From the first episode of the Netflix docu-series, The Keepers, the audience is told – “The story is not the nun’s murder, it’s the cover-up.” But what if that’s not the story, either?
A Harrowing Tale
From the beginning it’s clear that The Keepers is unlike most true-crime documentaries. For a start, no one says the victim, Sister Cathy, “lit up a room.” The people who knew her are not simply commenting on how much they loved her, or how they don’t know how anyone could do this to her. The women we meet are fighting the system, using current technology to network, piece together stories, and find out who killed their beloved teacher. Too often, true crime stories are about the deaths of women and girls, but not actually about women. By centering on women—both the victims and the amateur investigators are female—The Keepers shows us how few true crime stories actually bother with women at all. That’s not the only thing it does. As the series goes on and we learn of the wreckage and ruin that snaked its way through Arch Bishop Keough High School in Baltimore, The Keepers shows us the true cost of not believing women—especially those who report assaults and speak truth to power.
The first episode introduces us to this amazing group of retired women going up against vague threats, the passage of time, and what is either a cover up or a horrific example of police incompetence. The second episode wastes no time throwing us into some of the most disturbing and uncomfortable testimony imaginable. We meet “Jane Doe” (now known by her legal name Jean Wehner), and we learn of Father Maskell, the school counselor and serial sexual abuser at the center of this mystery. Jean recounts the horrific sexual and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of Father Maskell and his associates. Other women share similar stories of abuse. There are accusations of drugging, threatening girls with firearms, police involvement in the rapes that took place in Maskell’s office. Some girls confide in Sister Cathy at the end of the school year, and she promises them she will “take care of it.” But at the start of the next school year, she is gone to another school and soon after, she is missing.
The most harrowing piece of Jean’s story is her claim that Maskell approached her to tell her of Sister Cathy’s disappearance, and then drove her to a wooded area and showed her Sister Cathy’s corpse. She claims that as she knelt down, crying, brushing maggots off the nun’s face, Maskell threatened her. Immediately, doubt is cast on this portion of Jean’s story. Throughout the documentary, whenever this part of Jean’s story comes up we are reminded that no maggots were found on Sister Cathy. Not only are we told it didn’t happen, but that it was “impossible” given the time of year Sister Cathy was murdered.
The series becomes a horror show of women recounting their abuse at the hands of the priest charged with counseling them. The more these women say, the clearer it becomes that someone should have known this was taking place. There is a gynecologist treating these girls, escorted by the priest. There are policemen involved in the abuse. There are girls who were so excited to attend the prestigious Keough school, now only to dread arriving in the morning. The thread that runs through their stories is that they knew no one would believe them, and that Maskell had used his position as both a religious authority and school administrator to make them believe they were not victims, but unclean, oversexed girls that deserved what was happening to them.
One woman recounts the moment—nearly thirty years after Father Maskell repeatedly abused her on school grounds—that her family caught wind of Jean Wehner’s accusations via a newspaper article. At the time only two women had publicly come forward (under aliases), and were pursuing legal action. She says she listened as her family members talked about what horrible women they were, how there was no way Maskell had done these things, and how they couldn’t believe anyone could do what these two women were doing to the church. She knew in that moment she couldn’t be honest with her family. So too does the viewer, who sees that she was right to think no one would believe her all those years ago.
As the series goes on, we learn of the women who responded to Wehner’s lawyer when letters were sent out to ask if former students had been aware of abuse. We learn that over 100 women gave statements to police, and that at least one police officer believes some of the files Maskell buried in a cemetery featured nude photos of girls. The State’s Attorney says she couldn’t use the testimony, because each case had to “stand on it’s own.” The stories had similar through lines and pieces of evidence. The stories corroborated one another in the similarities between women who had not known each other or gotten together before visiting the police. But their stories are dismissed. If 100 people accused a man of stealing from them, and described similar break-in techniques, similar items stolen, similar motives, surely the State’s Attorney would feel the need to investigate. Instead, we learn that, while both the State’s Attorney and the police department confirm that a large number of women came into give statements—the statements are gone. Along with them, the notes Wehner’s attorney took from individuals who had contacted her, and turned over to the police. The files buried in the cemetery? Also gone.
These women came forward to share their stories, most knowing that Maskell had ties to the police department and was in high standing with the Catholic Church. They put themselves on the line to share their most private and painful memories only to be told their stories did not matter. Not only would there be no substantial investigation, not only would their be no legal action, but their stories were worth so little that they could simply be lost. Dismissal of the largest order.
Women are so often asked why they do not report sexual abuse. In this case, the incentive of staying quiet is clear. The women who came forward were treated as nothing. They relived their worst abuses only to be treated like they were worthless, just like their abuser had made them believe. The audience is stuck with this knowledge as Wehner and another woman, known as Jane Roe, attempt to take advantage of a law in Maryland allowing civil suits to be brought after the statute of limitations has passed if the victim has recovered memories.
Despite this being the law, the case is thrown out, based mostly on “expert” testimony that recovered memories are unreliable. We hear again that Wehner was “wrong” about the maggots. Her memories cannot be trusted, and so, she cannot be trusted. What we now know about PTSD, and particularly untreated PTSD, is that memories of events can be blocked out. The popular understanding of PTSD symptoms falls into what is called “hypernesia” —intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares. Clinicians and the DSM-V agree that traumatic amnesia exists and is a common symptom of PTSD. Victims of trauma may go so far out of their way to avoid even the slightest triggers of memory that the memories of the events are suppressed, distorted, or come through missing large details. We know that childhood sexual trauma is one the leading causes of PTSD. Wehner’s memories were not the result of “guided therapy” to recover memories, nor were they influenced by police or parents. During the Satanic Panic and the instances of false memory syndrome that populated the courts and news media prior to her case, these were the variables that often led to unreliable, purely fictional testimony. What Wehner describes is not being led to her memories, but being triggered by things she had worked hard to avoid, only to have the memories rushing back.
After that point, Wehner describes the nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive and confusing thoughts that we associate with PTSD (note: this is not an attempt to diagnose Wehner but to simply provide information that helps put her story into context). Many people who have suffered trauma, and then begin the work of remembering, describe stories similar to Whener’s. First the big things, the most traumatic things, and then the story fills in. More memories flood as the person allows themselves to face the triggers and memories.
In the nineties, the courts were dealing with the fallout from false memory testimony, and recovered memory was quickly falling out of favor. In 2017, though, our understanding of traumatic amnesia and it’s ties to childhood sexual abuse make Wehner’s story of being triggered by an invitation to her high school reunion ring true. But what about the maggots? Flies don’t propagate in the winter. There was an autopsy. If there were no maggots, then did Jean create this memory of Sister Cathy’s body in some kind of awful nightmare?
Women’s Voices Must Be Heard
A fact easily checked should always be checked. This is something the makers of the documentary understand, even though it becomes obvious that the people relentlessly gas lighting Wehner don’t. The autopsy states clearly that there were maggots in Sister Cathy’s mouth and throat. A quick look at the weather records show that the week in question was unseasonably warm. Her “impossible” claim is true. There were maggots. If this were a lie or false memory it seems unlikely that she would zero in on the most unlikely fact. It’s the sort of detail you hear police departments holding back to be sure the people reporting tips actually know what they’re talking about. The police sources making statements to investigative reporters and the director of the documentary were so sure Wehner is untrustworthy, that they didn’t bother to check the autopsy.
In the nineties, when Jane Doe and Jane Roe were attempting to sue Maskell, the high school, and the gynecologist involved in the abuse, the abusers were alive. They were capable of facing some form of justice, even if it wasn’t a criminal case. By the time Cathy’s sister hands over the autopsy, and the director of the series, Ryan White, tracks down the Medical Examiner (Werner Spitz, a renowned forensic pathologist) both Father Maskell and the gynecologist are dead.
Hundreds of women claimed to be abused at Maskell’s hand. All of them were afraid they would not be believed. All of them were made to believe they deserved it, or, if they didn’t believe that, that others would. The allegations snake out of Arch Bishop Keough High School and into the police department, the medical community, and to other people only known by first names, or no name at all. When these victims finally spoke out, their statements were lost. The notes Wehner’s attorney took from interviews with them and turned over to police were lost. Easily fact checked claims were dismissed as “impossible.”
In fact, the only victim of Maskell who spoke out at the time of his abuse was a boy. He’s now a man, and struggling with the fallout from Maskell’s treatment of him. When Maskell’s abuse became unbearable, he went to his mother, and his mother went to the church. How the church handled it was what we’ve come to expect. In fact, his abuse took place before Maskell began working at Arch Bishop Keough. But it’s telling that he felt that his mother would believe him, and that his mother acted quickly on his behalf. The scores of women who were silenced by their own doubts in those around them were only proven correct when the stories became public knowledge, and they witnessed the repeated attempts to dismiss the claims. The State’s Attorney didn’t even bother to attempt to cast doubt. With the amount of time that has passed, and the amount of evidence lost, who knows if Sister Cathy’s murder will be solved, or if the answers the women pushing this case receive will lead to anything but more questions.
True justice can’t be done with most of the players dead. The victims of abuse have mostly stopped asking for answers, and ask only to be believed. They asked for the Catholic Church to acknowledge their pain. In the end, they get that. Sort of. Sister Cathy’s death remains unsolved, and the victims of Father Maskell’s abuse are stuck without the law or even the public on their side. Most of these women have held onto their secrets for decades, only to come forward and see their statements literally thrown away.
The story isn’t about the nun’s murder, and it isn’t really about the cover up, either. The story is about how society’s continued mistrust of girls and women wreaks havoc, destroys lives, and prevents justice. The story is about how much damage can be done when we tell a group of people over and over that no one will believe them.