I began watching Netflix’s new “true crime” series “The Keepers” last night. I may not last through all seven episodes. In addition to the documentary story-telling methodology, which moves at the pace of a slug-race, the story of how unsolved murder of a Baltimore nun might be part of (yet another) horrific cover-up by the Catholic Church made me so angry and frustrated that I quit in the middle of the third episode. The series makes the case that the nun, Sister Catherine “Cathy” Cesnik, was killed because she was about to reveal ongoing sexual abuse of young teenage girls by the priest running the Archbishop Keough High School for girls.
The abuse and the extent of it is not speculation. As in so many other places, the Catholic Church in Baltimore eventually paid millions in damages to multiple victims of multiple predator priests who the Church moved around the region—so they could molest and assault new victims—rather than handing them over to law enforcement. It is hard to imagine any priest worse than Father Joseph Maskell, however, if even some of the allegations against him are true. Victims say he used student files and illicit police connections to target teenage girls who were already being sexually abused. He manipulated them using a sick combination of religion, guilt, hypnotism and intimidation, sexually abused them, and even delivered some over to members of the Baltimore police department for more abuse.
The documentary focuses on the school’s Class of ’69, though there must have been equally abused girls before and after. The conspiracy of silence began to crack in 1992, when an especially victimized member of the class suddenly realized that she had repressed memories of horrible experiences, and finally complained to the Baltimore Archdiocese, setting off the kind of despicable Church defensive strategies too familiar to anyone who has seen “Spotlight.”
This documentary isn’t good for my state of mind. It makes me wonder not only if all is lost, but also if all wasn’t lost long ago. I was raised in a largely Catholic community. I am not religious, but as an ethicist I recognize the important, civilizing role religion has played in teaching and enforcing moral principles for the majority of the public for whom ethical analysis is too challenging. Episodes like the Father Maskell scandal raise questions that I rebuke myself for asking, like “How can this be?” “Jane Doe,” the star witness in the documentary, is still a devout Catholic. Her immediate response to every dilemma is to pray. I don’t get it. She was savaged, threatened and abused by a priest that she knows the Church allowed to prey on the vulnerable students entrusted to him. Why would she still trust the Catholic Church?
Why would anyone?
More questions I don’t want rattling around in my head…She says that Maskell took her to see the maggot-infested body of the dead nun in the woods, telling her that ” now she knows what happens to people who say bad things about other people.” Why didn’t she tell her parents? Why didn’t she go to the police? Why didn’t she do something to at least get her out of that school? How can waiting 23 years, while a possibly murderous predator continued to abuse girls, be explained or excused? I know that this is the most heartless variety of victim-blaming, and I don’t want my mind to wander there. But relieving victims of all responsibility and accountability inevitably creates more victims. It did in this case.
How many members of the staff at Archbishop Keough High School knew, or should have known, what was happening to students? This question really is driving me crazy: How many other communities had, or have, undetected Father Maskells being protected by the victims, the church, or complicit institutions like the Baltimore police? News continues to emerge regarding sexual abuse cover-ups at elite private schools—Brearley, Choate, nearly 70 private schools in New England alone—WHAT? Are there no institutions that can be trusted not to conspire to exploit, betray and violate children? How do administrators so devoid of even rudimentary integrity, courage and ethics alarms reach positions of power so often, for so long? If these people—priests, teachers, educators, law enforcement officials—are so thoroughly corrupt and devoid of basic decency, compassion and responsibility, what chance do the rest of us have?
How can we build and maintain an ethical society when it is rotten where it needs to be healthiest…in its heart and mind?
For some reason, this all send my mind back decades to a time when a Catholic Bishop played a crucial role in awakening me, as a child, to ethical thinking. He is all but forgotten now; I wonder how many people under the age of 50 would even recognize his name. He was the amazing Fulton J. Sheen (you can read his biography here) , and incredible as it seems, this Catholic Bishop not only gave weekly lectures to America about life, philosophy, ethics and human values, but did it in prime time with larger audiences than the most network shows today.
While he was still teaching at Catholic University in Washington, D.C, Monsignor Sheen had gained national renown as an orator, author, philosopher and radio personality. Then some creative TV executive made him star of his own TV show, in prime time, called “Life is Worth Living.” The series ran on the DuMont Television Network from February 12, 1952 to April 26, 1955, then on ABC until 1957, followed by similar shows hosted by Sheen, these typically shown on Sunday afternoons, in 1958–1961 and 1961–1968.
A charismatic, natural performer with a keen sense of humor and timing, Sheen, by then a Bishop, talked to Catholic and non-Catholics alike about religious, moral, ethical and sometimes political issues using just a blackboard. I’m not making this up: Bishop Sheen won an Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Television Personality in 1952.”Life Is Worth Living” was aired on 169 local stations across the country, and is believed to have been the most widely-viewed religious series in the history of television.
My father, a half-hearted Methodist, would watch Sheen’s performances every week—among other reasons, he said it purged his brain of the pedestrian and banal blatherings of our minister at the Arlington Congregationalist Church—and even though his children were barely able to read, we watched with him. Following each show my Dad would discuss with us what the lecture had been about, often varying from Sheen’s views. That was a period where blacks were only half-citizens, women were second-class citizens and gays were in virtual hiding: I can’t say that America was a more ethical society when Bishop Sheen was bringing ethics into the living rooms of the average citizen very week. I can say, however, that it was a period where organized religion was taking a leadership role in promoting ethics literacy, and that there were high profile ethical exemplars to inspire and guide us, figures we could trust, and institutions we did trust, though it now appears that trust was naive.
Many of Sheen’s lectures are available on YouTube. They are still worth watching, if only to remind us, like the lyrics of Camelot, that once there was a spot on TV where millions of Americans could go to think about right and wrong at least once a week.
Today, TV just makes me wonder if society has become so corrupt that I am wasting my time.