All episodes directed by: Ryan White
I finished watching this Netflix limited series documentary on Sunday and three days later I am still angry, not at the show, mind you, but at the issues raised by the series. Once again, after Making a Murderer, Netflix has been able to find a project that raises awareness on issues of coverups and corruption that will anger anyone who dedicates their time to watching the seven hour-long episodes that make up this show. But patience will be needed, time (I couldn’t really binge it, and it took my fiancé and I three weeks to watch it all), and probably a stiff drink.
The story opens with the 1969 murder of a nun in Baltimore named Cathy Cesnik. The first episode traces her movements and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death. The show, though, gives way pretty quickly to the troubling occurrences that took place at the school the nun taught in, an all girl Baltimore school called Archbishop Keough High School, and the unrelenting violent sexual abuse of many pupils at the hands of several male members of the faculty, especially a priest named Joseph Maskell. Not easy topics to digest, so overwhelming in fact that in us it either provoked fits of anger or uncontrollable crying.
The most interesting aspect of this show is the fact that everyone involved is either dead or elderly. We are discussing events that involved minors at the time, but the youngest people on camera now are in their sixties. This adds a very interesting layer to the narrative, as we see the effects that abuse and violence have on an entire life, with a story that showcases how one may go on with life, have a career and a family, but never be able to shake off the effects this type of trauma may have, especially when the culprits have never been brought to justice.
I hope this is not seen as a spoiler, but we don’t find out who murderer Sister Cathy, the one person who seemed to be looking out for the girls, and who probably died because she knew about the abuse and was preparing to do something about it. Several suspects are offered to the public, but no final outcome takes place. As far as the abusers and criminals involved in the sexual abuse, they’re all dead, so nobody is forced to confront the accusers or face the consequences for their actions. But this story is so much more complex than that. Much like the films Spotlight, Philomena, and The Magdalene Sisters or the documentary Deliver Us from Evil, this story wants to shed light on the ways in which powerful institutions like the Catholic Church choose to protect themselves instead of admitting faults and persecuting the bad apples in its midst. It’s not anti-Catholic per se, but it could be interpreted that way. Mostly it’s appalling that a religious institution would be more concerned with protecting its image, the abusers within, and its financial bottom line, rather than be a source of good in the world. Something wrong has taken place, and the corruption and instinct to erase and censure all criticisms have returned the church to the philosophical environment that brought upon the Reformation. It’s hard to watch this show and not be angry at the church, the government, and the police. It’s hard to not have a bias against these institutions that chose the criminals over the victims, that failed Sister Cathy and the young girls who were molested, that turned a blind eye to horrific and unspeakable crimes.
But this documentary series gives a voice to the victims, and we see some respite and forms of healing when secrets are brought to light. I am glad this show exists and that this story has been told. Would I prefer if there were some resolution? Of course. But that is not always provided in life. Let’s still hear these people’s stories and try to do better by them, and the countless other victims out there whose stories have yet to be told or are still unknown by anyone else. The keepers of the crimes they’ve committed, those who do evil, become less and less powerful the more we speak up and speak out against them. So let’s speak up. Let’s not be quiet anymore. For the sake of all that is good and holy, lives are at stake and sin should not be protected or erased ever again.