Content Warning: This article contains references to sexual assault.
The Keepers, a 2017 Netflix documentary directed by Ryan White, sets out to uncover who killed Sister Cathy. It follows the tragic cold case of the 1969 disappearance of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a young nun working in Baltimore as a public-school teacher, whose body was later found dumped on the side of a hill in the depths of winter. However, as the story is skilfully unravelled across this seven-part series, it becomes clear that this central mystery is only the first of many.
Sister Catherine Cesnik left her apartment to go shopping for groceries and an engagement present on 7 November 1969, but she never returned. Her car was found illegally parked just across from her apartment, but there was no sign of the nun. It was only two months later in January 1970, when her body was found and it was confirmed that Sister Catherine had been murdered. The Keepers picks up with two of her former pupils, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, now in their sixties, who have taken it upon themselves to keep researching her case and are attempting to pull together information that the original investigation may have missed.
There is little evidence in the case of Sister Catherine, it is not known precisely where she was abducted from, or at what time during the evening. Her car was found parked illegally just across the road from her apartment building, with muddy wheels and sticks inside, but other than that the evidence was scarce. Even once her body was found, the deterioration caused by time and the weather conditions offered little clue as to the perpetrator of the murder.
The case remained cold until the 1990s when a woman known only as Jane Doe came forward with allegations of sexual abuse by priests at Archbishop Keough High School, where Sister Catherine worked as an English teacher. From these allegations The Keepers opens up a seedy world of cover-ups and high-level corruption, spanning from the police force to the Baltimore Catholic church, and provides a whole new perspective on who may have killed Sister Catherine and why.
White uses old photographs of the girls at Archbishop Keough to haunting effect as the stories of abuse that have been hidden and repressed for so long are slowly brought to light. Crucial new information is revealed at the end of each episode, leading you on to the next, which has the effect of building the drama and urgency of the story. However, White avoids the sensationalism and lack of sensitivity that can plague true crime documentaries. The victims are always at the forefront, ensuring this is not one of those documentaries where you can only remember the name of the murderer, not the murdered.
Those who really knew Sister Catherine, and those who attended Archbishop Keough, are given a platform to tell their stories and explain the work and efforts they have put into ensuring this case is not forgotten. One of the most memorable parts of this documentary is the number of people, 50 years on, who still truly care. From investigative journalists to retired police officers, former pupils of Cathy’s and their classmates, all the way through to strangers who have found the case online and offered to help, the amount of people committed to finding answers where law enforcement has failed is remarkable. Unfortunately, by the end of the series it is clearly demonstrated why this persistence is needed.
Overall, this is a brilliantly shot, sensitively treated documentary and it is the focus on the victims that makes it so powerful. It paints the picture of a loving, inspiring and brave woman, and the girls she tried to protect. In turn, The Keepers shows those girls now as women who are still fighting for her. White does not allow the corruption and injustice in the story to take the focus away from the hope that some form of justice might still be provided both for Sister Catherine and also for the abused girls of Keough.
Illustration: Verity Laycock