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 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 the documentary’s devotion to the lives of 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 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 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.