The Keepers

New Series on Netflix The Keepers

The new documentary series on Netflix, The Keepers, is both important and difficult to watch in its revelations about child sexual abuse in the Catholic church. It is not something you will enjoy, but it is something you should watch.

Directed by Ryan White, if you have seen episodes of The Forensic Files, then you get the basic format. Instead of following a police investigation, though, this show follows the investigation into the 1969 Baltimore murder of English teacher and nun Sister Cathy Cesnick as done by non-professional investigators.

Part of what makes this documentary so fascinating is the dogged investigation by Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, who had been students of Cesnick’s. Now both retired, they devoted their time to try to find clues as to who murdered their teacher. They used Facebook to find those who were sexually molested by Maskell and others at the school. They make a great and compelling team, with Gemmie fearlessly knocking on doors and asking questions, while Abbie utilized her terrific skills as a researcher. They refer to themselves as retired grandmother Nancy Drews.

The documentary gathers evidence to try to prove whether Father Joseph Maskell, a counselor and chaplain at Archbishop Keough from 1967 to 1975, murdered Cesnick or had someone else do it in order to keep her from going public about the rampant child sexual abuse at his school. Spoiler alert- they never definitively prove that Maskell is a murderer. They do have an eye witness who claims that Maskell showed her the body to intimidate her into not talking about being molested by him. Her descriptions of what Maskell did to her match the stories of the other victims, so I give her a lot of credibility, despite her memories of this having been repressed for many years.

The documentary does make a very strong case that Maskell was a complete monster, and you have no doubt that he could be a murderer. For me, I think the case they make is strong enough to leave me with little doubt. You’ll need to watch the series to decide for yourself.

It actually does not matter whether it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Maskell was a murderer. He is long dead. What we do learn is about how Maskell sexually abused and coerced his victims and how other priests at the school abused children, and we hear this from the mouths of his victims themselves. That is the central story here.

The school Maskell worked at, Archbishop Keough (the actual school name, which can be confusing), was a rape camp for young girls that used the power of the church to keep it covered up. Multiple priests were involved, and as this documentary proves, the archdiocese participated in keeping it covered up until lawsuits by victims blew it wide open in 1992. There are more than 30 known victims, and that is just those who came forward. It could well be many more than that.

The most horrifying part of the series is the women recounting the methods the priests used to get them to have sex with them. The combination of threats, degradation, and religious authority is the absolute worst form of coercion. The full impact of the horrors of what these priests did to these God fearing young women has to be heard from their lips to fully evoke just how awful these priests were. A true moment of terror is when the intercom buzzes and a young girl is named to leave class to go to Maskell’s office. She knows why she is going there, and that look of horror and dread encouraged Cesnick to find excuses for the girls so that they did not have to leave class.

It is not just that the archdiocese knew and did nothing. It is that they knew and actively covered things up, lying about what they knew. Is it worse to rape children, or worse to facilitate the rape of multiple children by multiple priests?

This documentary looks at more than just the cover-ups by the church. Baltimore was a Catholic town and the church ruled, and the documentary looks at whether the police department participated in a cover-up.

The child sexual abuse scandal of the Catholic Church is the biggest sex scandal in the history of the world. It has been going on for decades, and maybe even centuries, and has been covered up for decades, and no country in the world with a Catholic Church presence seems to be free of it. It is bigger and more horrible that we can really know or absorb.

The past is the key to the future. This is not just a story about a crime from decades ago. It is also about the present, a present in which the Catholic church continues to refuse to take responsibility. Despite having paid out millions to victims at the Archbishop Keough school, the Baltimore archdiocese sent out a press release prior to the release of The Keepers denying that the church did anything wrong.

Despite having paid out billions in legal settlements, and after shocking revelation after shocking revelation until we are almost numb, the church has not really changed all that much. They still pay off victims they make sign confidentiality agreements to keep a lid on continuing scandals. They still fight tooth and nail to protect priests over children. In New York, with the shortest statue of limitations in the country, the Catholic church is vigorously battling a change in the law that would extend the statute of limitations on these crimes by five years.

Sure, any Pope would be better on this issue than the previous one, who before being Pope was the main person in charge of covering up the child sex scandals. Despite being the most progressive Pope in my lifetime, and despite vowing to have zero tolerance, Pope Francis has not really exercised much leadership on this issue and while exciting in many areas, he is a terrible disappointment in this one. By his actions, it seems a priority in lip service more than action. There have been cases where he chose “mercy” for convicted church child sex offenders and refused to defrock them. His promised tribunal to try bishops accused of covering up abuse was tabled for “legal reasons.”

While it was a good thing that two abuse survivors were appointed by the Pope to a commission to protect children, it failed spectacularly. Abuse survivor Marie Collins quit the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors just last March, frustrated by a lack of cooperation with the panel and Vatican administration. She told the National Catholic Reporter: “As a survivor I have watched events unfold with dismay. The reluctance of some in the Vatican Curia to implement recommendations or cooperate with the work of a commission when the purpose is to improve the safety of children and vulnerable adults around the world is unacceptable.” Her main reasons for quitting were the failure to establish the promised tribunal, and because she learned that a Vatican department was refusing to respond to correspondence from abuse victims. As she stated “It is a reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”

The other abuse survivor on the panel, Peter Saunders, was apparently too outspoken. In February, the church put him on an indefinite leave of absence, which he learned about only through a Vatican statement. He no longer has much faith in the Commission either. He stated that the church treats child abuse victims with contempt. He has also lost faith in the Pope on this issue. The Pope never visited the Commission once. Nor does the commission have any significant accomplishments.

The Pope’s claim of zero tolerance is belied by the fact that he keeps promoting those accused of covering up sexual abuse. Last year he appointed Chilean Bishop Juan Barros to the Diocese of Osorno in Chile, even though he was accused of covering up for proven predator priest, Father Fernando Karadima. Francis has dismissed the vocal protest in Chile against Barros as the work of “lefties.” That is not a comforting response.

The number three highest ranking person in the Vatican, Cardinal George Pell, is under serious child abuse investigation in his home country of Australia. The authorities have said that they will make a decision soon on whether to formally charge him or not. I believe the chances are very good that charges will be brought against him, especially in light of the charges against archbishop Philip Wilson who now faces trial in Australia after his appeals have failed. The exact nature of what is being investigated has not yet been made public, but it clearly involves child molestation. He was accused 15 years ago of molesting a 15 year old boy, and the parish he worked in in the 70’s has been described as a “pedophile’s paradise and a child’s nightmare.” In a 2015 Australian 60 minutes segment, Peter Saunders described Pell’s record on sexual abuse as “almost sociopathic.” Saunders accused Pell of having a history of denigrating people, and of acting with callousness, and called Pell a dangerous individual.

Pell has publicly made many statements about sex. He is opposed to the use of condoms to stop AIDS in Africa, even though the church has come to be okay with that. He strongly opposes marriage equality. Least surprisingly, he has said that there is no child sex abuse scandal and coverup. The real problem is allowing homosexuals into the priesthood.

Pell protected his close friend and former roommate Gerald Ridsdale by moving him from parish to parish. Ridsdale was eventually convicted of 138 counts of indecent assault and child sexual abuse. He raped his own nephew over a period of four years, and nephew called Pelle for help. According to one of the two nephews Ridsdale raped, in sworn testimony he explained that years later in front of witnesses he called Pell and told him what had happened. Pell asked him what it would take for him to keep his mouth shut. Pell was by Ridsdale’s side defending him during the trial, knowing full well that he was a child molester. A man with that much baggage should never have been given a top spot in the church in the first place. If Pell is formally charged, will the Pope continue to protect him and defend him? If not, why has he been able to hold onto his position so long under such a cloud?

UPDATE July 1- Cardinal George Pell has been officially charged by Australian authorities, and the answer is yes- the Pope will continue to defend him. The statement from the Pope’s spokesperson: “it is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as important and intolerable acts of abuse committed against minors.” It is also important to recall that a lot of bishop’s condemned child sexual abuse while covering it up. Its not like they are going to publicly proclaim that child sexual abuse is just plain fun.

Under extreme pressure from the Catholic church, the leader of the New York State Republican State Senate, John Flannagan, refused to even bring the statute of limitations increase measure up for a vote before the legislature adjourned at the end of June. That effectively kills it until next year.