"Why didn't you tell someone right away?" This is often one of the first questions many sexual assault survivors hear when they eventually come forward weeks, months, or years after the attack. This is a devastating response, especially since the mere act of speaking the truth is a courageous one. Ryan White's new Netflix docuseries The Keepers places a strong focus on victim-blaming and digs into the psychology of why so many survivors wait years to come forward, or never speak up at all. Jean Wehner, previously known as Jane Doe, from The Keepers didn't immediately come forward about her alleged abuse for very understandable reasons.
First of all, she was a young girl who had grown up in a devout Catholic family. As anyone who was raised Catholic knows, we're taught that priests are the closest thing to God we'll ever know during our time on earth. Furthermore, sex is often a taboo topic in Catholic households — and Wehner's brothers attest this was certainly true in their home. As Wehner claims in The Keepers, Father Maskell allegedly started sexually abusing her when she was 14 years old. It allegedly began after she told him during confession that she felt both confused and guilty due to sexual abuse she claims she experienced when she was a young child. (According to the Baltimore Sun, Maskell denied the sexual abuse accusations until his death in 2001.)
According to the Children's Assessment Center, sexual predators are often highly intelligent and seek out vulnerable children, and she fit that description — if Wehner felt guilty about being abused as a child and hadn’t told anyone, then she was a natural target. As she recalls in the series, the alleged abuse by Maskell began in the guise that this was her “penance” for what happened to as a child. Rather than telling her the truth, which was that she had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, Father Maskell allegedly seized the opportunity to tell Wehner she needed to atone for her nonexistent sin. Again, as Catholic children we're conditioned to trust priests implicitly — so, even if she had a sense that his alleged behavior was wrong, it stands to reason that she would have brushed it aside and forced herself to accept Father Maskell's narrative.
Victim-blaming is so ingrained in society that victims often default to blaming themselves before anyone else can do it for them. Wehner recalls the time period when she recovered her memories of the alleged abuse — which happened 20 years after the events. She felt completely disgusted with herself and became filled with self-loathing. By the time she began to recover memories, Wehner was raising two children and she’d instilled in them to always tell an adult if someone hurt them. She recalls berating herself for not doing just that, and thinking “you must have deserved it” and “you must have liked it.”
As Wehner expresses in the series, she branded herself a “whore” and even told her husband that he’d be better off leaving her because she was undeserving of his love. This was her mindset as an intelligent, highly-functional adult — so it’s impossible to imagine the level of confusion, fear, and shame she experienced as a young teenager.
In 1994, she and Teresa Lancaster (then known as Jane Roe) filed a lawsuit against Father Maskell, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who ran the school Maskell has been employed at. Although the statute of limitations had expired for sexual abuse, their attorneys argued that the case should move forward because the women's memories hadn't resurfaced until the '90s. The church brought in Catholic psychiatrist Paul McHugh, a "false memory expert," who successfully got the case thrown out. In a recent statement to Bustle, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Baltimore acknowledged the allegations against Maskell.
The intensity of the lawsuit was re-traumatizing. Wehner recalls that, when she couldn't provide lawyers with the answers she believed they wanted, she felt like she was back in Father Maskell's office again, feeling helpless and degraded. Still, she hoped it would be worth it in the name of justice — but, instead, the case was thrown out. Justice is often not on the side of the victim — and to come forward and go through an excruciating legal process only to be told that you're essentially not "a good enough victim" is completely devastating.
At the time of the 1994 lawsuit, both Wehner and Lancaster remained anonymous due to their fear of Father Maskell. After his death, they made their names public as they continued to pursue justice for themselves, other alleged Keough victims, and Sister Cathy. And, they're not the only ones fighting for sexual abuse victims. As depicted towards the end of the series, a Maryland state delegate, C.T. Wilson, fought for legislation to extend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse. Footage in The Keepers from the 2015 hearings shows representatives from the Catholic Church who argued the statute of limitations must remain in place because it would pressure victims to come forward immediately so the victims themselves can prevent future crimes. Once again, the blame gets thrown back to the victim. By this thinking, if they don’t immediately report what happened to them and the perpetrator abuses another person, part of the blame rests on the victim's shoulders. According to the Archdiocese of Baltimore's website, they stand by that attitude, stating this as their reason for objecting "to earlier bills introduced regarding the civil statute of limitations."
When all these factors are taken into account, it's not remotely surprising that Wehner and many other alleged victims stayed silent for so long. So, instead of asking why she didn't come forward during her time at Keough, I hope viewers will focus on the strength Wehner and others have displayed as adults.