The Keepers Delivers the Truth about Sex Abuse

Katelyn Beaty

Since it released last month, the documentary Netflix series The Keepers has been compared to Making a Murderer. Like that popular true-crime drama, The Keepers centers on the mysterious death of a young woman and the police’s inept response. But that’s where the comparison largely ends. The Keepers isn’t primarily interested in solving a murder case but in probing the mystery of evil: how it infects both individuals and entire institutions. As Christians know, from a human standpoint, that mystery is unsolvable.

The Keepers centers on the death of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a young, beloved nun who taught at an all-girls Catholic high school in Baltimore. In the fall of 1969, she left the apartment she shared with another nun to buy an engagement present for her sister. She never returned. Two months later, Cesnik's body was found in the woods, and the killer was never identified.

Cesnik’s case lie dormant until 1994, when a former student, “Jane Doe,” came forward with a shocking claim and a lawsuit: She had been raped for years by the high school chaplain, Father Joseph Maskell. According to Doe, Maskell took her to the woods to see Cesnik’s dead body, then said, “This is what happens when you talk.” Doe’s account is the lynchpin that connects Cesnik’s murder to the sex abuse and a seeming coverup. According to dozens of anonymous victims, who came forward after Doe and are interviewed here, the abuse involved other Catholic leaders, local businessmen, and police officers.

Maskell’s abuse was particularly heinous in that he used a faux-spiritual rationale, telling victims that his actions would "purify" them. The Keepers includes repulsive descriptions of sexual depravity, and many viewers may not be able to stomach it. Maskell’s victims bear emotional and spiritual scars; some have left the church, while others struggle decades later with shame and anger. As did the excellent 2015 movie Spotlight, The Keepers takes an unflinching look at the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23) and how evil kept in the dark only grows and begets more evil. To quote a friend of mine whose community is dealing with its own abuse scandal, when sin is hidden out of fear, “it’s like taking rotten meat out of a pantry where it was hidden to avoid having to put it in the trash. Sin festers. It doesn’t just go away.”

It’s worth remembering that God did not deal with human sin by simply making it “go away.” Rather, God dealt with it using the most extreme measures, by sending his Son to die a torturous death on the cross. Even while God has vanquished the power of sin and death once and for all, in this earthly life we still feel its consequences acutely, in ourselves and in our common life.

In the already-and-not-yet, as we wait for God to put to rights all that is wrong in the world, he gives us measures of common grace. One of the most powerful forms of this grace in The Keepers is Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub. Two of Cesnik’s former students, they begin piecing together the mystery of her death and the abuse coverup as a labor of love. Here, investigative journalism is within the purview of anyone who cares to find the truth. In a time when much news media has devolved into snark and opinion, journalists who are committed to accuracy, diligence, and fairness—even if they aren’t getting paid for it—can provide an immeasurable gift to their neighbors and communities.

One of the most powerful reasons well-meaning people don’t go to authorities with news of sexual abuse is fear that the news will tarnish their community’s reputation. Time and again, Christian leaders want to handle abuse "in-house" so that it doesn't get "bad press." This was a powerful dynamic in the Catholic Church scandal uncovered by The Boston Globe, and in several conservative evangelical cases of abuse besides. But God doesn’t need us to protect his reputation. Instead, he calls us to love as he does, not delighting in evil but rejoicing with the truth (1 Cor. 13:6–7), even when it hurts, and even when it's rather unbelievable. As The Keepers attests, sometimes just telling the truth is healing in itself, even while we wait for God to deliver perfect justice for victims and abusers alike.

'The Keepers' takes an unflinching look at the wages of sin and how evil kept in the dark only grows.

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