Netflix's newest true crime docuseries contains its fair share of mysteries: Who killed Sister Cathy Cesnik in 1969? Why was she murdered? How deep does the situation go? But one detail is its own little mystery: The show's title. Who are The Keepers and what does the title mean? The eponymous line is never once spoken within the seven episodes, and neither is the reference ever overtly explained by anyone within the series. According to Ryan White, the director and executive producer, he wanted the title to encompass all sides of the story.
"The title actually came up during filming," White tells Bustle in an interview. "A survivor [of abuse] used that expression during a very vulnerable part of filming with a couple of other survivors at a dinner." The director recounts how the subject in question uttered the phrase, "We are the keepers" — and how that immediately leaped out at him as an appropriate title for the series itself. The Keepers is a series about the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, yes, but it also follows the stories of several women who accused Father Joseph Maskell of sexually abusing them while they attended Keough High School in the late '60s and early '70s. Maskell denied the sexual assault accusations until his death in 2001, but the Archdiocese of Baltimore, who employed Maskell and oversaw Keough, has since acknowledged Maskell's alleged abuse. In a statement to Bustle, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese had this to say:
"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."
Even if the phrase "the keepers" didn't end up making the final cut in the editing room, White still liked it enough to name his entire documentary series after it. "Right when I heard that expression I said, 'That's going to be the title,'" White remembers. "It just landed hard and heavy. I thought the term had such symbolism across the board in this story — mostly because of secrets, and the pain and shame that these abuse victims are forced to live with every day." But, White says the title goes beyond the women who accused Maskell.
"I also thought it was really relevant in the sense of the cover-ups that I believe have happened in Baltimore around these crimes," White elaborates, "And so much of the story is about gate-keepers: The people that have the information or the knowledge of what happened, and whether they're willing to speak up and do the right thing and release that information to the public," he says. "So I saw both sides of that term."
For a series about secrets that have been kept for decades — secrets regarding murder and claims of sexual abuse and alleged cover-ups — it's perhaps appropriate that the show's own title is something of a mystery itself. But thanks to White, the story of the title is one secret that won't be kept.
Additional reporting by Martha Sorren