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The Keepers And A Profile In Courage

The harrowing testimony of Jean Hargadon Wehner.

The Keepers seems in Episode 2 to detour away from the present-day investigation into Sister Cathy Cesnik's death, spending most of the episode exploring "what went on at that school." I agree with my esteemed colleague Allison Lowe Huff that the first hour of the series had some pacing problems, but the decision to sit with the gothically evil perversions committed ("allegedly," but: come on) by school counselor Father Joseph Maskell is the right one, because it honors the experiences of Maskell's victims, and their survival.

And what experiences. Maskell is so vile as to sit beyond the reach of words, but just to begin, he investigated the students at Archbishop Keough, to find the girls who had already suffered sexual abuse, believing (correctly) that he could leverage it. He told the students that their sinfulness and lust had caused the abuse, and only he could cleanse them of it. The ritual cleansing he had in mind, I probably don't need to tell you, was the "sacrament" of sex with him, during which he referred to his semen as "the Eucharist," and after which the girls were not given so much as a napkin or the offer of the washroom to clean up, just ordered back to class.

He pimped them to other priests, and to Baltimore County policemen. He dry-fired guns at their temples to scare them. He threatened to kill their families if they told. He drugged a girl's Coke so she wouldn't remember the reports he had her type up of his victims' sexual histories.

He brought Jean Hargadon Wehner to Sister Cathy's body, piled onto the side of that hill like the last bag of vacation-house trash thrown out the car window. Decomposition was underway, and Jean knelt beside her friend and would-be protector, her last hope, and wiped the maggots from her face. Maskell "got up close," as he liked to do. "Do you see what happens when you say bad things about people?"

I don't know what we'll find out in upcoming episodes about Sister Cathy's murder, and whether Maskell did it, or was involved, or just took advantage of knowing where her body was to keep silencing Jean and her schoolmates. I don't know how Jean carried all of this around with her for so long and kept going. But I know she's a warrior for surviving. She went back to that terrifying time and brought us with her, through all of it (Lil Hughes and Kathy Hobeck, too). She described in pitiable, nauseating detail every disgusting crime he committed against her. She testified.

In testifying, these women who somehow Maskell did not break despite his darkest efforts do more than explain how and why Sr. Cathy might have been killed. They explain why, sometimes, victims are not believed. Never mind why victims don't come forward; particularly in cases involving the Catholic church and those specific perpetrators' ability to use God and their positions of authority to frighten and silence children, it's clear that shame, whether it's about the "private stuff" that's going on or the victims' inability to stop it or the disgrace threatened by the abusers, plays a huge role in keeping victims quiet. But Wehner's allegations are so gross in both size and quality that non-monsters like you and I almost can't comprehend it, can't get our heads around how a man of the cloth, responsible for children's safety and well-being, could so thoroughly pervert his duties to church, kids, and the human race. She was a child. Who does this? What is he? None of this can be. It's too awful.

False-confession and wrongful-conviction cases often share the element of "Satanic panic," a motive that is pretty much never actually present, and often lets the system punish LGBTQ people for their differences. I look at these cases -- the San Antonio Four, the West Memphis Three -- and I can't believe anyone could be so dumb and easily led as to accept a prosecutor's simplistic version of a killing as the result of a Satanic ritual. But maybe there's an understanding of evil in that that I didn't see. Maybe the belief that the devil walks among us and that his minions perpetrate unspeakable acts isn't so crazy. It's hard to accept an explanation for a priest raping a teenager as "therapy" and passing her around to his colleagues that isn't supernatural. It's the same reason we as a society invented vampires and werewolves -- we couldn't conceive of monstrous murders as human endeavors.

But somehow, in the face of the inhuman acts she survived, Jean Hargadon Wehner made a superhuman effort to tell her story, shine a light on the past, and try to get justice and make a difference. And for that, with the neck of my shirt wet from crying, I thank her.

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