The Keepers review: 'It's not the new Making a Murderer - it's infinitely more disturbing, more sickening'
5* - The 7-part series is available on Netflix now
The Keepers is not, as some have suggested, the new Making A Murderer. It’s easy to assume it might be from the first episode. In terms of style, tone and content, it looks like it belongs to the same burgeoning true-crime documentary genre.
However, documentarian Ryan White’s compelling, utterly shocking seven-parter is more complex and expansive.
It grows and deepens into a story of murder, cruelty, clerical sexual abuse and institutional cover-up that is somehow infinitely more disturbing – more sickening – in its implications than the framing of a single innocent man.
The first instalment opens with the unsolved murder of nun Sister Cathy Cesnik, a teacher at Baltimore’s prestigious Archbishop Keough High School for girls.
Sister Cathy, aged only 26, was adored by every one of her young charges. “She had such compassion,” says former student Patricia Gilner. “She had compassion for the Earth.”
One night in 1971, Sister Cathy drove a couple of miles to a shopping centre to buy an engagement present for her sister. She never returned.
She was found months later, lying on her back at a rubbish tip, the back of her head crushed.
Her car was found too, awkwardly parked across the street from her apartment building. The vehicle was covered with mud and twigs.
Mud and twigs were also stuck to the body of another young woman, Joyce Malecki, who was murdered within days of Sister Cathy’s disappearance.
Two hunters discovered her, face down in a swamp, hands tied behind her back.
The case is still officially open. This doesn’t mean, however, that the Baltimore police are putting any effort into it.
That role has fallen to two wonderful women, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, former students of Sister Cathy’s, now in their 60s, who for the past few years have been looking for clues to the murder.
Gemma is the tough one, “the bulldog”, who knocks on doors and asks hard questions; Abbie is “the intellectual”, the researcher of the partnership.
Their investigation has mushroomed as countless former students of Keough have got in touch through the women’s dedicated Facebook page, adding to the sum of knowledge.
For a time, it appears we’re going to spend the next six episodes in the company of these two real-life Jessica Fletchers as they seek the truth. However, in episode two The Keepers changes direction and becomes an account of the reign of sexual abuse led by the former chaplain of Keough, Fr Joseph Maskell.
For years, Maskell (who, as you’ll know if you’ve been reading the papers lately, eventually fled America and spent his later years working in Wexford) preyed on vulnerable girls, especially ones who had been sexually abused by others, in his office and elsewhere.
One of them is Jean Hargadon Wehner, who had been abused as a little girl by her uncle. In the early-90s, while Gemma and Abbie were digging away, Jean was suddenly besieged by a flood of horrifying memories, suppressed for years, of being raped by Maskell and others in his disgusting circle, including policemen (Maskell was also chaplain to the Baltimore and Maryland police departments).
Jean went public and met with stonewalling from the Catholic Church. The police refused to believe her devastating claim that Maskell had taken her to see the body of Sister Cathy, before it was found on the dump, to scare her into keeping her mouth shut.
But after Jean’s supportive brothers and sisters had contacted other Keough alumni, dozens of victims came forward with their stories.
Gradually, the dots begin to join up – between Jean and the other victims and Sister Cathy, who Gemma and Abbie believe was murdered because she was about to reveal what Maskell was doing.
The camera stays unflinchingly on Jean as she tells her harrowing story. What sticks in the mind after it is the sheer depravity, particularly Maskell reciting Latin prayers as he raped her.
The Keepers is not an easy watch. I got through three episodes at the weekend.
It is not the kind of series you’d binge on; you need a break, a breather, to absorb the astonishing horror of it.
However, it’s essential that you watch it and absorb it all.
The Keepers is available on Netflix now.
Here is some of the reaction to the series on social media:
One thing that is hitting a chord with me about #TheKeepers: the absolute, unending devotion of Sister Cathy's former students.— Steph (@WriteOnSteph) May 20, 2017
#thekeepers is making me sick to my stomach. How people can do things like that in the name of 'religion'.— Rachel (@rachhull_xo) May 19, 2017
#TheKeepers is beautiful & awful. It's a really hard watch, & triggering at every turn. But the voice of the survivors is honored— Angie (@APaolucci) May 20, 2017
#thekeepers is amazing so far but episode 2 is so disturbing I fear I'll never get over it.— Max Ramsbottom (@Supermax1988) May 19, 2017
The final minute of #thekeepers destroyed me. Completely. Just wow.— ponikwe 🏳️🌈 (@jmPonikwe) May 22, 2017
This was by the best documentary I've seen!— Alex. (@Itsalexgeee) May 22, 2017
It was frustrating & heartbreaking 😩
Had me hooked within the first minute!#TheKeepers