Note: This post contains details regarding sexual abuse.
I flew to Baltimore in the late summer of 2014. The intent was to meet a mystery woman – up until then, known for decades only as “Jane Doe” – whom my mom had recently discovered was a family friend. They had grown up in the same working class, Catholic neighborhood of Baltimore. As I understood it from my mom, Jane Doe had a seemingly unbelievable story from her past.
Jane Doe was habitually abused by the head priest, Father Maskell, at her Catholic high school in the late 1960’s. She confided in a young nun at the school named Sister Cathy who was trying to do something to stop the abuse. Then, in a scene seemingly ripped out of a horror film, Jane Doe was taken by Father Maskell to see Sister Cathy’s body in a field and told, “See what happens when you say bad things about people?”
For all the silencing she’d suffered throughout her life, if she wanted to finally tell her story in-depth, I wanted to be her partner in unburying these secrets.
Jane Doe, it turns out, is Jean Wehner. I had never met Jean before our first five-hour conversation at her dining room table, and I was admittedly skeptical when I arrived. But I left that conversation nauseated, exhausted, and enthralled ― in the hallway before we even got to the elevator, my producer and I said to each other, “We have to do this.” Jean was a credible person with a completely incredible experience. She was raw and brutally honest and uncensored; I was captivated by her. For all the silencing she’d suffered throughout her life, if she wanted to finally tell her story in-depth, I wanted to be her partner in unburying these secrets.
Three years later, we have finished “The Keepers,” a seven-part docu-series currently streaming on Netflix. Jean and Sister Cathy are the central figures: two women connected by a web of secrets, pain, and suffering. One was murdered at 26 years old; one is still alive today at 63 by sheer resilience and inner strength. There is a dramatic murder mystery at the core of”The Keepers,” and in today’s true crime zeitgeist I knew that would be a hook for audiences. But what kept us coming back to Baltimore for three years of filming is what lies beneath Sister Cathy’s murder – a web of child sex abuse that most likely led to the murder of Jean’s protector.
I learned early on in the filming that the terminology for adults who were abused as children is “survivors,” not “victims,” and “The Keepers” truly is a survival story of some of the bravest people I have ever met. In addition to Jean, there are five other Maskell survivors featured in “The Keepers” who detail their horrific abuse at his hands. In our research and three years of work in Baltimore, we encountered an additional 35 Maskell survivors who helped us understand his diabolical path of destruction. By confronting their painful pasts, they uncovered the failings of church and state that allowed Maskell and his abuse network to live freely and never be brought to justice. And sadly, even more Maskell survivors have come out of the woodwork since the series began airing, more people realizing that they were not the only one. It feels powerful that these survivors are finally finding a community that believes them after so many decades of silence.
Maskell survivors are finally finding a community that believes them after so many decades of silence.
But what keeps me up at night right now are the people I’m hearing from that have no relation to Father Maskell at all. A few days after “The Keepers” began streaming, I finally looked at my Facebook inbox. I had expected a flurry of messages with various pieces of information – both real and fake – about the murder. And, indeed, those messages were there in abundance. But what I did not predict was that the number of survivors’ stories from all over the world would far outweigh the investigation tips. Australia, Brazil, and Senegal. Men, women, and children. Clergy abuse, police abuse, and family abuse. Some people writing about their abuse for the first time, others detailing how they’ve spent decades fighting for justice. I was nauseated by the number of responses from people I will never know, and I was especially gutted by the ones asking me if I would be interested in coming to their part of the world to document their own story. I had been so tunneled in the Maskell story for the last three years and finishing “The Keepers” that I hadn’t fully processed the world outside, and how many other people had suffered such horrible experiences. I became overcome with emotion and physically ill reading the messages.
I hope “The Keepers” leads to answers about who killed Sister Cathy. I believe someone can still be brought to justice for her brutal murder – and her family deserves that. But I hope the lasting legacy of Sister Cathy can come through the voice of Jean Wehner and the other countless survivors who are speaking their truth. Sister Cathy was protecting children – and in a world where so many children have been harmed by individuals and the systems that shield them – we owe it to the survivors to listen. We owe it to Sister Cathy.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.