Friday, July 21, 2017

Seven Quick Takes: Netflix's The Keepers

Back in May, Netflix released a new true crime series, The Keepers, which ostensibly focuses on an amateur investigation by former Catholic school students into the unsolved murder of a young nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, who was their teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore in the 1960s. Because of the connection to Maryland, where I live, and the connection to the Catholic faith, which I practice, I decided to watch the documentary when I first heard about it. Almost immediately after I started watching, however, I felt uncertain that I should continue. While the film does show the efforts made to solve Sister Cathy's murder, it also dwells quite a bit on a sex abuse scandal at Archbishop Keough High School that may or may not be connected to the murder itself. Because of the darkness of the content and my concerns over the treatment of the Church by the filmmakers , it took me nearly two months to finish the 7 episodes of the series. Now that I have seen the whole thing, I'm still not sure what I think, but I've compiled a list of my observations about the documentary, in the hopes that they might help others decide whether or not watch.

1. The Keepers inspires sympathy for sex abuse victims.

First, I'd like to say that I do think it is important for Catholics to understand the impact of the sex abuse scandal on the individuals, families, and communities who were victimized by clergy. The first-person accounts of what happened to these young girls at Keough are deeply disturbing to me, and though I was always disappointed in the Church for its poor handling of abusers, I have a new appreciation for how distressing it was for young women to be preyed upon by men who used their positions as priests in order to commit acts of great evil. It is, of course, true that priests are no more likely to abuse children than any other man in any other position, and it is important to me that Catholics continue to defend themselves against the idea that all priests are pedophiles. Still, sometimes I think we can become so defensive over our culture's hatred toward our Church that we turn a blind eye to the real pain of real people. In that respect, this film is eye-opening and powerful.

2. The Keepers spends a lot of time on the sex abuse scandal. 

Despite my feelings of sympathy for the victims, I did notice that this documentary dwells heavily on the abuse scandal, to the point that it feels a little like a bait and switch. For several episodes, the murder takes a backseat to the details of attacks on these young girls, and it begins to feel like one is watching an expose about the sex abuse scandal and not a murder investigation at all. Obviously, the women who are investigating Sister Cathy's murder have a theory of the crime in which Sister Cathy was killed because she knew about sex abuse taking place in the school, so it does make sense to explore all the evidence they can find. But I did question whether the filmmakers chose to include so much about it because they knew it would appeal to our culture's desire to condemn the Church. Obviously, these girls were really abused, and the Church is responsible for that, but there was so much detail about each attack that after a while I started to feel really uncomfortable.

3. The individuals who appear in The Keepers all seem to be former Catholics.

When I first became interested in watching this series, I think I expected more practicing Catholics to be involved in the investigation. Instead, it seems that every abuse victim, every priest, and every nun who was interviewed for the film has left the Church. I am not necessarily surprised that someone who was abused would have a hard time remaining Catholic after enduring such trauma, but the prevalence of ex-Catholics and the complete absence of any outwardly practicing Catholics gives the series a subtle bias that bothers me. I feel like it contributes to an idea in our culture that Catholicism is something one outgrows, or gets over. Certainly someone who hates the church prior to watching The Keepers would not be challenged in that position at all as the series progresses.

4. The Keepers routinely avoids calling clergy and religious by their titles.

I have always been kind of a stickler about capitalizing pronouns that refer to God and properly addressing nuns, priests, and bishops using their correct titles and greetings. So it bothered me when I realized that the filmmakers and investigators associated with The Keepers routinely refer to clergy and religious by just their first or last names without regard for their proper titles. In some instances, it makes sense, because the individuals in question are no longer sisters or priests, but there were other situations where it felt that their titles were being omitted to distance the individuals from the Church and to demonstrate an unwillingness on the part of the filmmakers to respect the priesthood or sisterhood. I readily admit that I was looking for red flags, and it is very possible I am reading too much into this particular observation, but it happened often enough that it felt intentional.

5. The Keepers speculates a lot of about Sister Cathy's commitment to her calling.

Initially, I thought that Sister Cathy was going to be the one Catholic in the film to represent what the Church actually teaches, and to fulfill her role as a nun without a hint of scandal. Sadly, there are large sections of certain episodes that pore over Sister Cathy's personal letters and quote sections where she expresses doubts about her final vows and a possible desire to  marry a man (a priest, actually) rather than go on living as a nun. I think these can be interpreted as the last-minute questions any young person asks herself before making a lifelong commitment, but the film avoids commenting to this effect, leaving the impression that Sister Cathy didn't take her calling to be a nun seriously, and further perpetuating the idea that the Church is an institution which one leaves when one eventually comes to one's senses. 

6. The Keepers does not allow the Archdiocese of Baltimore to defend itself adequately. 

As I watched each episode, and the evidence mounted against certain priests and against the Archdiocese as a whole, I kept waiting for the moment when the Archdiocese would have an opportunity to defend itself.  When this moment finally did come, however, it was a let-down. The Archdiocese was only willing to submit answers to questions in writing, rather than having a representative appear on camera. When the written answers are shared with various interview subjects, these subjects invariably accuse the Archdiocese of lying. Since we have only the responses to the select few questions Archdiocese representatives were asked, and no follow-up questions to clarify anything or refute the claims of the interviewees, the reader is left with the impression that the Archdiocese lied in the '60s and continues to lie to protect itself now. Maybe this is true - and if so, the Archdiocese should be taken to task for concealing the truth - but it seems to me that there is more to the story that was purposely left out because it might paint the Church in a positive light. At the very least, I think the filmmakers could have asked many more nuanced and probing questions than they did. In its own FAQ about the case, the Archdiocese states that "The Archdiocese offered on several occasions to answer any and all questions for the production and, in fact, provided written responses to questions from producers of the series. Unfortunately, the producers asked very few questions of the Archdiocese before releasing the series and did not respond to the Archdiocese’s request to receive an advanced copy of the series." It strikes me as irresponsibly one-sided to let the opinion of a small number of interview subjects be the final word about the Church's role (if it had one) in the death of Sister Cathy, especially when it seems the Archdiocese was open to answering more questions.

7. The research presented in The Keepers is impressive.

Even with all my quibbles about the treatment of the church, I think what kept me watching the series was the impressive amount of research Sister Cathy's former students have been able to accomplish. The Keough alumnae responsible for the grassroots effort to find Sister Cathy's killer have truly left no stone unturned, and seeing their organizational methods, the charts and stacks of paper, and their boldness in making phone calls and visits to strangers really appealed to the side of me that studied library science and enjoys Sue Grafton novels. Whatever the attitude of the filmmakers, I feel that these women were in every way dedicated to finding justice for their beloved teacher, and that their only bias is in favor of the truth, whatever that may turn out to be.

Seven Quick Takes is hosted weekly by This Ain't the Lyceum

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