You really ought to see “The Keepers.” It will scare the hell out of you — especially if you’re a Catholic. The Netflix docuseries in seven parts tells the story of an unsolved murder of a young Catholic nun in Baltimore. The apparent perps were two Catholic priests.
I watched the film with one of my sisters who had attended Catholic schools for 12 years. “The Keepers” became our point of discussion for our two days together.
Its portrayal of the cynical use of religion to exploit innocent children had us discussing Catholic schools, the pedophilia scandal, confession, outdated church teachings in general — and especially the exclusion of women from church leadership.
We found ourselves sympathizing with those (including close friends and relatives) who have left the church as irredeemably corrupt.
No wonder, we agreed, “former Catholics” represent the second largest religious “denomination” in the country (with 22.8 million), behind members of the official Catholic church at 68.1 million.
“The Keepers” investigates the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a high school English teacher, who disappeared shortly after confronting authorities about widespread sexual abuse at the prestigious Keough Girls’ High School in Baltimore.
Two chaplains there used the confessional to identify young females who would be vulnerable to their sexual depredations. Eventually they ended up sharing their victims with school outsiders, including police officials.
The young women were so traumatized by the priests’ threats involving the girls’ families and the eternal damnation of their souls, that they kept silent for years.
Finally, however, two of Sister Cathy’s former students (now in their 60s) decided to solve her murder. Their relentless efforts resulted in more than 50 women coming forward with their shocking tales that brought to light not only cover-ups by the Baltimore archdiocese, but that implicated the city’s police department as well.
For one thing, the story sheds light on why Catholics have voted with their feet against confession. For all practical purposes, they’ve stopped believing in it — and largely in many of the “mortal sins” they were told would send them to hell — like practicing contraception or getting a divorce.
What I’m saying is that the last 50 years have witnessed a tremendous change in faith — at least among Catholics. Our old faith has gone the way of saints Christopher and Philomena and “limbo,” all of which have been officially decertified since the great reform council, Vatican II (1962-65).
But, despite the heroic efforts of Pope Francis, “The Keepers” reminds us that the reformation remains incomplete. The church is still generally irrelevant to the real issues of our day.
That’s why Catholics can support Republicans, who (in view of their climate change denial) have been identified by Noam Chomsky as the “most dangerous organization in the history of the world.” In general, Republican Catholics support unending wars without a whimper, and largely ignore the structural causes of poverty and hunger.
It’s hard to imagine such immobility if the reforms of Vatican II had followed their promised trajectory. That would have led to a church committed to peace, environmental protection and eliminating the causes of poverty. It would have led to a priesthood open to women.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine the type of abuse portrayed in “The Keepers” if women like Cathy Cesnik had been in charge instead of the misogynistic priests who were probably responsible for her murder.
Reach Mike Rivage-Seul, retired Berea College professor and former priest, at Mike_Rivage-Seul @berea.edu.