Whenever a great new show drops on Netflix or any other streaming service, "it'll be your new obsession!" is considered the highest praise. But don't even think about applying that compliment to Netflix's docuseries The Keepers. It's arguably the most important TV series of 2017 — with the potential to reach a wide audience and start crucial, long-overdue conversations about childhood sexual abuse, PTSD, and systemic corruption. Because the series focuses on the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, it absolutely has a whodunnit aspect — but to describe The Keepers as your "new true crime obsession" trivializes the experiences of the courageous women telling these horrific stories of the alleged sexual abuse they endured as young teens at Keough High School in the late 1960s.
In an interview with Bustle, director and executive producer Ryan White emphasizes that viewers need to remember we're watching real people who have spent decades suffering in silence — and neither the alleged victims nor Sister Cathy have received justice.
"We're focusing a lot on the victims [in this series]. The survivors of the sex abuse, and Sister Cathy and her family," White says. "It's about a lot more than the murder mystery. It's about these foundational crimes and what they do to people, and about the injustice and the fact that nobody is ever held accountable."
The series suggests that Cesnik, a beloved teacher at Keough High School, was murdered because she discovered students’ claims of abuse by Father Joseph Maskell. According to the Baltimore Sun, Maskell denied the initial accusations until his death in 2001. A spokesperson for The Archdiocese of Baltimore, the division of the Catholic Church which employed Maskell and oversaw Keough High School, released the following statement to Bustle about the multiple sexual abuse allegations against Maskell (and you can read a longer statement from the Archdiocese here).
Since the 1990s, when the Archdiocese of Baltimore first learned of an allegation of child sexual abuse against Maskell, and on numerous occasions since, the Archdiocese has publicly acknowledged and apologized for the horrific abuse committed by him. The Archdiocese reported the allegations to civil authorities in the 1990s and cooperated fully in any investigation, removed Father Maskell’s faculties to function as a priest, apologized to victims and offered them counseling assistance, sought additional victims, and provided direct financial assistance to 16 individuals abused by Maskell.
Though it was unaware of the abuse at the time it occurred approximately 50 years ago, the Archdiocese deeply regrets the damage that was caused to those who were so badly harmed and has worked diligently since becoming aware of their abuse to bring some measure of healing to them. The Archdiocese is wholly committed to protecting children, holding abusers accountable — clergy and laity alike, and promoting healing for victims. These are hallmarks of the Archdiocese’s child protection efforts, which we strive to constantly strengthen.
There is no room in the Archdiocese for anyone who would harm a child and every effort must be made to ensure what happened before never happens again. It is our hope that The Keepers advances this pursuit, just as we hope the series helps those who have kept alive the memory of Sr. Cathy and our collective hope that justice will be won for her.
Some of the women who accused Maskell tell their stories in The Keepers — often in graphic detail — and they're incredibly painful to hear, but that's exactly why we need to listen. White knows that it will be hard to watch, but his hope is that "people will bear witness to make sure that this doesn't happen again."
Bearing all this in mind, The Keepers simply cannot be a "new TV obsession." And calling it as much trivializes the claims of the women in the series and implies that it's simply a show to devour before moving on to the next "exciting" series. The true crime drama genre is more popular than ever right now — but we need to remain keenly aware that reducing these stories to entertainment is essentially dismissing the fact that those involved and their families will continue to suffer when we move on to the next salacious storyline.
Although White absolutely hopes The Keepers could result in new leads in Cesnik's still-unsolved murder, it also serves a broader purpose: To start a dialogue about sexual abuse and those responsible for committing these crimes and, as The Keepers alleges, those responsible for covering them up. And that's a dialogue that will likely continue for years. (On their website, The Archdiocese of Baltimore claims they cooperated fully in both Cesnik's murder investigation and during the time Maskell was accused in the '90s.)
"I hope some sense of justice comes from this," White says. "Whether it's justice for the victims of the sex abuse ring who've had to suffer their entire lives, or justice for Sister Cathy and her family where no one has been held accountable for her murder ... or justice for the institutions where this has been covered up." (Again, as seen in the statement above, the Church denied any intent to cover up the situation.)
Justice comes in many forms — Cesnik's murder may never be solved, and the women in The Keepers can't undo what happened to them. But, by bearing witness, we as viewers can listen and learn. We can start important conversations about the myriad important issues raised in the series.
I hope that everyone watches The Keepers and that they talk about it — but it deserves to be treated as far more than a "TV obsession." The stories involve real people, not entertainers, and they should be treated with profound dignity and respect. And, perhaps the best way to honor them is to find ways that we as people, and as a society, can prevent abuse from occurring elsewhere.
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Additional reporting by Martha Sorren.