This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason Netflix dropped the entire series the same day.
Can Any More Injustice Occur On The Keepers?
According to Jean Hardagon Wehner, you don't know the half of it.
The Keepers is becoming a difficult viewing experience. In the first two episodes several people warned that the story of Sister Cathy Cesnik's murder is not really about her killing, but the cover-up of her death. This warning seemed like standard fare for an early episode in a multi-part true-crime series. But unlike Making A Murderer or The Staircase, the plot twists and surprise reveals are less "OMG -- I did NOT see that coming!" and more "Oh, this cannot get any worse. ...Nope. WRONG. This just got SO MUCH FUCKING WORSE."
Episode Three -- "The Revelation" -- serves as the second and, if it's actually possible, more painful and frustrating installment in the experiences of Jean Hardagon Wehner. My esteemed colleague Sarah D. Bunting covered the story of Jean's abuse at the hands of Father Maskell, a truly disgusting violator of children. The second episode ends with Fr. Maskell taking Jean to see Sister Cathy's body. This seemed like the point that would lead us back into the murder. Many questions need answering -- who brought back Sister Cathy's car? Would the cops who raped Jean end up blocking the investigation? What startling information did Abbie and Gemma undercover?
But director Ryan White is not ready to get back to Sister Cathy yet. Not by a long shot. Instead we watch Jean slowly and in agonizing detail unravel the story of how she came to be known as the "Jane Doe" who publicly accused Fr. Maskell of sexual abuse. It's a disturbing story and I can't imagine how she summoned up the monumental amounts of strength and courage it took to go public with her experience.
After graduating from high school, Jean suppressed her abuse. She in fact remembered nothing of what happened to her. Years later, following a chance encounter with a former classmate, the memories began to resurface. By this time Jean was married, had two children, and served as a lay minister in her church. As her memories came into focus and she began to recall with increasing clarity the absolutely horrendous things done to her by Fr. Maskell and others, she, being a devout Catholic, turned to the church for help.
And that's when the story takes a recognizable but no less shitty turn. If you are familiar at all with the recent history of how the Catholic Church has handled accusations of sexual abuse against priests, Jean's story should sound stomach-churningly familiar. While pretending to support her claims against Fr. Maskell, several archdiocesan officials and church-employed lawyers actually work to quietly deal with the sexually abusive priest while making it almost impossible for Jean to bring official charges against Maskell.
After several months of delays and lack of help, Jean and her husband fire their church-affiliated lawyer and double-down on their effort to have Fr. Maskell punished. She informs her family of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Fr. Maskell (and also an uncle who had sexually assaulted her as a young child -- for fuck's sake, the shit this woman has been through) and in that meeting she begins remembering the incident with Maskell and Sister Cathy's body. With new lawyers and her family's help, Jean mails letters to hundreds of Archbishop Keough alumni asking if anyone knew of any sexual misconduct by school staff. More than a few write back, and almost all name Maskell.
Despite the avalanche of sadness this episode throws on the viewer, there is one haunting moment in particular I can't get out of my head. At the request of church officials, Jean agrees to write down and read out loud to them one of the incidents of sexual abuse committed by Fr. Maskell. She then reads the letter for the filmmakers in all its disgusting detail. She finishes, puts down the letter, stares at the interviewer for a few seconds and then cracks.
She cracks wide open, puts her head down on the table and cries with her whole being.
I've watched this scene several times, trying to gain some understanding of her pain, and as I kept watching it I began thinking that the recollection which led to her break down wasn't the abuse itself, or at least not only the abuse, but how those church fuckers, like they seemed to do so regularly, worked to deny her the right to confront her accuser. Instead they made every effort to bury the truth in order to protect the criminal instead of helping the innocent -- the very fucking thing the church is supposed to do -- just to make sure the institution's reputation didn't take a hit.
And maybe this is the moment that reveals most clearly the deeper purpose of this series -- we need to never forget that what happened to Jean and the other students at Archbishop Keough was not an isolated incident perpetrated by one horribly fucked-up priest. It actually happened to thousands of young girls all the time, and the standard response from the people these women turned to for help, if they could summon up the courage to even get to that point, was to blame them for their abuse, or call them liars, and generally tell them just to shut the fuck up and go away.
The show is -- on the surface -- about a serial sexual abuser and the possible lengths he went to in order to cover up his crimes. But in using two episodes out of a seven-part series to cover Jean's story, Ryan White seems to be making a more subtle but larger point that this abuse was different because of its extreme nature, not because it happened in the first place.
If Fr. Maskell did actually kill Sister Cathy for the reason Jean alleges, then she died because she was one of the very small number of people in the church, or American society more broadly, that was willing in the early 1970s to step up and take a stand against men who believed that they did not need permission to have sexual access to women, not to mention the institutions that protected them.