“Everyone else has failed us.”
That’s how Jane Roe, aka Teresa Lancaster, explains her dedication to telling her story, and those of dozens of other abuse victims, about halfway through The Keepers. The seven-episode documentary, released last week on Netflix, is ostensibly about the murder of a nun, Sister Catherine Cesnik, in 1969. And that’s what the first episode largely leads you to believe: A nun was killed, and two of her students, now in their sixties, have begun a mini crusade to figure out what happened to her. But the murder investigation expands to illuminate an entire culture of abuse — and a massive cover-up, willful ignorance, and/or outright negligence on the part of the Catholic Church, the justice system, and the Baltimore city police force.
Most people now know the Catholic Church quietly collaborated with various systems of power and justice to keep stories of systemic abuse quiet for decades. Every story of abuse, and subsequent cover-up, is horrifying and infuriating. What separates The Keepers from the narratives that have come before, however, are the resilient, dogged, detail-oriented sixtysomething women at its core — women who, after being failed by every organization intended to protect them, took the task of solving their own community’s mystery into their own hands.
The Keepers is the story of a murdered nun and an abusive priest, and of the way that power pools together to hide and silence its victims. But it’s also the story of a group of middle-aged women — so often derided, dismissed, or rendered invisible in American culture — asserting their power, in part by refusing to shut up, sit down, or go away. The Keepers is, of course, marketed as a mystery. But it’s also a survival story — and a testament to the ways that women, especially those no longer burdened by society’s opinion of them, can challenge systems of power.
The women of The Keepers attended Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland, between 1968 and 1972. Many, including the two primary investigators Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub, are retired; others have grown children and settled into that comfortable ease of a woman-of-a-certain-age, wearing drapey cardigans and attending to small, poorly behaved dogs. They were all exceptional students — each took a special entrance exam to get into Keough — and were encouraged to think of themselves as a new sort of female student, full of potential. “Women,” as the school told them, “of a new age.”
That was how second-wave feminism, which was percolating on the national stage, manifested in deeply Catholic, working-class Baltimore: that highly capable women, attending an all-girls Catholic school, could think differently of their futures. They’d still be mothers, and wives, but they also had the potential for something more — even if, as one of the women remembers, some were forced, by their parents, to stick to the secretarial track.
Women’s lib, as it was then called, caused no small amount of consternation — but attitudes like those espoused at Keough were a way to embrace the ‘60s version of “girl power” while also circumscribing that power. You can be anything, in other words, so long as you’re also a mother and a wife and a good Catholic, which is to say, at least in this iteration, still subservient, still a second-class citizen. As the female students at Keough tell it, Sister Cathy was magnetic: because she was a mentor, but also because she was vivacious, young, and had them read The Scarlet Letter. She was a new type of nun, emboldened by the command, from Pope Paul VI, to embrace the tenets of social justice, as well as the energy of Vatican II, whose explicit goal was to demystify the church and integrate it with the needs of the modern world.
As would only later become clear, Sister Cathy was also an advocate for her students who were being sexually abused — and likely refused to stay silent about a secret that, in a previous generation, would have most certainly been kept silent. You can look at Sister Cathy’s willingness to speak up — and the subsequent need to silence her, along with the girls she was trying to protect — as a gruesome manifestation of anxiety over pretty seismic cultural changes: in society, but also in the church.
The series strongly suggests that Father Joseph Maskell, who allegedly abused at least two dozen students at Keough, was a pedophile. But like so many others in the priesthood, Maskell was also disempowered by these cultural and religious shifts, which undercut his ultimate authority. And those least secure in their power often exercise that power, and reaffirm it, on those least likely to resist or question it. For example: teenage girls, especially those grasping for clarity, amid all that was going on culturally, about their own sexual identity and the church.
Sister Cathy threatened that power. And whether or not that’s why she was killed, Father Maskell emerged from the shadow of her murder unscathed — and continued to circulate within the Baltimore archdiocese for decades. The young women of Keogh graduated, got married, had children, got busy. But then the memories of one woman, Jean Hargadon Wehner, began to surface — about her own repeated sexual assault, and about Maskell taking her to Sister Cathy’s body to threaten her into silence.
These memories surfaced when Wehner was in her forties — a common time, according to psychologists interviewed in the film, for repressed memories to resurface; distance from an event can make it “safer,” for lack of a better word, for victims to deal with past trauma. When Wehner came forward with her allegations in 1992 — and, two years later, Teresa Lancaster officially joined her suit — they were both in a place of financial and familial stability. Like the 40-plus others who echoed the claims of sexuality impropriety at Keough under Maskell, they’d reached a point of relative psychological safety, but also one of confidence in their own personal truth, however tenuous or fragile.
Like many cases that involve allegations of sexual abuse, both Wehner and Lancaster remained anonymous: Their suit against Maskell and the archdiocese was filed under the names of Jane Doe and Jane Roe. They didn’t want their private sexual trauma to be Baltimore’s public business — or, presumably, affect their careers, the careers of their husbands, or their families. But their suit was dismissed: not because the judge didn’t believe their allegations, but because the statute of limitations had passed, and the legitimacy of repressed memories was, at the time, dubious. (Repressed memories were often the result of abuse and exploitation — there’s a reason that those in power might want to delegitimize them.)
So Wehner and Lancaster returned to their lives, and the case disappeared — even as similar cases began to rock the Catholic Church on an international level.
But then, over the course of 20 years, something remarkable happened. The women of Keough got older — and, very slowly, with the help of social media, began to mobilize. Their search began with Hoskins and Schaub’s attempts to figure out Cathy’s murder, but then expanded to include the sprawling universe of abuse and deceit — all organized around a small Facebook group.
Hoskins and Schaub are able to dedicate themselves to this work, at least in part, because they’re retired. Amid the blank space of retirement, many people return to (or arrive at) the things that have troubled or beguiled them over the years: hobbies, of course, but also family mystery, a fascination with history, or political activism. For the women of The Keepers, anger at what happened — to them, to their teacher, to their classmates — has grown in inverse proportion to their fear of how society will regard them. As postmenopausal women, they’re not sex objects; they don’t have viable wombs. Within our still profoundly conservative calculus of a woman’s value, they have very little. But that dismissal, that near-invisibility when it comes to the media, is liberating: If no one’s watching you, you can do whatever you want.
Including: holding structures of power accountable. They do so, however, by wielding skill sets and tools often delegitimized or degraded as feminine. They strategize on a Facebook group. They file ceaseless requests. They spend a ton of time sorting through microfiche and old VHS video. They organize; they chat people up; they keep detailed spreadsheets — in part by using the very skills they learned at Keough. They investigate from the soft perches of their desktop computers, firmly ensconced in, but never enclosed by, the domestic sphere. Most importantly, they collaborate with other women — and believe one another. They are women who believe women.
That might sound straightforward, but taken together, it’s enough to unravel, if not entirely solve, the tight knot of mystery and obfuscation around what happened at Keough all those years ago. Many of the roadblocks that remain are much more likely to topple — including an FBI that remains unresponsive to their FOIA requests — in part because of their willingness to collaborate with a director and put their names and faces and testimony beside this cause in a very public way. Because of their resilience, but also because they no longer fear, or even care, about the consequences of telling the truth.
Father Maskell died without punishment. The Catholic Church refuses to acknowledge how it protected him; the Baltimore city police admits no wrongdoing or malfeasance. In so doing, both deny the institutional architecture that allowed the abuse of countless girls and boys and women and men to continue, even flourish. Denying that a powerful system exists, after all, is one of the best ways to allow it to endure unchecked. Just ask the patriarchy.
But the women of The Keepers refuse this scenario. They insist that they still matter — and that those structures remain, in Wehner’s words, “fuckers” — but fuckers whose existence depends on the continued silence of people around them. People taught to be docile, to not question authority, to do what the priest, or a police officer, or your teacher, or your father or your husband tells you. To trust that our systems of religion, education, and law are rooted in justice for those who lack the means to protect themselves — even when so much evidence suggests the opposite.
That didn’t work for these women. So they found another way. In the first episode of the series, Tom Nugent, who’d covered the Keough case in the ‘90s — and who, we later learn, doubted aspects of Jane Doe’s account — recalls asking Hoskins and Schaub to join forces with him to become investigative journalists. “No thanks,” they responded, “We’ll do it our way.”
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at email@example.com.
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