We review the case of the 1969 slaying of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik, a popular nun who taught at Archbishop Keough and Western high schools. Her killing has gone unsolved for nearly 50 years. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
"The Keepers," Netflix's look at the 1969 unsolved murder of a 26-year-old Baltimore nun, arrived May 19 on Netflix.
The seven-part docu-series about the murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik was released all at once. It also chronicles alleged sexual abuse in the 1960s and '70s at Archbishop Keough High School, where Cesnik taught, and the murder of Joyce Malecki, who disappeared within days of Cesnik.
Here's a look at what critics are saying about the true-crime series.
Each thread is compelling in its own right, and a convincing case is made for their connections. But the shifts back and forth between the abuse story, a well-documented tale of institutional malfeasance, and the murder story — full of circumstantial and conflicting theories — can be jarring. Mr. White employs the full true-crime arsenal, including black-and-white re-creations of events and a lot of b-roll of bleak Baltimore backdrops, to achieve a consistently artful atmosphere of foreboding, but "The Keepers" doesn't quite add up to the unified argument he's trying for.
At the Washington Post, Hank Stuever writes that "Sister Cathy still needs and deserves our help," though by the end of the series, everyone involved, including the viewer, "shares the frustration of dead ends."
Blessedly short on theatrics, "The Keepers" skillfully walks viewers through the many details of the case while following Schaub and Hoffman's progress. (If you're a fan of how Marylanders pronounce their "o's," then you've come to the right seven-episode docu-series.)
Zeroing in on Maskell's involvement (the working theory is that he got someone else to murder Sister Cathy because she was going to reveal the abuse of girls at Keough), "The Keepers" gets embroiled in a tragically familiar narrative in which victims came forward in the 1990s only to find themselves silenced by church authorities and statutes of limitation.
I'm never fully comfortable with true crime, particularly when the victims are an afterthought to the juicy revelations. But White tells this story with a clarity another director might struggle to impose on such chaos. And all the while he is aware of the human beings at the heart of his story.
"The power of expurgation and honesty flows through 'The Keepers,' even if it's constantly running into institutional obstruction," Daniel Fienberg writes at the Hollywood Reporter. "You can see how the mere act of speaking truth is vindication."
The crusading sense that vindication could come for a Brendan Dassey or Adnan Syed, that Robert Durst could still be held accountable, takes on a different meaning in a murder case that's 47 years old. "The Keepers" is fascinating and often gripping because it makes the argument that shining a light on enshrouded horrors takes many forms and doesn't have a statute of limitations, even if the law does.
"The Keepers" and "Making a Murderer" both focus on one crime and "purport to shine a light into otherwise dark corners while giving viewers the chance to amateur sleuth. But that's where the similarities end," says the Los Angeles Times' Lorraine Ali.
Directed by Ryan White ("The Case Against 8," "Good Ol' Freda"), "The Keepers" is much more sophisticated and well-researched, offering several different probabilities throughout its seven episodes as to what happened to Sister Cathy. It also aims to solve a murder rather than set a convicted murderer free. It's executed with empathy, but not to the point where "The Keepers" lets a foregone conclusion drive the narrative.
In "The Keepers," the pain of the past morphs from curiosity to responsibility. For journalist Tom Nugent, the past is a paying puzzle that became an obligation to solve. For retirees Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, the past is a hobby that grew into a crusade. And for a woman known for decades only as "Jane Doe," the past is a forgotten trauma that rocks her anew and reframes her life. In a culture of comic book escapism and stranger things, "The Keepers" gives us ordinary people as superheroes. They're the real justice league of Baltimore.
"The Keepers" has plenty of villains, and it works because of their participation in the series, even when they look bad. Alex Abad-Santos at Vox:
Without a doubt, the most baffling thing about The Keepers is how White got state and law enforcement officials to speak so candidly — and on camera — about Cesnik's murder and the abuse at Archbishop Keough. The officials White interviews on camera are strangely comfortable, seemingly unfazed about the heinous allegations of sex abuse that went on at the school.
"The Keepers" largely avoids the pitfalls of other true-crime dramas, Daniel D'Addario writes at Time.
White, by contrast, isn't asking us to be the sleuths. He's depicting the process of discovery among mourners. The "detectives" we follow are Cesnik's former students who set out to solve the case. This isn't just more respectful to the victim than other true-crime stories, with their breathless delight at new clues. It's also more effective.
A.V. Club's Katie Rife says the series "does make a strong case for extending the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse. But mostly these are jaw-dropping tales about horrific things that happened a long time ago, limiting the urgency of the narrative."
Most of the suspects in the cases are either dead or in the grips of dementia, and so the only ones left to tell the story are the victims and their family members. In that way, The Keepers is more of a meditation on memory and truth than a murder mystery, and the telling of the tale is a resolution in itself.
The B-roll notices things like the decorations on the walls, the family photos on the mantle, and the niceties of small talk. These are no Hollywood-friendly million-dollar kitchens, or carefully composed sitcom living rooms. The subjects of "The Keepers" keep cozy homes, in an unassuming, uncontrived way that indicates much about them. In this largely Catholic, working-to-middle class community of Baltimore, "The Keepers" manages to convey a mindset and shared, accepted values by just following the interviewees home.
These Baltimore baby boomers serve the same narrative purpose in this docu-series as the team of Boston Globe investigative reporters who doggedly documented the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the alleged coverup of those crimes by church authorities in the Academy Award-winning docudrama "Spotlight." These unassuming internet sleuths become a force of decency and righteousness in the series amid all the evil and darkness generated by those who wore the collars and cassocks and were supposed to be the keepers of the faith.