Let’s Discuss: The Keepers, Netflix Documentary Series about the Murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik and Systemic Sexual Abuse

The Keepers, Netflix, Cathy Cesnik, Systemic Sexual Abuse, Catholic Church, Spiritual Abuse, Clergy Sexual Abuse



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The Keepers is a new documentary series airing on Netflix. I have watched 5 of the episodes and it is excellent. If you have seen Spotlight, it is similar, however, the investigative reporters in this case are two grandmas who have spent the last three years compiling details of the case and trying to get answers as to who killed their beloved former high school teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik in 1969.

Like the movie, Spotlight, the series uncovers systemic sexual abuse of female students at Archbishop Keough High School in Maryland by Father Maskell who was a counselor on campus. When I refer to the word “systemic,” I mean it is a whole system of cover-up and abuse. Father Joseph Maskell was not the only one who committed the crimes. His friends in high places also committed sexual crimes and helped to conceal the crimes: police officers, businessmen in the community, etc.

The first episode lays the groundwork for the story and introduces the main characters. Then, the second episode goes into repulsive, unimaginable sexual abuse descriptions. This episode is definitely difficult to watch and I would caution those who get triggered by topics of abuse to be very careful watching it. The second episode was the most difficult for me to watch, but this is important information to know how insidious these crimes were, not only sexually, but spiritually.

Because this documentary series is being discussed so much, I wanted to have a post specifically to address it, and especially to be a place where people can discuss how it may have affected them.

So, let’s use this post to discuss how the show may have affected us and try not to include spoilers for those who have not yet watched it.

Below, I have gathered a variety of links that may be of interest. I encourage you to check out the first link, especially. It is excellent.

Note:  While this sexual abuse scandal – also connected with the systemic abuse cover up with cases around the world uncovered by the Boston Globe Spotlight team occurred in the Catholic Church, Protestant churches are not exempt from these types of scandals. We know of the  Sovereign Grace Ministries sexual abuse scandal which is still ongoing. I am personally aware of several others that are “under the radar.” No one church group is exempt from systemic abuse.

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Related Links

A website was set up for the movie here:  The Keepers. I am very impressed with the information presented at the site, from information about the series, to helpful resources for survivors, therapies, systemic abuse, how to help, etc.

The following links are related and may be of interest:

23 comments on “Let’s Discuss: The Keepers, Netflix Documentary Series about the Murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik and Systemic Sexual Abuse

  1. Thank you so much for setting up this page! I hope others will watch. I was very uninterested in some of the previous documentaries like Making of a Murderer because the focus seemed to be not on the victims (or at least, from my perception).

    What is wonderful about this series is that it spends so much time with these women who have had a lot of time to process and think about what happened and the systems that allowed it and it gave them space to talk about it in a way that I don’t know I’ve seen. Also there was one part where several of the women were in a room together discussing things that I particularly loved.

    I have some thoughts on the theories but I don’t want to get too much into spoilers but for those who have watched the series, one of the men who was highlighted as a potential suspect was abusive and I think his actions may have been simply a way to control/scare/gaslight his wife.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve obsessively watched several episodes today and am overwhelmed by the systemic and misogynistic treatment of women and children by organized religion. I really just want to throw up or throw a tantrum–not sure which. Thanks for making us aware of this vital series but just a warning–it is not for the faint of heart.

    Brenda

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I was seriously PO’d by the seventh episode. I can’t think of a worse feeling than wanting someone from your religious organization to simply care about what’s happening/happened to you, only to realize they only care about the reputation of their organization.

    The LIES!! The fact that churches lie doesn’t surprise me one bit anymore. It just makes me so angry.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Same, BTDT. The fact that they knew. They KNEW! Lives could have been saved. This morning I read an article about a family who had 3 daughters, 2 of whom were sexually abused by their parish priest. One got severely depressed, suicidal, and ended up taking her own life. The other was also into addictions. She was hit by a vehicle and is permanently brain-damaged requiring 24-hour care. These 2 girls’ lives were ruined by sexual abuse. That is the thing that people don’t get – -you just don’t “get over it.” It is a life-long issue. It affects every relationship – especially closest relationships. They will never be the same.

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  5. The fact that they knew. They KNEW! Lives could have been saved.

    The fact is, they didn’t care. They didn’t care about children. At all. And it wasn’t one bad apple, which I understand is going to happen. It was the entire system in multiple locations, consistently, systematically protecting the priests over the children. Lying to do it. Lobbying the government to protect themselves, with disgusting excuses for why they took that position, in light of their actions.

    There is one person (won’t spoil if you haven’t gotten there) who says they just needed to ‘do what’s right’. That is what is so disgusting about all this. Things that should be absolutely basic to us as human beings, let alone church!, were not done.

    Just do what’s right. It’s as simple as that. And yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I know. Systemic abuse blows my mind. Will not one person say, “NO, this is not right!”? And the thing is that most people seemed to be outraged at the idea of sexual harm to children, so the fact that so many people turned off every bit of moral compass to appease “the system,” shows how powerful abusers are.

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  7. After finishing the last episode last night, I went to sleep wondering how the Catholic Church continues to wield such power over people in light of the systemic abuse that has been uncovered? How can people continue to support an organization that allows such abuse, covers it up, lies about it, intimidates and kills those threatening to expose it? I believe that it is because they peddle access to God, as does all of organized religion. The desire to connect/reconnect with God is present in every human being and organized religion preys on that desire.

    How we view God is so incredibly important! A high school girl with an understanding of who God is (LOVE) and what He/She wants from us (CONNECTION) would not have been as vulnerable to a predator who told her that she was so bad because of the abuse that she had suffered. It was because she was taught a very distorted view of God that she was vulnerable–she wanted to be forgiven because she wanted to connect with God. This is one of the greatest and saddest outcomes of religious abuse–it cuts off any possibility of obtaining what we sought from the church in the first place. It slays the soul.

    The last ten years of my spiritual life has revolved around trying to correct the views of God that I have been taught. It is a grueling process because poor theology and understanding of Scriptures are so ingrained in me, but the pay off is so worth the work. Survivors like Jean from The Keepers and Paul Young have so much to teach us. Their voices need to be prioritized–we need to hear their stories of abuse but more importantly, their stories of recovery. We all need to find out just who God is, not what we were taught about Him but who He/She really is. That is really the only protection we have from the Maskells of the world who use God as the ultimate big stick.

    Getting off my soap box now,
    Brenda

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I went to sleep wondering how the Catholic Church continues to wield such power over people in light of the systemic abuse that has been uncovered? How can people continue to support an organization that allows such abuse, covers it up, lies about it, intimidates and kills those threatening to expose it?

    I suspect for individual catholics, they think mainly of their parish, their priests, their nuns, etc, and don’t connect them with the bad things that happened in the hierarchy. That’s all that makes sense to me. I don’t think the people I know would just not care, but maybe they think it isn’t relevant to their particular church.

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  9. When I refer to the word “systemic,” I mean it is a whole system of cover-up and abuse. Father Joseph Maskell was not the only one who committed the crimes. His friends in high places also committed sexual crimes and helped to conceal the crimes: police officers, businessmen in the community, etc.

    As that bokor from The Princess and the Frog put it, nothing like friends in high places. One Hand Washes the Other…

    Though I did find mention in the first link about the Priest of Interest being the brother of a cop and having lots of friends in the department. (And the cops being very uninterested in the connections, sticking to their initial theory no matter what.)

    On this and other spiritual abuse watchblogs, I have read several accounts of abusive/corrupt pastors who become police chaplains or otherwise cultivate police connections to invoke “Code of Blue”: a Cop will always defend Cop against Not-Cop. And the abusive/crooked clergyman makes sure he is on the “Cop” side of that dividing line, literally grooming the cops like a pedo grooms his victims.

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  10. I finished episode 4 yesterday and the D.A. left me unsettled. She seemed so flippant. Watching her face made me think that this was a person who couldn’t be trusted.

    How sad that adults during this time (and even today)…from the church to the police to the prosecutor’s office to the community thought that the cover up of child sex abuse and child prostitution was okay.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Kathi, I find it impossible to believe that you would dig up documents and they would have nothing incriminating. I find it impossible to believe that the DA would not at least look at some of the files if she was there, out of sheer curiosity if nothing else!

    That whole thing stank for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Lea – I know! She came across wrong to me when she started off that whole incident by talking about how nice of a day it was and she decided to drive her convertible car with the top down. Really? That’s what she remembers – It was a nice day and she got to drive with the top down?! But, conveniently she doesn’t remember seeing any photographs.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve only watched two episodes so far and have to admit it’s a challenge not to just scream out loud at the sick, abusive behavior. The way personal experiences were used against them, and telling her he wasn’t sure “if God could forgive her”. Ugh.

    I was raised in that Catholic culture, and it is so true how much power/intimidation the priest(s) and nuns could hold, especially over the children. I’ve known many great priests and nuns, but I’ve also known many who got off on the power trip. And the confessional was the worst! I had such fear of going in that dark room and trying to remember all the “sins” that I could muster up. But on a positive note about that culture, there was a community feeling among those in the parish, you did everything together.

    The lie that we’re separated from God because of sin and that religion can bridge that gap is so destructive.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. @Kathi:

    Really? That’s what she remembers – It was a nice day and she got to drive with the top down?! But, conveniently she doesn’t remember seeing any photographs.

    As Reichsminister Speer wrote in his memoirs, she “arranged her mind” to see nothing wrong. doublepluscoldpricklies –> memhole.

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  15. she “arranged her mind” to see nothing wrong

    This is an interesting phrase.

    I couldn’t stand that lady. I get the ‘statute of limitations passed/we didn’t have enough evidence’ arguments, but you should at least be sad about it, not yammering on about your brand new car!

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  16. HUG: “On this and other spiritual abuse watchblogs, I have read several accounts of abusive/corrupt pastors who become police chaplains or otherwise cultivate police connections to invoke “Code of Blue”: a Cop will always defend Cop against Not-Cop. And the abusive/crooked clergyman makes sure he is on the “Cop” side of that dividing line, literally grooming the cops like a pedo grooms his victims”.

    I know this to be a fact. I also know that even when the pastor is not a criminal himself, once they realize one of their kids is showing signs that they are evolving into a sexual predator or engaging in other criminal behavior, some pastors will rush to fill that chaplaincy role. A few years ago, at least two different churches I know of had the police cover up for the predator sons of the head pastor/volunteer police chaplain, after they committed felony sexual assault involving minors who attended their churches. IIn general, the smaller the city/county, the easier the cover-up. Those two cases involved fairly good sized counties and it still worked.

    I have seen at least 5 cases of pastors who serve as police chaplains having their churches evade legitimate investigations. It’s hard to believe this happens in the 21st Century, but not only does it happen, it’s apparently not that uncommon. Once the locals personally witness this, they learn to keep their mouths shut and not bother reporting the next assault. That only serves to empower the abusers.

    I have also seen elders and pastors have their sons or nephews join the local PD as a form of insurance so that complaints about any criminal activity in that church will tend to fall on deaf ears. In one case the church was given the name of a person trying to file a complaint.

    If the chaplaincy isn’t currently vacant, the churches that need to cover scandals up will sometimes resort to “buying” their way into the PD. They will purchase personal body armor, or give money that goes personally to cops. These “gifts” are given with a quid pro quo expectation. “That church cared enough to protect my brothers/sisters with body armor, what’s the harm in looking the other way?” As a rule, I think police departments and individual officers should not be allowed to accept gifts from churches since they have such a high rate of sexual abuse compared to other organizations and professions.

    I would personally never attend a church that is “buying” their way into a police department because I understand that they are purchasing influence because they believe they are going to need it at some point. I respect and admire first responders, but I also know the darkness in the hearts of predators who use churches as their personal hunting grounds. There are many other community needs to be met. Stay away from churches who feel compelled to barter for law enforcement favors.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I ran across an article in Baltimore Magazine from the 90s regarding this case (don’t read if you are avoiding spoilers!) and they had this to say, which I think applies to many of the issues covered by this site in the protestant world (minus celibacy):

    There is yet another path of thought down which a narcissistic or otherwise maladjusted priest can be led astray, according to Sipe. And it goes something like this; To be male and celibate, as seen through the long lens of traditional Catholic perspective, is superior to being female and sexual, says Sipe. In fact, female sexuality is the scapegoat for a lot of earthly misery, from Adam’s fall on, acknowledges Catholic University’s Fr. Collins. “When you blame one group for something,” asserts Sipe. “and you declare another group superior, and then thirdly you reserve the power to this superior group, it lines up the inferior group to be used at the service of the superior group.” The temptation for members of the elite, he continues, is to hold themselves blameless for breaking certain codes of behavior, and even for thinking themselves above such codes.

    http://www.baltimoremagazine.com/1995/12/1/murder-at-archbishop-keough-sister-cathy-cesnik-father-joseph-maskell

    Liked by 2 people

  18. I finally finished watching this. What struck me at the end was, “If someone would have listened, think of how many people would have been saved.” This whole thing infuriates me. There are so many stories of the Church doing what they can to protect themselves instead of protecting people from being harmed.

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