The Netflix true crime documentary series The Keepers does not sugar coat anything. It is unflinchingly honest about the 1969 death of Baltimore teacher Sister Cathy Cesnik and how it may have been linked to alleged sexual abuse occurring at Archbishop Keough High School in the 1960s. The allegations against Father Maskell on The Keepers are horrific, but it's very important that Netflix has spotlighted them in this series. (According to the Baltimore Sun, Maskell denied the accusations until his death in 2001. He was never charged with a crime in relation to Cesnik's death or the abuse allegations.) While the first episode of the series focuses on the disappearance and death of Sister Cathy, the second episode begins to detail the devastating tales of alleged sexual abuse that several women experienced as students at Archbishop Keough High School.
The descriptions of the abuse are very graphic, and they are hard to hear — but they highlight the level of trauma abuse victims often go through. There is no dancing around the details these women are sharing — and nothing is left to speculation. It's uncomfortable, but so necessary to bear witness to their claims. And in a unsolved, open murder case like this, every detail and possible piece of evidence counts when it comes to finally getting justice for Sister Cathy and Father Maskell's alleged victims.
Maskell may have denied any allegations of abuse until his death, but The Archdiocese of Baltimore acknowledged the allegations in a lengthy statement to Bustle:
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.
In the past few years, viewers have seen how true crime TV series can influence real-life criminal cases. Last year, Netflix's Making A Murder inspired viewers to create a petition to pardon convicted murderer Steven Avery, who claims he is innocent. The petition was signed by more than 300,000 people in January 2016 and received a response from the White House. According to the Los Angeles Times, HBO's six-part documentary series The Jinx played a key role in the arrest of Robert Durst, (he also claims he is innocent of the crimes charged against him). “The Jinx’s final episode ... was about to become public and [Durst] was about to hear for the first time this extremely damning evidence,” prosecutors wrote in court papers filed in Los Angeles, reported the LA Times. The popular 2014 podcast Serial helped the jailed Adnan Syed get granted a new trial for a Baltimore murder he has claimed for years that he did not commit.
When it comes to real life, information — even unpleasant and horrible as it may be — matters a lot, and The Keepers could find itself influencing any future developments in Sister Cathy's murder case. But, when TV shows of any kind contain graphic depictions or descriptions of certain topics, there is a need to provide trigger warnings for the audience, because a TV-MA rating may not be enough. The Netflix scripted drama series 13 Reasons Why has also gone into graphic detail regarding suicide and sexual assault, and the show has faced much controversy because of that. On May 1, Variety reported that Netflix added additional trigger warnings to the series and strengthened “the messaging and resource language in the existing cards,” in addition to its TV-MA warning.
Both 13 Reasons Why and The Keepers are important to the current conversation about sexual assault, but there is a key difference between these two Netflix series: 13 Reasons Why is fiction, while the women in The Keepers are real people who claim they experienced sexual trauma. Currently The Keepers does not run with similar warning cards preceding the episode, but after the closing credits this card is displayed offering the RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) phone number and a website to go to for more information.
The director of the series, Ryan White, is keenly aware of the sensitive nature of the series and has sought to help minimize trauma for those watching. He helped create thekeepersimpact.com, which will provide resources for survivors and serve as a place for support and information.
Though the allegations against Father Maskell are graphic, Netflix is correct to spotlight them, becauseThe Keepers subjects deserve our attention.