Gary Raymond delves into Netflix’s latest true-crime offering, Ryan White’s documentary series The Keepers.
The Catholic Church is a resilient organisation, and despite decades of damming public relations stories coming out in every corner of the globe it shows no sign of toppling any time soon (unlike, say, Scientology). The Catholic Church does not seem to be weakening its hold in any part of the world where its grip is traditionally tight. Indeed, in light of these public relations problems, it seems a real stretch to come up with a scenario where the Catholic Church could be deemed by its members to have gone too far. What would it take for millions to jump ship?
While this isn’t remotely the question the new Netflix Original documentary, The Keepers, asks, it is the question many viewers of it must surely run through their minds at some point over its seven hours.
The Keepers purports to be a look back at the murder of nun Sister Catherine Cesnik in Baltimore in 1969, a serious, pensive and spacious addition to the ‘true crime’ field of documentaries that have taken off since the Serial podcast series and Netflix’s own The Making of a Murderer in 2015. For much of The Keepers we follow two of Sister Cathy’s former pupils at Archbishop Keogh, the school of choice for high-achieving Catholic girls in that area back then, both now of retirement age and with time on their hands. Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub are the perfect guides through the increasingly murky surroundings, both of them being driven by an admirable steel beneath their personable quirks. As investigators they couldn’t compliment each other better had they been teamed up by a screenwriter. And with these two, the scene is set as if we are entering the world of a gritty American New Wave movie, something by maybe Mark Rydell or Bob Rafelson, or perhaps the world Fincher created for Zodiac. But soon we realise that perhaps this new breed of film is making even the mercurial storytelling talents of the likes of Fincher seem somewhat outdated. The Keepers is vast, it is unrelenting, it is often surprising and has a good sense of cinema as a medium for creating tension, it is as grim as you are ever likely to get (whilst never being prurient), and it is perhaps even more than could be done with a fictionalised account of this story.
As the murder is explained and the context carefully brought into focus, the main narrative put forward by the film-makers is that Sister Cathy was murdered because she was about to report the sexual abuse of teenage girls by Catholic Priests at Keough, primarily, but certainly not exclusively, by Father A. Joseph Maskell. It is testament to everyone involved in this film that with the gravity and size of the cover-up of these abuses (and no doubt countless others in the years between 1969 and Maskell’s death in 2001), Sister Cathy is never forgotten (although the same cannot be said for the second murder victim in this story). But it is also depressing to admit that despite the heart-wrenching details of the murder, made all the more tragic by the testimony of those who knew Sister Cathy (she was, to put it simply, a powerful positive force in the lives of everyone she came into contact with), the film goes to places darker than even some seasoned true crime junkies might be ready for.
Director Ryan White refuses to censor the testimony of the victims of Maskell and his cohorts, a paedophile sociopath who was himself groomed for priesthood by his over-bearing mother from his earliest age. His time at Keough, according to the documentary evidence, saw him as the linchpin in a network of paedophilic abuse that ran through all halls of public governance, service, and protection. So repulsive is the onslaught of the Archdiocesan tentacles as the series progresses, not just covering up the abuses of Maskell, but actually providing a support mechanism for his actions, that you might need to remind yourself at various points that the Catholic Church is a religious organisation and not an organised crime syndicate specialising in providing men with children for sex.
Whether the murder of Sister Cathy is solved, or whether the victims of the Church and its agents discover some kind of salvation is for the viewer to discover during the course of this emotional-endurance-test-of-a-film, but what cannot be escaped is The Keepers acts as further evidence of the depravity of the world that men have created for themselves. For this is not an evil minority, but an institution of 1.2 billion people that literally has more money than God (unless God rakes in profit from money laundering, arms dealerships, and the funding of terrorist organisations), governed exclusively by men who are either involved in or complicit in the cover ups of wide spread child abuse.
If we ask what can the Catholic Church withstand, then it can certainly brush aside Oscar wins for films like Spotlight that damned the institution outright. It will of course withstand the damning accusations of The Keepers, and will probably even outlive Netflix. By 2004 it had withstood 4,392 priests, clergy, deacons being reported for sexual abuse in the United States alone. Since 2004, it has withstood that number increasing exponentially. So I’m sure it will withstand this review.