On May 19, Netflix began streaming its latest catnip for bingewatchers, a seven-hour documentary series called The Keepers. It’s about a priest who abuses a young boy. His mother informs the archbishop. The archbishop moves the priest to another school down the road where he begins abusing girls. Lots of them. He is aided by cops whom he lets in to share in the girls’ sexual favors. A nun finds out and ends up dead. The murder is never solved and the priest is never punished. Oh, and one more thing. We're never quite sure this is actually what happened.
Why, you have to ask yourself, would anybody in their right mind want to see such a nightmarish view of the dark side of life? Besides the ugliness of the story, many people will assume it's beating a dead horse and turn away. The priest abuse phenomenon is very old news by now. And the story has already been brilliantly captured in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight. What is anybody going to add?
That was my approach going in. I had a “show me” attitude and stopped for a while after the first hour until a friend encouraged me to keep going. I’m glad I did.
One takes in a story, whether in book form or in film, for its content and/or for the way it’s told. Sometimes a story is too big to fit in a single narrative. I believe the child abuse story is one such topic. Spotlight told of abuses in the Boston archdiocese from a reporter’s perspective. The Keepers takes place in Baltimore, this time from the victims’ perspective. It brings home the fact that it’s a much bigger story than Spotlight was able to capture, good as it was. Like any wholesale quest for justice – the struggle by black people for equality, the insistence we not forget the victims of the Holocaust, the effort to root out sexism and homophobia – it’s far too soon to call an end to the telling of Roman Catholic cover-up stories. The struggle goes on.
Producer/director Ryan White (The Case Against 8) and his crew track the efforts of two victims, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, to determine whether their abuser, a truly sinister priest named Father Joseph Maskell, is also the killer of their teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik. Maskell had the motive, if Sister Cathy was on his trail, but was he responsible? And if he was, he certainly didn't work alone. What comes with this quest is insight into how secrecy is maintained through fear and shame, how the church, the police and the courts can on occasion not only fail to protect the innocent, but actually collude with criminals to do harm. It's about how we as a society can make it possible for somebody to get away with murder.
Because the victims took twenty years before they could begin to recover from the trauma of what happened to them, the facts had scattered and many were lost. Getting beyond the walls of silence required a willpower that crossed over into obsession. The filmmakers saw an opportunity to milk the many twists and turns in the discovery process. They knew they had a detective story of the first order, and calculated it would take seven hours to tell. I imagine if one is looking for ways to find fault with the documentary, length is likely to be at the top of the list. I, for one, found the length actually worked to an advantage. You have time to get to know the characters and come to root for them.
At times I felt I was losing control of some of the many subplots. There are times when just as you think you’ve got something figured out a new character is introduced, and the surprises make for some good cliff-hangers at the end of each episode. You suspect you’re being manipulated by one unbelievable revelation after another, but you gradually come to accept that if the story were more densely packed, it might have less power to grab hold of you. A clever story-telling device used in the film is getting you to allow the narrative to proceed on the basis of certain unproven assumptions, and then revealing to you at a later time that there is actual evidence for those assumptions, before you can complain that you are being jerked around. The documentary is well crafted, in other words.
Without revealing any more of the film’s secrets (I realize I’ve already given away much of the suspense), what The Keepers does well is illustrate the difference between actual guilt and legal guilt. We are witness to the many ways the church uses legal loopholes (like the statute of limitations) and the powers that be, specifically the church working in collusion with the state (determining which cases will be worked on and brought to court), have you over a barrel when it is in their interest to do so. And when the individuals playing the role of district attorney, cop or bishop place self-interest over a sense of professional responsibility.
The real value of The Keepers is its contribution to the argument that just as traffic lights only work if people are willing to stop for them, the institutions of democracy work only when we keep those with authority over us in under constant surveillance. Power corrupts, as we know, and hypocrisy and deception go hand in hand with power. We have paid the price of assuming the church, by virtue of its claims to righteousness, is any less susceptible to those temptations.
Many of us have never questioned before what the child abuse story says about morality in the church. As a kid, I picked up the notion somehow that Christ was what I would later come to think of as a Kantian. You don’t lie, you don’t cheat, you don’t steal. Period. No need to split hairs. Just do the right thing. Don’t bop people on the head. If somebody needs a jacket you should maybe even give him your coat, as well. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Be good.
Growing up involves recognizing that most Christians aren’t followers of those Christian notions, however, and when it comes to the larger Christian institutions, there’s barely a trace of such extreme generosity, and sometimes precious little compassion. In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church’s moral code has been all about self-preservation. They have lied, cheated, and even committed violence to protect the good name of the church. Pure utilitarian reasoning. Better to forget about those sorry kids who happen to fall into the hands of sicko priests and avoid scandal. Shut the kids up, pay them off, move the priest to a new location and hope for the best.
It has never been the sick priests of the church who have been the problem, as I see it, but the institutional values, the urge to prioritize the illusion that the church is free of error over the health and well-being of its members. Keeping the church going has to be the highest priority, according to utilitarian Catholics. It’s bigger than any single individual.
I do believe there is a direct connection between the sex scandals and the choice of making morality all about what is curiously conceived of as “sexual purity” rather than about such things as deceit and violence, but mostly I don’t think anybody should be surprised that when you have hundreds of thousands of men in close proximity to children, statistically you are going to have a bad apple here and there. Priests are human and human beings are not all they should be all the time.The problem has always been what to do when you do find a bad apple such as a child molester. What has brought down the church in recent years is this inclination to bury scandal, and throw the victims, overwhelmingly women and children, to the wolves.
Not my idea of what Jesus would do, in other words, but what the princes of the church (the medieval rank still applies to this day) need to do to keep the status quo and the illusion of righteousness. What will people think? Got to hide the bad apples.
Despite the difficulty of getting accurate figures on such a taboo topic, one research study done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004 for the United States Conference of Catholic bishops, came up with a figure of over 4000 priests and over 10,000 victims, in the last half of the twentieth century. And that is clearly but the tip of the iceberg. Just recently, Pope Francis’s office revealed that they had a backlog of 2000 cases.
The problems of sexual abuse and other wrongs that spin off from that (lying, intimidating, preying on the vulnerable, violence) are still front and center, in other words. The Keepers brings home in spades the challenge of addressing human weakness and folly. See it and marvel at how the code of silence can permit the truly evil to flourish within the bosom of the church. Or at how willing some of us are to look away from anything we don’t want to see. Or at the astonishing ease with which some of us allow ourselves to become victims.
Or, if you’re into detective stories, watch this one unfold, and marvel at what one can do if one is working with an indefatigable need for justice.