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'The Keepers' recap, Episode 2: Jane Doe's story of abuse

For The Baltimore Sun

Before we meet Jane Doe and hear her story, I feel compelled to make an observation: I was stunned Netflix didn’t precede this episode with a strongly worded caution about the content.

As this series generally and this episode in particular painfully make clear, there are a lot of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. And while it’s become trendy in certain circles to mock the concept of trigger warnings, post-traumatic stress disorder is a not uncommon occurrence among child sex abuse survivors.

So I want to mention some available resources -- specifically, RAINN’s national sexual assault hotline, available 24/7 at 800-656-HOPE (4673). Further resources can be found at The Keepers Impact website.

Jane Doe’s real name is Jean Hargadon Wehner. Director Ryan White has called her “the lynchpin” and “a really brave woman” -- and I can only say that by the end of this episode, you’ll probably agree.

White has made some simple yet bold choices in presenting Jean’s story in this episode. We’re introduced to her, and by extension to Baltimore’s Catholic community, through extended sequences of black and white family photographs, archival footage and home movies.

Interspersed with this real-life imagery is a black and white dramatization, designed to illustrate (sparingly, thank God) the key moments of Jean’s story. It’s an effective choice that brings the horror into stark, dismal relief; when we cut to full-color, modern-day Jean, it’s almost like we’re finally allowed to catch our collective breath -- but only for a moment, because the horror just keeps unwinding on screen.

And it is full-on horror, make no mistake. For what Jean describes is a high school career spent as the victim of the most depraved, perverted sexual proclivities of not one but two priests: Father Magnus, Keough’s religious studies teacher, and Father Maskell, the school chaplain.

Jean says the abuse began in her freshman year when she finally worked up the courage to disclose in confession her (at that time) darkest secret: that her uncle had sexually abused her. The abuse had ended, but Jean says she was still grappling with feelings of guilt (an all-too-common reaction in survivors). She asked Father Magnus if God could forgive her for the abuse she had endured.

The priest asked her for her name, and asked if he could look at her face.

Here, I have a confession of my own to make: I fully expected to hear next that the priest had looked at her intently and said something along the lines of “My child, you have nothing for which you need to be forgiven.”

Such is my indoctrination by Hollywood, I guess. In the major motion picture fantasy version, the strings-heavy musical score would have swelled at this moment, the young girl’s face would tilt upwards, tears in her eyes, the camera would focus on the priest’s compassionate face ...

Wisely, White treats the moment quite matter of factly. In one sense, it’s the critical moment of the entire series that tells the audience exactly what kind of story we’re listening to here.

According to Jean, after she told Father Magnus her name, the priest looked at her and said, “I don’t know if God can forgive you for this. I’m going to need to pray about this and get back to you.”

I actually needed to press pause there and walk away. On subsequent viewings, it never got any easier to hear or see.

One of the most striking uses of White’s dramatizations follows, suggesting the figure of young Jean walking away from that confessional, under the gaze of a towering stone statue of the Virgin Mary, so tall that at first we cannot even see Mary’s face. It’s terribly suggestive of silent judgment. Only when the tiny figure of the Catholic schoolgirl passes out of frame does the camera pan up and show us a pious stone face, hands clasped in prayer.

White then smartly moves out of the deeply distressing recounting of Jean’s abuse at the hands of first Magnus and then Maskell to give us some context of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sister Cathy’s order and the group of nuns who provided instruction and administrative services at Keough.

We meet several women who are identified as former nuns, who describe the intricacies of daily life as canonical novices.

It’s hard not to contrast the stark beauty of the archival footage of novices and nuns in the 1960s used to illustrate cloistered life with the wholly different vibe we get from a description of Maskell’s childhood. His mother apparently made vestments for her young son and gave him white Necco wafers so he could “say Mass” for the neighborhood children, pretending to be a priest.

But perhaps it’s just the fact of hindsight, knowing the allegations of sexual abuse as we do, that makes this description of the young penitent so wholly different from the peaceful beauty of the nuns’ lives. Had Maskell turned out to be the “right kind of priest” would we also react with warmth and approval to his childhood religious activities?

In any event, it was Maskell who achieved the greater worldly power. His brother Tommy was a Baltimore policeman, and Father Maskell himself was the chaplain for both the Maryland State Police and his brother’s police department.

So we probably shouldn’t be shocked when Jean and other former Keough students allege that Maskell essentially ran a child sex abuse ring that involved police officers as well as others.

Yet it is, of course, completely shocking. Woman after woman shares the same story of being called into Maskell’s office, assaulted by Maskell, assaulted by police officers, and threatened into silence and compliance.

What does this all have to do with Sister Cathy? As more than one of Maskell’s victims recounts, Sister Cathy knew about Maskell. How much she knew and when she knew it isn’t entirely clear.

What is clear, though, is that at least at the end of the academic year before her murder, she knew Jean specifically was being abused.

That summer, Gemma and Abbie reveal, Cathy and Sister Russell sought and received permission to move out of the convent, adopt street dress instead of the habit, and transfer from Keough into public school, which is where they both worked in November 1969.

Abbie tells us that on Nov. 6, 1969, an anonymous student and her boyfriend went to the nuns’ apartment to talk about her abuse at the hands of Maskell. Without knocking, Maskell and Magnus both barged into the apartment, Maskell wearing a furious expression on his face. Sister Cathy sent the teens out of the apartment, and they left, frightened.

The next day, the student was called into Maskell’s office and threatened into silence.

That night, Sister Cathy disappeared.

But the ending of this episode’s story belongs to Jean, as the beginning did, and it’s perhaps the most shocking, stomach-turning sequence of the hour.

Jean remembers Maskell brought her into his office after school in early November. He informed her that Sister Cathy had disappeared, but knowing how close Jean and the nun were, he offered to take her to where Sister Cathy was.

Jean left with Maskell, who drove to a remote, barren spot, where she discovered a clump on the ground -- Sister Cathy’s corpse.

Cathy’s face, Jean says, was covered with maggots. Horrified, Jean began wiping them off the nun’s face, begging Maskell for help.

Maskell, Jean says, leaned down close to her face and said, “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?”

So there it is. The prime theory we’re presented here is that Sister Cathy knew about severe, ongoing sexual abuse at Keough and was killed to silence her and protect the abusers.

Something tells me, however, that this story is only going to get twistier and more complex before we reach the end.

ALSO

Read The Sun’s archived coverage of the Sister Catherine Cesnik case

Baltimore braces for documentary on nun’s death, sex abuse at Catholic school

What critics are saying about “The Keepers”

Newspaper strike silenced coverage of murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik

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