The Keepers: Speaking Out Against Systematic Silencing

In his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde coined the now-ubiquitous phrase, “Life imitates art.” As art and life have evolved over the years, the two have warped and melded into something new, the dual sides hardly distinguishable from one another.

Life and art work in concert with each other, augmented and supplementing each other to enhance the meaning of both. So when a piece of filmmaking like Ryan White’s Netflix documentary series, The Keepers, comes along at the perfect time, the current state of the world heightens the impact of the art while the art imparts a critical message to a society in need of its lesson.

Ostensibly, The Keepers tells the true story of the ongoing investigation of the murder of a nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, that has been unsolved since her death in 1969. But what initially is told as an intriguing whodunit abruptly takes a sharp turn in its second episode veering into much darker territory — an upsetting feat, considering murder was the previous path.

In the days and months leading up to her murder, Cesnik learned that several high school girls at the Catholic school at which she taught were being sexually abused and raped by a priest at the school, Father Joseph Maskell.

Jean Wehner, one of Maskell’s victims recounts in horrific detail, the abuse she endured at the hands of Maskell — memories she repressed for decades before they flooded back and she garnered the strength and bravery to come forward with them.

The Keepers is an oppressively sad film. The decades of pain the victims endured as they recovered from their childhood trauma and the death of Cesnik as a result of her knowledge of the abuse is truly heartbreaking.

However, the most upsetting part is not just watching these women recount the horrifying crimes committed against them. It’s seeing the effort put in by so many to silence them.

From the lawyers who sought to discredit Wehner and other victims, to the Catholic Church’s inaction to protect children from Maskell despite previous reports of child abuse, to the killing of Cesnik to prevent her from making her knowledge public, to the foot-dragging by the Baltimore police in their investigation into the murder, a disgusting amount of energy went into maintaining the image and power of the Catholic Church.

This is ultimately what the series is about. The “Keepers” were those who kept the church’s dirty secret, allowing for the lives of Jean Wehner, Cathy Cesnik, and countless others to be ruined.

In the face of this evil, however, Wehner refused to allow herself to be silenced. It took her decades, but she found the courage and strength to stare at her powerful oppressor and not back down.

This is the lesson The Keepers gives us today, and at the perfect time.

The film and television industry has found itself in turmoil over the past several months, as they confront an issue that women in every industry have faced for years. The New York Times’ exposé on Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment and assault has opened the floodgates as more and more women within the industry have thrown off the shackles of silence to tear down the barriers that have long protected these predatory men.

Life and art have intersected here. Seeing Jean Wehner’s strength in her testimony is more relevant than ever, as women in Hollywood have followed the example she set years ago. Only this time, they are met with applause and swift action against the accused, not with the disbelief and intimidation that Jean experienced.

But this isn’t enough. Reactionary actions don’t unwind the clock and undo the trauma these women have experienced.

We as a society need to uproot the Keepers among us and prevent these crimes from happening in the first place.

Harvey Weinstein’s deviant behavior has widely been described as a long-running open secret within the industry. So why just now, 36 years after he received his first producer credit, is action finally being taken against him?

Our president openly bragged about sexually assaulting women throughout his campaign, yet we as a nation still elected him to represent our beliefs.

Three women have accused Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore for sexual abuse against them, included one who was 14 at the time, yet many Republicans are still advocating voters elect him over his Democratic counterpart.

Just as with the Father Maskell and the Catholic Church, it’s much easier for those who know to look the other way and look out for themselves. But protecting our financial interests, political control, and religious institutions should never come at the expense of protecting each other.

It’s past time we learned that lesson.

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