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? Continue reading