The Keepers follows the circumstances surrounding the death of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a nun who taught English and drama at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore. In 1969, at the age of 27, Sister Cathy was murdered, and the case remains unresolved. What the viewer finds as the show proceeds is that this is not just an example of crime or mystery drama – the documentary series taps into much deeper issues as it unravels a story of clerical abuse, collusion between authorities, and a story of the incredible strength shared by a group of resolute women.
Director Ryan White (who previously co-directed the award-winning The Case Against 8) demonstrates exemplary command and control of the challenging subject matter. The breadth of research is edited in a succinct way and the seven approximately 1 hour long episodes feel just about right running-time wise. White speaks very little, allowing the interview subjects (which include victims of abuse, police authorities, priests and journalists, among others) to speak for themselves, but it is clear that he has an accomplished balance of professionalism and sensitivity because they open up so much about their experiences and knowledge on the topic – at times, evidently, even to their own surprise.
There has been much in the Irish media about Father Joseph Maskell’s connection to the case due to his connections with Ireland, though these are not addressed in the documentary. As we learn more and more about his abuse of students at Archbishop Keough under Maskell, the viewer is alternately overwhelmed by sorrow, horror and anger as we witness once again the refusal of the Catholic Church to address what it systematically allowed to happen. The second and third episode of the series are particularly tear-jerking as a number of women talk about the many occasions on which they were physically, emotionally and psychologically abused by Maskell. Learning of the repeated abuse that formed a part of these women’s school life, when they were still only children, is extremely challenging.
There are several layers to this story which are well-edited and alternated between one another, forming distinct but connected parts of the story, all harking back to Sister Cathy. We learn of her as not only a teacher but a mentor and inspiration to her students. So inspiring was she in fact that her murder haunts her students to this day and two of her former pupils, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schoeb, have taken it upon themselves to unofficially investigate the case. The information they have under their limited resources is extraordinary and fascinating, and we learn that they have more information gathered than the police have ever had. The women are charismatic and admirable in their resoluteness and resourcefulness – one feels frustrated for them when their efforts are stalled and joy for them when they have another revelation. Forget comic book superheroes – these vigilantes are real heroes.
The Keepers is both a fascinating and harrowing watch. It alternates between poignancy, through the personal accounts of what happened, and a sense of intrigue as more parts of the mystery are revealed across the series. The fact that it can still be compelling without losing a sense of emotional value is a testament to the strength of White’s direction. The exchange of information and ideas between the many individuals with interest in or connections to the investigation is intriguing. However, the lack of hard evidence is another challenge put forth to the audience. Much of the case is based on first-person accounts and when there are contradictory statements, who is one meant to believe? This issue becomes more and more complex as the episodes progress.
The series uses an interesting combination of interview footage, archival footage and recreations to tell the story. The score is simple but effective, but more so than its production, the power of The Keepers is in its ability to move. The horrific, traumatic subject matter is addressed in an impeccably compassionate way. One is in awe of what these women endured and survived and it’s incredible that through it all, they maintain a sense of hope.