'The Keepers,' pending closure shadow Seton Keough's final days

This was already going to be a bittersweet spring at Seton Keough High School. The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced in October that it would be closing the Catholic school for girls at the end of the school year, and the community has spent the final months honoring the school's history before bidding it farewell.

But the release of the hit Netflix documentary series "The Keepers," which explores sexual abuse at then-Archbishop Keough High School decades ago and the still unsolved killing of a young teacher, has cast a darker shadow on the last days of the beloved institution.

"The Keepers" debuted last week. The school is to celebrate its final graduation ceremony Friday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

Students, staff and alumni voice strong support for the seven-part documentary, which depicts the struggle of six women to bring to light their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest at the school in the 1960s.

Many just wish it weren't happening right now.

"This year has just been a very, very challenging time for everyone," says Elizabeth Heppding, an 18-year-old senior from Catonsville. "We love Seton Keough. It has been such a welcoming, encouraging place. We're heartbroken it's closing.

"It doesn't help that 'The Keepers' came out when it did. It just doesn't feel right."

In announcing the school's closure, the archdiocese cited a 66 percent decline in enrollment in the past decade.

As the school's 180 students went about their usual business — taking classes, playing sports, performing in plays and concerts, tackling community service — the announcement added new uncertainty. All students and staff, not just the 47 seniors, now had to make new plans for the coming year.

Add to that the fact that Netflix decided to air the seven-part documentary even as the students were preparing to enjoy the final editions of traditional end-of-year events — the honors assembly, the senior dinner, the sports banquet — and even alumnae were aghast.

Terry Stromer Amann graduated from Archbishop Keough High School in 1978 — it merged with Seton High School a decade later to form the current institution and has attended almost every class reunion since.

"I don't want to take anything away from the [women] who had such a terrible experience," she says. "Their feelings are valid and they absolutely need to be heard.

"But we also need to do right by the girls who are at that school right now, to be respectful of their feelings and the loss they're experiencing."

Julia Middleton, a 17-year-old junior from Catonsville, agrees.

"We are all really sympathetic about what happened at Keough in the 1960s," she says. "We're just upset because we really love this place, and now people will have these terrible associations with it and say, 'We're glad it's shutting down.'

"It's tainting the end of the year."

Netflix declined to comment on the timing of the series' release.

"The Keepers" is beginning to generate the kind of buzz inspired by such recent crime dramas as the NPR podcast "Serial" and the Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer."

A Baltimore-based Facebook group depicted in "The Keepers" was shut down this week after 20,000 new members signed up. Amann, whose daughter, Beth, gradated from Seton Keough in 1999, says the show has been the talk of the two school-related Facebook pages she has frequented for years.

"People are posting links to a lot of articles, asking questions, commenting on individuals they recognize," Amman says. "It's a major thing to a lot of people."

"The Keepers" revisits the 1969 disappearance and death of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a 26-year-old English and drama teacher who was beloved at Archbishop Keough.

Filmmaker Ryan White, whose aunt attended the school during the 1960s, explores alleged connections between Cesnik's killing and the brutal sexual abuse that took place there over a period of years.

The archdiocese has paid a total of $472,000 to 16 people who have accused the Rev. Joseph Maskell of abuse.

Maskell, a chaplain and counselor at the school, denied any wrongdoing and was never charged. He died in 2001.

Because the abuse took place long before any of today's students were born, many say it's both surreal and frustrating to be linked, even if indirectly, with events so horrific — and so unlike the nurturing environment they've experienced.

If anything, Middleton says, Seton Keough is full of teachers and students who resemble Sister Cathy, the encouraging nun who "The Keepers" theorizes was likely murdered because she knew of the abuse and was about to report it.

Middleton watched the series with school friends last weekend.

"[Seton Keough] has been nothing but a home for everyone I know," she says. "It's a tragedy to see that it was the complete opposite of a home for many girls."

She says some of the scenes were so shocking the group paused the video and simply stared at one another.

Seton Keough girls have passed versions of the Sister Cathy story along for years. Many have adopted the nun as a kind of protective spirit.

Heppding, who has been active in the drama program for her four years at the school, says students sometimes prayed to the former theater instructor before rehearsals — and not entirely with tongue in cheek.

"We all see her in a good light," Heppding says. "The story has always been that she was trying to help us, and that's why she died."

But few, if any, students knew the details. Maskell was accused of abusing dozens of girls in his office at the end of one long hall — often after flashing a gun or giving them drugs, survivors say in the series.

That room, Middleton says, is now an office used by the science department.

"Now we know where things happened," she says. "We walk past those places every day. It's horrible knowing something so awful happened in the building we go to school in."

The school has taken steps to help the girls process any difficult emotions the series might have raised — and to "help transition them and make sure the last couple of weeks are happy ones, to make sure they leave with positive memories," school President Donna Bridickas says.

Administrators arranged for counselors from the archdiocese to visit the school on Monday, the first day after "The Keepers" was released. The psychologists met with students individually and in groups.

They've also posted security guards at each entrance to the school, and new "No Trespassing" signs, to keep reporters and the curious away.

It hasn't been foolproof. Someone got out of a car on Caton Avenue on Tuesday morning and tried to vandalize the school's sign, Bridickas says, in what she believes was a misguided attempt to express anger over the abuses depicted in "The Keepers."

The uproar hasn't kept the school community from celebrating its final days.

On Wednesday night, the seniors and their families enjoyed the traditional Seton Keough Senior Dinner, with many of the school's 50 faculty members serving the fare.

Thursday was a special "Celebrate Seton Keough Day," featuring faculty-student volleyball and other games. The school set aside an "affirmation hour" for each of the four grades to gather on their own and reminisce.

Bridickas says she has special empathy for the school's underclasswomen, many of whom followed mothers, aunts, older sisters and cousins to Seton Keough, but who will never have the chance to enjoy the senior privileges they've earned, or graduate from the school themselves.

But juniors were given special permission to use the senior lounge for the final weeks. They'll also be given mementos normally reserved for graduating seniors: tassels of green and gray, the school's colors.

And every student will receive the alumnae association pin that seniors have always been awarded upon graduation, signaling what Bridickas hopes will be a lifelong association with Seton Keough.

Brickidas is to deliver the keynote address at commencement Friday morning. She says it will be a chance to reflect on the achievements of what she calls "an extraordinary class of young women."

It's a group that provided more than 2,840 hours of community service, earned acceptances at 122 colleges and qualified for more than $6.5 million in college scholarships.

"I think the purpose of my speech is to send the Class of 2017 off into the next part of their life knowing they made an impact here at Seton Keough," she says. "Hopefully, they'll take everything they've learned here, and with it their deep faith, and share it with the world."

She has no plans to mention "The Keepers."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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