Netflix’s The Keepers will banish whatever institutional faith you may have left
The students of a murdered Baltimore nun investigate her killing decades later, and uncover a damning trail of abuse and cover-up
In the new Netflix seven-part documentary series The Keepers, a Baltimore police detective admits: “In homicide, time is a destroyer. The longer you wait, the harder it is to get good evidence.”
To the armchair sleuth, though, so-called “cold cases” have been a boon to what we might call ‘binge detection’.
When the podcast Serial began, in 2014, over-eager listeners may have felt like they were assisting Sarah Koenig’s investigation of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. With HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, both in 2015, the extraordinary cases of Robert Durst and Steven Avery again supplied viewers with reams of curated evidence and a general suspicion that justice is rarely served.
One critical difference with The Keepers, which focuses on the unsolved murder of a young Baltimore nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, in 1969, is that it foregrounds its own amateur investigators. These are former students of Censnik’s, led by Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, whom the documentary presents as a couple of retiree Nancy Drews, compiling research, conducting interviews and convening online groups. “I don’t think there’s any shame in not succeeding,” Schaub confides. “But it would be a shame not to try.”
What the documentary unearths, however, is more horrifying than anything they expected, detailing years of systematic child sexual abuse at the hands of the school chaplain, A. Joseph Maskell.
Cesnik, a confidante to the girls, seemed ready to expose it. The documentary shifts focus to “Jane Doe”, the survivor Jean Hargadon Wehner who came forward in the 1990s, who remembered that Maskell had shown her Cesnik’s dead body, with the warning, “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?”
The Keepers inspires many things: sorrow, compassion, suspicion and anger chief among them. But in form, content and tone, it is quite timely in its deep distrust of authority and its determination to take back power. These killings (another slain woman, Joyce Malecki, is mostly overshadowed) and the abuses were met with distressing indifference, as a closed-ranks Archdiocese moved Maskell around various parishes and institutions (at one point to Ireland), the police conducted a guarded, perhaps compromised investigation and a bewildering state’s attorney avoided prosecution. “The cover-up itself is the cancer inside Baltimore,” says one journalist, with good reason.
That this is all likely to destroy any remaining faith in institutional authority may be no bad thing. Because The Keepers actually redeems your faith in people. Tireless, supportive and bravely articulate, all these years later, the survivors lead this investigation, and even if the satisfaction of justice is too late to achieve, their efforts to get answers are nonetheless stirring. These good people are the finders.