As I slowly walked down the stairs, I made a mental catalogue of my sins: I disobeyed my parents (a constant), was jealous of my best friend, didn’t want to go to church, and frequently lost my temper.
Father Smith was waiting for me in the basement, sitting on a saggy couch surrounded by old toys and boxes of books.
“Forgive me father, for I have sinned…”
This could have gone so very wrong. Thankfully, Father Smith was a decent man. He absolved me, and I went back upstairs to the lavish dinner party my friend’s parents were throwing for our local Catholic clergy.
I wasn’t the only one who took confession that evening—my friend and her sisters went one by one, trembling with whatever terrible sins nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-old girls commit, and reemerging pure and forgiven.
Later, after I stopped going to Church, I couldn’t believe our parents thought it was perfectly normal to send us down into the basement so we could confess our darkest thoughts to a man we didn’t really know.
The Keepers, Ryan White’s Netflix documentary series about the 1969 murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, is a true crime murder mystery, but it’s also a meditation on abuse, trauma, silence, and confession. What begins as a traditional interrogation into an unsolved crime transforms into an examination of the rampant sexual abuse that occurred at Seton Keough High School in Maryland during the 1960s and 70s.
The documentary suggests that Sister Cathy’s still unsolved murder was part of a coverup that reaches all the way to the top of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. According to this narrative, Sister Cathy was aware of the abuse, ready to blow the whistle, and then was permanently silenced. Her body was found in a trash lot two months after she was reported missing.
Critics have noted how The Keepers is similar to other prestige documentaries but with a significant difference—its focus on the victims and their stories. In a review for the Washington Post, Stephanie Merry observes,
Victims don’t usually loom large in true-crime stories… Viewers might not even recall the name of the dead woman at the center of Netflix’s Making a Murderer, but they’ll certainly remember Steven Avery, who’s sitting in jail for her death. (It was Teresa Halbach, by the way.) That all changes with The Keepers… [t]he dead still can’t speak for themselves […b]ut there are victims who give voice to horrific stories.
True crime documentaries tend to thrive on narratives about alleged or convicted perpetrators, and with good reason: we want to know what the perpetrator’s motivation might be. But victims and survivors often get lost in the shuffle. “It is hard to watch, but for the right reasons, and ultimately it is an admirable and necessary work, in large part because of its tight focus on the survivors of horrific crimes, not just on those who perpetrated them,” writes Maureen Ryan for Variety. “Director Ryan White points his camera at these women—[Jean] Wehner in particular—and simply lets them speak.”
It is this deceptively radical concept—“simply letting one speak”—that grounds the series. By “simply letting one speak,” The Keepers complicates the concept of confession—the religious sacrament, the narrative form, the psychological benefits, and the legal ramifications—with nuance, compassion, and a feminist framework.
Early in The Keepers, Jean Hargadon Wehner, the heart and voice of this series, recalls a memory:
My life would have been very different if I had not gone in that confessional… I told the priest something that I was feeling very guilty about. I had been abused by an uncle when I was younger. He was a pedophile and he was sexually abusing me. That had ended. There was some guilt. And I always remembered it was [Father] Magnus… that he said ‘can I look at you and what is your name.’ And I always thought God, this must have been so terrible that he had to look at me and ask my name. And at the end of it he said, ‘I don’t really know if God can forgive this. I’m going to have to pray more on this, and I’ll get back to you.
Father Magnus does get back to Wehner—with devastating results. To Father Magnus, Wehner’s childhood molestation marks her as easy prey, and over the next few years, Father Magnus and Seton Keough High School chaplain and counselor Father Maskell use Wehner’s confession against her. They repeatedly invoke her past victimization to justify the horrific and sustained sexual abuse she is forced to endure at their hands. The logic? They have to fuck the “whore” out of her.
Like many victims of PTSD, Wehner blocks the entire experience for years. As she begins to remember, she takes steps to tell her story—first to her family and then to officials. Not surprisingly, Wehner’s confession is leveled against her. Her reputation is maligned and she is designated as unreliable, crazy, vindictive, and money-hungry. At one point Michael Lehane, the lawyer representing Father Maskell, calls Wehner and fellow plaintiff Teresa Lancaster “very confused, very disturbed.” She is violated again and again as lawyers, law enforcement, biased medical professionals, and the Church do everything in their power to discredit her.
The Keepers examines how institutional silencing has a profound effect on victims. Especially in the Catholic Church, which still has the reputation of harboring, protecting, and defending pedophiles, it’s very common for otherwise decent humans to align themselves fully and uncritically with the oppressor. People want to protect their cherished ideals and maintain their sense of belonging to and identifying with a clan, so when victims attempt to speak their truth, they are seen as threats and silenced. They are met with blame and shame. Since silence allows predators to remain empowered and continue their abuse, nothing changes.
What does create change, however, is refusing silence. Over the course of The Keepers, we see Wehner transform. Initially, she is Jane Doe—an anonymous shadow. When we first meet her, she is reticent and contemplative. Then she reaches out to former classmates and other victims, participating in group healing through sharing her experiences. By the end of the film, Wehner taps into her righteous rage—“Wow! Those fuckers! My God!” she shouts, bemused. She pours herself a defiant glass of wine: “We’re not invisible.”
When I took my first Confession at age seven, I was given the choice to go face to face with the priest or to talk behind a screen. I chose the screen, scared of the priest seeing me. But as I examined my conscience, I couldn’t find anything to confess. I tried really hard to figure out what I had done wrong and ended up lying to the priest that I had broken eggs against the refrigerator.
Now I can recognize that even as a child, I felt uncomfortable about confessing on terms that were not my own. I might even have been subconsciously aware that I was just a kid who hadn’t really done anything worth confessing.
Later on, of course, when I had my first boyfriend, priests were very interested in what I had to confess. They tried their best to make me feel ashamed. Sometimes it worked—but mostly it didn’t. I’d roll my eyes as I left the confessional, and the next day my boyfriend and I would be making out in the parking lot.
Confession implies something shameful—secrets not to be shared. Yet an integral part of being a Catholic involves sitting in a dark box and telling those secrets to a man you don’t really know in order to be absolved. The act is supposed to be a reminder that no sin is too great to be forgiven, but it reinforces, especially for young women, the idea that one is damaged and in need of a male authority figure for redemption. The Keepers skillfully examines the power of confession outside the box, the communities it creates and the ripples it makes. Telling one’s story brings healing—not immediately, but over a long, harrowing period of self-reflection and sharing. Jean Wehner’s power was taken away from her in the confessional; she regained that power through confessing on her own terms. For Wehner, language and confession—once used to keep her quiet—becomes her method of resistance.