[Spoilers for The Keepers ahead.]
The Keepers is probably the most brutal and devastating watch of the year. Streaming now, the Netflix documentary revisits a cold case — the murder of a 26-year-old nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, nearly half a century ago — and chronicles a sexual-abuse case involving scores of teenage victims at a Baltimore Catholic girls’ high school. The rapes and other sexual assaults of as many as 100 girls (and in an earlier incident, at least one boy) by the school priest, Father Joseph Maskell, and his associates may have never come to light if it weren’t for one of Sister Cathy’s students, Jean Hargadon Wehner, who alleges in the doc that the nun was killed for her knowledge of the priest’s crimes. Wehner had already suffered sexual abuse by an uncle when she met Father Maskell and his collaborator Father Neil Magnus. The latter exacerbated her feelings of guilt about the earlier assault(s) by telling the 14-year-old victim, “I don’t really know if God can forgive this.” Wehner’s accounts of the priests’ cruelties are nauseating and infuriating — as is the decades-long guilt Father Maskell fostered in his spiritual ward by essentially blaming her for Sister Cathy’s murder. The nun disappeared shortly after Wehner reported the priest’s sexual assaults to her teacher. Months later, Wehner desperately brushed maggots off Sister Cathy’s face as Father Maskell threatened to kill anyone else the girl told her secrets to.
That Wehner and Father Maskell’s other survivors have been through hell and back is abundantly clear. But a few days after bingeing on The Keepers, I found myself recalling the doc with a smile thanks to the graceful aging of many of its protagonists. I’ve spent the better part of the past decade worrying about getting older. Pop culture — which I’m steeped in as a critic — just might be the worst lens through which to consider female aging, and the films and TV shows on the subject that stick out in my mind foretell nothing good. From All About Eve to The Clouds of Sils Maria, movies about women on the “wrong” side of 40 mark them for obsolescence and replaceability, like a leaking refrigerator. Since Getting On (HBO) is set in a gerontology ward, the hospital comedy naturally focuses on the mental and physical decline of the gray-haired. Amour, about an elderly man who kills his longtime wife after she suffers a debilitating stroke, is a personal nightmare. “Have you seen The Golden Girls?” you might ask. Yes, I have. I adore it, in fact — and, by the way, three of the four cast members are dead.
Real life hasn’t been much better in offering me role models. All my grandparents died before I was born or while I was fairly young. I’ve met tons of accomplished older women, of course — but I’ve yet to get to know anyone well enough to get a sense of the breadth of her life and how aging has changed her.
Enter The Keepers, which has given me more to look forward to in the decades ahead than any other story in recent memory. As distressing as the documentary is, it’s also ultimately hopeful and triumphant, particularly in its depictions of working through trauma and piecing together all the evidence that the seven-part series presents. The tale The Keepers tells is one that took generations to unfold. And if time has denied Sister Cathy justice (through police indifference and the deaths of several people of interest), it’s also time that’s allowed Wehner and fellow survivor Teresa Lancaster to heal to the extent that they were able to publicly demand recourse from the Catholic Church, which transferred Father Maskell from position to position whenever complaints of sexual misconduct were filed.
Wehner and Lancaster both mention the women who didn’t make it into The Keepers: victims who might have fallen into addiction or despair after enduring Maskell’s abuse. Getting older provides no guarantee of recovery. But watching Wehner describe her years-long recollection of her painful memories (which she’d repressed) — and pursue a fortifying spiritual life despite the Church’s betrayal, which helped her get through her husband’s struggle with terminal cancer — offers hope that we might all make peace with the traumas that haunt us. Lancaster, who became a lawyer at age 49 and defends African-American suspects suffering maltreatment from the Baltimore police, also testifies to what time can provide. Neither Wehner nor Lancaster spoke about their sexual assaults until they were in their forties — an age, the documentary suggests, when many survivors begin to feel more at ease discussing difficult subject matter. It’s taken Wehner 45 years to come to terms with everything that happened to her as an adolescent, and one suspects she’s still figuring things out. But her testimony of all that she’s achieved in that time — from recovering her memories to confronting the Church and speaking eloquently of the violence done to her — is awe-inspiring. (Unmentioned in the series, but surely a factor, is that the culture had shifted enough for victims to speak somewhat more freely about sexual violence and Church wrongdoings.)
Wehner and Lancaster aren’t alone in illustrating all that women of retirement age have to offer. The Keepers weaves together a web of exceptional sexagenarians throughout Baltimore. There are amateur sleuths like Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, who patiently assemble evidence and file FOIA requests in the hopes of one day solving the mystery behind Sister Cathy’s death. (Who else will?) There’s Beverly Wallace, Wehner’s passionate attorney, who’s as eager as anyone to see justice done. There are the female relatives of possible suspects (Father Maskell’s thuggish acquaintances) who come forward with family secrets about how their kinsmen might be implicated in the homicide. And there are the sundry other female friends, family, and alumnae who have sought justice at the margins: by tricking the high school into handing over their alumnae contact sheet, which leads to the discovery of more victims; by threatening Father Maskell years later in revenge for his threatening their families when they were younger; by covertly sneaking into the priest’s retirement facility to accost him about his crimes. (By then, he was afflicted with dementia.) If the doc is a bit karmically neat, I don’t mind. With TV’s current stinginess about older female role models, I’m more than happy for these portraits of elderly courage, confidence, wits, and wisdom.