What Does 'The Keepers' Mean?

by Caralynn Lippo

The title of any movie or show is the first hint at what it's all about. When it comes to a documentary or docuseries, titles can run the gamut from straightforward and descriptive (Netflix's Amanda Knox documentary was, unsurprisingly, about Knox's infamous murder trials) to more enigmatic (the streaming channel's Making a Murderer gave an indication of what the show would be about — a murderer — but offered up no specific details). The latest addition to the streaming service's true crime library, The Keepers, falls into the latter camp, and many viewers are already wondering: What does The Keepers mean? It refers to those victims who were saddled with keeping the secrets of their alleged abuse for decades.

The Keepers is a seven-part documentary series that follows the ongoing investigation into the murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik. Cesnik was a 26-year-old nun (and former teacher at Archbishop Keough High School) living in Baltimore at the time of her death in 1969. In the immediate aftermath, her death went unsolved. The Keepers' tagline asks the question, "Who killed Sister Cathy?," but its focus goes beyond just her murder, delving into the larger clergy sex abuse scandal that took place at Keough, allegedly at the hands of then-chaplain Father Joseph Maskell.

Former Keough students who participated in the docu-series claim that multiple victims had told Cesnik of the abuse and that she'd regularly attempted to intervene on their behalf — and may have even threatened to come forward with her knowledge of the crime. A former teaching nun at another local school confirmed as much in an interview with City Paper for its 2005 investigation into Cesnik's death. "I knew several of the kids at Keough," Marian Weller of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (formerly Sister Mary Florita) told City Paper. "And one of them described to me how three or four girls who were being abused by this priest had gone to Sister Cathy for help. There’s no question but that she knew about the abuse that was taking place during the months leading up to her death."

While the series' entry point into the long, sordid, and complex tale is Cesnik's death, it's the long-held secrets about the Keough sex abuse (and the theory that the nun lost her life because of her knowledge of them) that forms the show's central story. Director Ryan White explained in a recent interview with People that the bravery of the reported abuse survivors is what made his project possible — and that one of them even gave the show its title. According to White, the survivor used the word "keeper" (as in "We are the keepers") in an interview with him "to refer to the legacy of secrecy and shame so often created by abuse."

While the main perpetrators, such as Maskell (who denied the allegations and was never convicted), have long since died, White is hopeful that making this story public will bring some measure of relief to the victims. "We’d always say to each other, 'The least we can do is bring these stories to light,'" White told People in the same interview. "Because they’re the ones who lived it, and they lived in darkness their whole lives." Hopefully, they manage to shine enough of a light to answer the question of who killed Cesnik as well, so that the long-dead nun can finally have some justice.