TV Review: ‘The Keepers’ on Netflix

The Keepers
Courtesy of Netflix

In mood, style, and content, the first installment of “The Keepers” does very little to dissuade a casual viewer from assuming it’s a clone of “Making a Murderer.” Only in its second episode does it become clear that “The Keepers” has a quite different set of themes it wants to explore. Though this seven-part series takes the viewer on a wrenching ride, the value of “The Keepers” may well be greater, ultimately, than what was accomplished by the earlier documentary series about murder in Wisconsin.

“Making a Murderer,” of course, illuminated many shortcomings in the justice system and in law enforcement within the communities in which it took place, and it was addictive despite its occasionally wobbly segues and tangents. “The Keepers” benefits from a shorter episode order, and it describes events that are somehow even more unsettling, and even sickening, than those glimpsed in many a true-crime documentary.

But for the most part, the measured, sober approach of “The Keepers” only amplifies the jaw-dropping facts at its core. It is hard to watch, but for the right reasons, and ultimately it is an admirable and necessary work, in large part because of its tight focus on the survivors of horrific crimes, not just on those who perpetrated them. 

The first set of defining events of “The Keepers” took place in Baltimore in the late ’60s and early ’70s, among devout Catholic families who sent their daughters to Archbishop Keough High School. “The Keepers” spends the early part of its narrative laying out the case of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a teacher at the school who went missing in late 1971 and was found dead months later. Sister Cathy, who was 26, was beloved by her students, and in a low-key and methodical fashion, “The Keepers” introduces the alumni and other local folks who have been diligently crowdsourcing clues that might lead to further information on the nun’s death.

Decades after they lost her, a few former students and their associates — many of whom sift information on a private Facebook page run by the energetic team of Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins — are determined to find justice for this woman, who by all accounts was bright, lively, and devout. One of the core accomplishments of “The Keepers” is that it puts the camera on an array of people in their 60s and 70s — something TV rarely does — and lets them tell their own stories, which, for the most part, involve a great deal of suffering, not to mention enormous reserves of perseverance and patience.

It doesn’t take long for a few former Keough students to more or less take over the focus of the narrative, to a large (and justifiable) degree. To talk about these participants in the documentary, it becomes necessary to reveal what “The Keepers” is actually about, so if you’d rather be surprised, you can stop reading now, and simply know that this series can occasionally be a bit sprawling, and its contents are often difficult to witness, but its devotion to putting the spotlight on women who found ways to tell their painful stories, despite the fearsome power of those who would have silenced or dismissed them, gives the entire enterprise a core of sustaining momentum and quietly righteous energy.

It turns out that a priest at Keough — a man assigned to counsel students — was instead raping them. This went on for years. Two former students finally filed a lawsuit against the priest, the school, and the archdiocese in the early ’90s, thanks to the hard work of lawyers who did what the Baltimore police and district attorney were apparently unable or unwilling to do, i.e., hold accountable those responsible for the crimes that apparently took place daily at Keough decades earlier. At times, “The Keepers” resembles another Baltimore-set tale, “The Wire,” the story of interlocking systems of power and influence and the ways in which those forces often come together to resist and even bully those who question the most predatory and incompetent people inside those key institutions. Like the 2015 film “Spotlight,” this series paints a devastating portrait of the ways in which abuse survivors and their allies are often stymied, evaded, and attacked — and how much tenacity they (and determined reporters) can display in the face of what looks like unbearable and implacable adversity.

Occasionally “The Keepers” turns a bit too melodramatic — there are shots of a dead deer and of vultures landing in a wintry tree, in case the viewer missed that this was a dark and difficult tale. A few repetitive elements slow down the story now and then. And if the viewer has seen other documentaries devoted to these topics, or read the copious news coverage of schools and religious institutions all over the world that have covered up and evaded responsibility for abusive teachers and clerics, there’s a depressing similarity to the contours of this story.

But in the main, “The Keepers” is a solid work, one whose immediacy and visceral power is not clouded by tendencies toward the exploitative or prurient. The documentary brings together an enormous amount of detail that supports the thrust of its core arguments about coverups and suspicious collusion among various institutions in and around Baltimore. And it’s full of evocative details: The family of survivor Jean Hargadon Wehner rallied to her side when she began recalling her abuse, and her siblings got together to write postcards to other alumnae, asking if they knew of other instances of assault and rape. (The postcards, which the family prayed over before sending, led to the uncovering of dozens of other crimes.)

What’s most impressive about “The Keepers” is its ability to be restrained when the survivors talk about what happened to them and how it affected them. Director Ryan White points his camera at these women — Wehner in particular — and simply lets them speak. In an early episode, he doesn’t cut away when Wehner tells a particularly devastating story, stares at the camera for several seconds, and then puts her head down and bursts into tears. The intensity of the moment is unforgettable. 

Wehner emerges as one of the most compelling people to ever arise from the world of true-crime documentaries. What happened at Keough did not stay hidden forever, in large part because Wehner and other determined survivors, plus a group of diligent retirees and friends, wouldn’t let it.

TV Review: 'The Keepers' on Netflix

Documentary series; 7 episodes (4 reviewed); Netflix, Fri. May 19.

Crew

Executive producers, Ryan White, Jessica Hargrave, Josh Braun, Ben Cotner, Jason Spingarn-Koff, Lisa Nishimura.

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  1. The Savvy Savage says:

    You leave this series the same way you leave the 2015 “Spotlight.” With a supreme sense of complete helplessness. I have fought another huge entity in my own case and I assure you, the methods of the US Army are the same. I can’t watch many more of these without saying that only ONE lesson can be learned from this. It’s time to desert these ways of life. Christianity, Conservative Traditionalism, Blind Patriotism, all of this needs to be left to rot. If we want it to stop we need to stop it by no longer belonging to any of the methods supported by the Justice system, the Church and conservative minded people. I can’t see another way to distance myself from these horrible things or these awful people. They all belong to the same methodology so let’s leave them without their victims!! Walk away and stop being Christians and Conservatives. Their really isn’t another solution.

  2. watched the series, and some things were back up with facts but most of it its just hearsay and partly unbelievable and not define facts on most of the sex abuse claims which are extraordinary. Keep in mind the so called investigation was done by people who were emotionally affected by this originally so take it all with a grain of salt

  3. although I have no doubt that abuses took place I was very skeptical about a lot of the fantastic allegations and conspiracy theories.

  4. Mary Mueller says:

    I am the disfigured flip-side of RCC sex trafficking: MUNCHAUSEN BY PROXY medical trafficking of “sexually unworthy” women and children for abstinence enforcement — “ankle bracelet” Magdalene laundry and secret septic tank mass grave punishment for the sexual sins of “sexually worthy” priests, nuns and wealthy donors. Late playboy pastor of Immaculate Deception in Towson, MD / Orioles chaplain Monsignor Martin Schwallenberg ordered my NFP-ruined mother to burn me head to toe as HER abstinence forever excuse while he banged Orioles’ wives. Authorities should investigate the RCC for ordering Munchausen by Proxy deaths and injuries of mothers in Catholic hospitals and disabilities in their unwanted children as abstinence enforcement. “Sexually unworthy” Rosemary Kennedy is a famous example of ankle bracelet Magdalene laundry / Munchausen by Proxy imposed disability and abstinence enforcement. Gypsy Rose Blanchard of “Mommy Dead and Dearest” is another example. My childbirth-ruined Munchausen by Proxy perp mom tortured me with total body disfigurement initially to prevent my fed-up non-Catholic dad from divorcing her over RCC abstinence only “birth control.” When I began rebelling like Gypsy Rose, she insisted I stay disfigured as abstinence enforcement on me. Abortion is a million times kinder. Statutes of limitation laws completely fail us RCC Munchausen by Proxy victims. I believe the Baltimore RCC partnered with Johns Hopkins and Pentagon funding to ruin thousands of Maryland students with radiation experiments. The Baltimore Sun exposed some of these experiments and I met many such victims at Pres. Bill Clinton’s hearings on human radiation experiments.

  5. Stu King says:

    Wow, I was mesmerized by the entire series and how it unfolded over years. I am disgusted by the catholic church and the abuse of power. I can barely write down my thoughts, my heart goes out to all the victims. I don’t think that the institutions in power could possibly throw up any blocks now.

  6. Evangeline says:

    Shame! Archdiocese of Baltimore shows the meaning of true evil. Families trusted them with their children and by turning their back, they permitted rape and murder. SHAME ON THEM.

  7. Lin Wheel says:

    I am so sorry that all of these children/women went through this. The extreme coverup by so many is horrific and literally breaks my heart. I am a victim but have also counseled many victims. You are all so brave. Thank you for having the courage to come forward. I know there has to be a special place in hell for all these perps and their supporters. God give the victims Your peace and the validation that they are amazing, loved, treasured, beautiful, uniquely made and strong.

  8. Jane G. LaRocque says:

    I am so sorry that dozens of lives were ruined, and at least two of them terminated, by the determination of the Archdiocese of Baltimore to hide the evil behavior of Father Maskell and his cohorts. I share the anger and the sense of hopelessness of those who saw their efforts cut to shreds by the government and the church. The attitude shown and the injustice perpetrated recalls Medieval church practices.

  9. Susan Johnson says:

    Jean, Thank you for bringing these horrific experiences out in the light. The more we are open and honest, the less hold the perpetrators will have over us.
    I believe God is helping us as a society to see how far off base we are and giving us the tools to change things. Thank you again!!

  10. Donald Brake says:

    Does anyone know where is the tree where were screw the sign on is?

  11. Staci says:

    Please factcheck: it’s Keough

  12. Shane says:

    Incredible story and extremely well done. Bravo to the brave women who shared their stories and the women that doggedly helped bring to light. All these women WILL help others.

  13. Timothy Scott says:

    Please change one thing. Sister Cathy went missing in 1969 & her body was found in 1970. Mo, you wrote that she went missing in 1971.

  14. I’m sure glad they shut down this school. because these are the dumbest students in America! Lying on a priest’s desk for a gynecological examination?! Gimmie a break!

    • Uhm, hi there moderators, why on earth would you let a comment like this through?! If it’s not a simple troll this is an abuser right here, that’s abuser logic.

    • Sally Mahan says:

      Do you have any idea how Catholic girls were raised? We knew nothing of such things in our early teens. We did know that if a priest told us to do something, we were to obey without question. All of our lives we were told that priests were the direct ear to God. How dare you denigrate what happened to these women (and men) and say something so cruel. It’s simply unforgivable that anyone would even think like this.

    • Arielle says:

      You must be an absolutely cruel and vile person to judge the abuse and trauma that these victims endured in such a way. Here’s hoping you never have to experience the fear, intimidation, and force that these young naive girls fell prey to.

    • Dr. John Smith says:

      I can fully understand how someone could come to the conclusion that you did. But I also fully understand the only route to that conclusion is ignorance

  15. LoyolaAlum SNAP says:

    The May 19th Netflix release of “The Keepers” marks 13-years to the day of the death of Jesuit Fr. James Chevedden in San Jose, California. Fr. Chevedden’s sudden death was a suicide or a staged suicide during the tenure of Fr. Thomas Smolich, California Jesuit Provincial. Fr. Thomas Smolich subsequently had an office in Washington, DC for 5+ years as head of the USA Jesuit Order. In 2016 Fr. Smolich was International Director of Jesuit Refugee Services.

    Fr. Chevedden lived in Los Gatos, California where Netflix is headquartered. The California Jesuit Order, headquartered in Los Gatos, paid a $1.6 million settlement in regard to Fr. Chevedden’s death during Fr. Smolich’s tenure. The police did a sloppy investigation of the death.

    Although Fr. Chevedden was buried in a non-Jesuit cemetery, the Jesuit Order secretly put a headstone with his name in a Jesuit cemetery.

    • Peg says:

      I graduated from an all girls Catholic high school in ’64. I entered the convent that Septiember. I left the order many years later, but this film touched me deeply since it brought back so many memories about the process of becoming a nun. I also related to how innocent and “submissive” we were back then!
      Secondly, I was horrified at how much those two brave “victims'” were. What they went through!!
      The Catholic church still has much to answer for.
      Also, this film brought home to me, watching these women age, the realization that I am not a young women any more!!!
      Hope the renewed attention brings some clarity to that horrific case.

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