thing.
The Keepers is currently available to stream in its entirety on Netflix.