Ryan White bit off more than he could chew with the story of Sister Cathy Cesnik's death, documented in the gripping Emmy®-nominated series The Keepers.
In 1969, Sister Cathy Cesnik was murdered. Her body was found in January in a ditch, months after she had mysteriously disappeared. The much-loved nun taught at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland. To this day, the murder remains unsolved, but Ryan White's Emmy-nominated documentary series for Netflix takes us beyond an unsolved murder mystery. The Keepers uncovers a dark and sinister story of sexual abuse that occurred at Keough High School involved priests, namely Father Joseph Maskell, and the Catholic Church.
Ryan White's involvement goes beyond a filmmaker who stumbled across a story. He had a personal connection. One woman's story compelled him to tell the story of Sister Cathy Cesnik's death and peel off the dark secrets of the school. In a series of interviews, White takes us on the journey as he uncovers lies and secrets, speaking to the survivors who suffered abuse at the hands of Maskell.
The Keepers is nominated for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series.
Where did The Keepers all begin for you?
As you see the story was deliberately buried and there wasn't a lot about it out there. My access to The Keepers is that my aunt actually went to the high school, and she was a classmate of Jane Doe. My whole mom's family is a big Catholic family from Baltimore. They grew up in this world of Archbishop Keough. My aunt was Sister Kathy's student and knew that her teacher had been murdered. They always knew the story of Jane Doe, but they didn't know who Jane Doe was. They found out a few years ago that Jane Doe was her friend, and they connected me with Jean just over three years ago. That's where it all began.
If ever there's a personal connection, that's it. So, you take on this story and when you take it on, were you aware of the beast of a story you were taking on?
Absolutely not. My first visit to Baltimore was spent with Jean for four or five hours sitting at her dining room table. I was totally compelled by her from the moment I met her. I had never met her before, and even with my mom and aunt introducing me to the story, I was dubious. After spending five hours with Jean, I was so compelled and knew that I wanted to explore more, and I wanted to be partnered with her. I had no idea about the rabbit hole I was going down, nor how deep, dark, and sinister the story actually was.
I had no idea it would span so many decades and hundreds of characters. It was never intended to be a Netflix series. I was just compelled by one woman and was inspired by her, and it just widened and widened and became something so big.
I can't imagine this as a 2-hour series. How do you structure this?
We shot 750 hours over the three years. We began the project in Summer 2014, and it pre-dated the true crime phenomenon such as Making a Murderer and The Jinx. None of them had been released, so there wasn't really a predecessor for doing something like this.
We had been shooting for a few years by the time they landed, and I was watching the success of those shows from the sidelines. When we were showing The Keepers to the distributors, it was a very good time to be doing so because of the success of those other shows. Thankfully, we found a partner in Netflix who turned out to be the perfect partner in the sense that it's global, and it all comes out at once.
The idea that the story was going to drop at 12:01am on one night versus being paced out over seven weeks, we knew it was much more comfortable for the survivors in our story who were unearthing something painful. That's why we went with that model.
Once Netflix signed on, it was about figuring out the structure because it was such a beast of the story as you've seen.
The first episode is surface and sticks to the murder and the details around it. That was my access point to the story that these two women had gone missing and were found murdered. What really compelled me to do that episode that way was that there was this whole world that lay beneath it, and we don't know it's there and what's coming. That's really what Episodes 2 through 7 explore. Episode 1 looks like a standard disappearance and murder, and then the rest of the series digs and digs and digs into what led to these disappearances.
And it got uglier with every episode.
How many people did you speak to?
We have six survivors featured in the documentary, and we spoke to another 35 that aren't in the documentary but are Maskell-specific survivors. It was a total learning curve for me. I had my producing partner, Jessica Hargrave, with me, and it was such a steep learning curve because we had never worked with such a painful story and never with abuse victims or trauma victims. We used Jean and Teresa as my guide on how to learn on this. The best lesson I learned from Jean was that every survivor survives differently. I think she taught us very quickly that we had to be very perceptive once we entered a room with a survivor, and there's no formula for what to say to them or how they cope with their trauma.
It's tricky, but I'm grateful to Jean and Teresa for always being perceptive in those situations.
How easy was it to get people to trust you and relive that trauma?
Our policy was always that we never pressured a survivor to participate if they didn't want to. We never tried to sell someone to go on camera. We always left that decision to them, and many of them actually chose not to but were still very valuable resources.
It was about being very careful. You knew it was going to be painful. It was difficult for all of them to excavate their past. We only did that in situations where the survivor felt compelled to do that. The clips included all play a part in corroborating each other in different ways. Some of them confided in Cathy. A few of them reported the abuse early and there was a narrative role to each of them.
If they were going through the painful process of being in a documentary, we knew we were going to use it.
The viewing reaction was shock and horror at what had happened. When the show dropped, the Archdiocese of Baltimore reacted. How did you feel about?
I felt disgusted but I wasn't completely surprised. I'd been documenting this for three years and by Jean's side. I witnessed how the institution harmed her and her family her entire life. I shouldn't have been surprised when that was the reaction.
The survivors have been incredibly dignified since it came out and said, "You're not going to harm us anymore. We're going to spend quality time talking to survivors and you're the institution that continues to harm us so we're going to turn a blind eye to you."
That's how we've operated. This is an institution that failed and harmed people repeatedly, so it's not a surprise that they're going to come out in attack mode and try to protect themselves and show no transparency.
The message of The Keepers is that a community can come together and, despite that institution, wrong doing can find justice within that community without the stamp of approval from those institutions. I think that's the power of what these women have done.
I read that they're going to exhume Maskel's body. What went through you when you heard that?
I was shocked because I didn't see that coming at all. I'd worked with the police and there was no mention of that. They did exhume the body, and they did test the DNA. It didn't match the sample they had. It's not surprising. That's not surprising because nobody had the prevailing theory that Maskel's DNA would be at the crime scene.
It's amazing progress that the Baltimore police are finally outwardly taking Joseph Maskel seriously as a suspect. Why they didn't do that in the 90's when he was still alive and Jean was telling them what he did to her will always be a huge question mark over the police's heads. At least now, they're showing us an effort. To exhume a body must involve a lot of bureaucracy, red tape, and costs. I'm sure it's not an easy step to take. I'm sure it's a large one to take. I think it's a good thing they're doing it now.
It's crazy to think he was doing this, sexually molesting and abusing girls his entire life.
He was doing it up until he died. He died under the care of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and he died in their hospital nursing homes. They can try to distance themselves all they want, but he was under their care the entire time raping children.
The Keepers streams on Netflix