By Susan Sullivan, Prevention Campaign Specialist for NSVRC
with contributions from Amanda Immel, Multimedia Specialist for NSVRC
Netflix docu-series The Keepers dives into the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a beloved young English teacher at an all-girls Catholic high school in the sixties. The series begins with a look at the amateur investigation that two of Sister’s Cathy’s former students are leading in an attempt to solve the murder and find closure for themselves and Sister Cathy’s family.
The series takes an unexpected turn when it’s revealed that Sister Cathy may have been poised to expose a web of sexual violence occurring at the high school allegedly led by two of the school’s priests. Throughout the series, survivors of the abuse bravely share their stories in an attempt to piece together the truth of what happened to Sister Cathy.
We reached out to the director Ryan White and producer Jessica Hargrave for a deeper look at everything from what they’ve learned about sexual violence, to their message to survivors, and whether they believe there can still be justice for Sister Cathy.
How did you first hear about Gemma and Abbie's investigation into Sister Cathy's murder? What made you decide to tell their story and the stories surrounding the case?
We actually came to this story from a different angle. The director Ryan White's aunt attended Keough High School and had Sister Cathy as a teacher. His aunt had no idea what the chaplain Joseph Maskell was doing to her fellow students until the 90s when "Jane Doe" came forward with allegations of abuse by him and others. Jane Doe's identity remained a mystery until a few years ago when she revealed her real name, Jean Wehner. Ryan’s aunt was shocked to realize that she had known Jane Doe all these years, and she sent Ryan a link to the story. We thought that if Jean was coming forward with her name, maybe it meant she wanted to share her experience. We met her and were incredibly compelled by her, and we knew right away that we wanted to work with her to bring this story to light. Only after we got to know Jean and her experience did we get to know Gemma and Abbie and the other survivors.
What was your understanding of sexual violence before you began working on this project, and after? What do you think is the most important thing you learned?
Our understanding of sexual violence was fairly limited - neither the director nor I had worked on a project like this before. We learned so much, and were particularly struck by not only the duration of the pain that is caused by sexual violence but also by the permeation of the impact into so many lives outside of the survivor – family & friends & others. It was so difficult to see how much these horrible acts continued to affect the survivors’ lives, but so inspiring to see them speaking out about it and helping others find their way.
It's powerful to hear accounts directly from survivors and those who were involved with the case. What went into the decision to only include people directly affected on camera rather than subject matter experts, such as experts on trauma and/or memory repression?
The survivors in our series are the experts on their own experiences. Only they can truly speak to what happened and how it continues to affect them, and we knew that by hearing directly from the survivors, the audience would better be able to understand and learn from their stories.
Many of the stories shared by survivors, particularly by Jean Wehner, were very detailed and included graphic and painful details. Was there a conversation during editing about what was necessary to include or exclude? Were there any details that weren’t aired?
There are a lot of details that weren’t included, but we felt they didn’t need to be. We had a lot of conversations about this in the editing room because we knew it was important to strike a balance that allows the audience to understand the horrific depravity of the acts that were being done to these children, but not to make that overdone or salacious.
One of the problems with solving the case seemed to be the division and lapses in communication between the county and city police. Did you get the sense that this was a problem unique to the Baltimore area? What can be done to have these organizations better work together to solve sex crimes?
The reporting of sexual violence is known to be re-traumatizing. It’s my understanding that in many instances, victims have to repeat their experiences in detail over and over to various people in various roles. It seems that this could be streamlined, and of course, I would hope that whoever is working with the victims is properly trained to do so. Since the release of the documentary, the Baltimore City Police has actually made a concerted effort to streamline the reporting process and to encourage more victims to come forward.
What would you say to adult survivors of child sexual abuse, alumni of the school or not, who may be considering sharing their stories for the first time after watching this docu-series?
I think across the board, the main reason the survivors in our documentary participated was because they wanted to reach other survivors who are out there, around the world, suffering in silence. Every survivor has a different path and a different way to heal and cope, but it is my hope that survivors can understand that they are not alone, that their voices will be heard, and most of all, that this is not their fault.
What was your biggest take-away in terms of how everyone can support survivors?
We worked with the subjects in our documentary to develop a website full of resources for survivors and their communities. We have found that even people who are well-intentioned can say the wrong thing at times (including us!) so it’s important to be informed and to follow the survivor’s lead as you offer words and gestures of support. Most of us probably know someone who has been the victim of sexual violence so we should all prepare ourselves and be more open to hearing and helping. Even though it’s difficult to hear, it’s so important to listen.
Is justice still possible for Sister Cathy and/or her family? What would that look like for you? For those investigating this now?
Yes, justice is still possible for Sister Cathy, and I think the investigators in our series, along with Cathy’s sister Marilyn, will do everything they can to try to make that a reality. The documentary has brought a lot of attention to the case and we are glad to see that more effort is being put into the case by the public and the police department. We hope for everyone involved that there will be some sort of resolution.
You can learn more about The Keepers and find out how you can get involved in helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse at www.thekeepersimpact.com.