There is a sameness in the structure and tone of true crime documentaries. They often start with the revelation of a horrible crime, usually committed by a man, against a woman (or several). Then the rest of the movie or show focuses on the man (or men) who committed the crime. Rarely are the female victims the center of the story. Instead, the focus is given to the criminals, taking great lengths to explore their life-stories and psyches, as if it’s more fascinating than the stories are tragic.
The Netflix docuseries, The Keepers, which premiered in 2017, centers on a 1969 unsolved murder of a nun and high-school teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik. Two of Cesnik’s former students, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, now in their 60s, had her as a teacher at their Catholic high school the year she was murdered. Hoskins and Schaub never felt closure over the mysterious death of their favorite teacher, and the documentary follows these women as they become amateur detectives, investigating suspects, cover-ups, and abuse.
Cesnik was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Lawrenceville. After becoming a nun, she moved to Baltimore to teach and became a favorite amongst female students, one of whom confided to her about sexual abuse she was enduring at the hands of a priest. Cesnik’s knowledge of the abuse is believed to be one of the reasons she was murdered. Her body was discovered two months after her disappearance and is now buried in Sharpsburg.
The series unfolds slowly, as Hoskins and Schaub follow leads they find on Facebook, in public files, from journalists who originally covered the case. They don’t get a confession, or even break new ground, but there is a kind of closure that comes from dragging these ugly secrets into the light. And they don’t do it for the show — the investigation started long before then. They want answers because they care.
In all that the series investigates, at the center is always the women: the murder victims, the abuse victims, the investigators, and the family. A year after its release, the series has only become more relevant.
Once again, communities, including Pittsburgh, are reeling from revelations of decades-long abuse in Catholic Churches. And as allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against men in power continue to pile up in the wave of the #MeToo movement, there is always doubt on why the victims didn’t come forward earlier, and how they could possibly remember details from so long ago.
At the series’ end, The Keepers showcases the legislative fight in Maryland to get the statute of limitations extended, because victims often take years to process their trauma. The church, arguing against the extension, claims the more time victims have to come forward, the longer they have to forget details. But as is made clear by every victim or witness of trauma, they never forget.
Follow staff writer Hannah Lynn on Twitter @hanfranny