For true-crime aficionados seeking their next fix, look no further than Netflix’s new docuseries, “The Keepers.” It has compelling qualities akin to “The Jinx” (HBO) and “Making a Murderer” (also Netflix) that may capture viewership. By the second episode, however, “The Keepers” asserts itself with its penetrative firsthand accounts and themes that spread deeper and wider than either of the aforementioned series. At first, “The Keepers” details the disappearance of Sister Cathy Cesnik in November of 1969, followed by the discovery of her body several months later. The docuseries’ “anchors” are Abbie and Gemma, former students at Keough, the Baltimore Catholic girls’ school at which Sister Cathy was a teaching nun. Now in their sixties, these women have become armchair detectives, determined to find out who killed Sister Cathy. Attempting to revive a cold case nearly half a century old is challenging under “normal” circumstances, but the clandestine stonewalling from the Archdiocese of Baltimore along with law enforcement’s indifference, makes it nearly impossible to get answers to a tangled web of crimes, allegations, and cover-ups.
With each episode, the narrative widens—measuredly revealing more voices, more secrets, and more lies. Layers upon layers of secrets and recalled memories intertwine with one another, compounding the myriad intricate tragedies that continued to impact the lives of victims many decades after the incidents occurred. The systemic corruption of the Catholic Church—namely the Archdiocese of Baltimore—remains at the core of the series (the Catholic League has declared the documentary “scurrilous”). In the 1990s, dozens of women, including “Jane Doe” (Jean Hargadon Wehner) brought forth a litany of allegations of heinous abuse at the hands of the Chaplain at Keough, Father Joseph Maskell. The Archdiocese of Baltimore continues to deny prior knowledge of abuse allegations, even though they had been made decades earlier—even blaming victims for not coming forward sooner.
I want to stay away from explicit spoilers, since part of the viewing experience of “The Keepers” is absorbing the revelations as they occur over the space of seven roughly hour-long episodes. “The Keepers” is about more than just Father Maskell and the murder of a young nun. So many specters and suspicious characters take shape as Abbie, Gemma, and the filmmakers persistently try to chip away at fraying evidence and doggedly chase after justice for Sister Cathy.
The cinematography is breathtaking, and a haunting piano-heavy intro (composed by Blake Neely) helps to set the tone for the series, shifting from bleak landscapes to photographs of the faces involved in the story. Although compulsively watchable, “The Keepers” is dark, there is no way around that. It does, however, offer rare glimmers of hope and humor, and the tenacity of Abbie and Gemma is inspiring. Most moving of all is the collective courage of the featured victims to share their harrowing experience. In doing so, together they crack open a wall of darkness so that some light can at last shine through.