Friday, July 28, 2017

Beyond Jet Lag: The Keepers is the Story of Three Deaths, Not Two

One of the first questions people ask me about my three weeks in Jerusalem is, "Was it safe?" I asked the very same question to nearly everyone I know who has been to Israel. I was, however, much more afraid of something else....a concern worth having, for it affects so many people in different ways: jet lag. 
Why jet lag? I came to Israel to study for 3 weeks with other educators at Yad Vashem, Israel Holocaust Memorial Museum and this part of the Middle East is 10 hours ahead of Pacific Daylight Time. I wanted to be a good student, to represent my school community well, to make the most of my time in the Holy Land; I was afraid jet lag would get in the way.  I'll leave it to the experts to advise you on how to best "beat" it, but, I found my own answer in The Netflix TV Series: "The Keepers."

When I travel, I take a stack of magazines with me. I aim to leave as many on the plane as I can—meaning I have plowed through them and what they have to offer. However, I don't leave the entire periodical beyond. No, I rip out articles (even though I can still find them on line) for class, for writing, for this very blog. One such article, "In Netflix's 'The Keepers,' a nun's unsolved murder tears apart a Catholic community," prompted me to check it out. I did and a near binge watching experience in my hotel room followed. If you have seen this Netflix original, you might understand.
Founded in 1965, Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore seemed like the ideal place for post-Vatican II optimism to blossom. The School Sisters of Notre Dame ran the all-girls school with a strict sense of order, but students were excited and proud to be there. It was a place of empowerment and hope, where the phrase “Women of a New Age” was not merely a line in the school song but a rallying cry. 
“It was supposed to be women reaching their full potential,” one graduate says. “It was supposed to be a safe place.” Behind the campy black-and-white yearbook photos of laughing students carrying piles of books and racing up stairways brewed a campus scandal and a horrifying crime. Sister Cathy Cesnik, one of the most beloved teachers in the school, went missing one night in 1969. When her body was found two months later in a garbage dump, the students and community were torn apart. The case remains unsolved.
As a Nancy Drew fan, a faithful Catholic who had committed my life to Catholic education, a person who lived close enough to Baltimore to have a sense of its culture and Catholicism and a traveler wide awake with jet lag at 1:0o a.m. I was hooked. 
Abbie and Gemma
I too was drawn to the beautiful spirit of Sister Cathy Cesnick, SSND. I was impressed by the chutzpah and tenacity of "Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two of Sister Cathy's former students turn amateur muckrakers." Though they "emerge as the heroes of the series," so do Jane Doe and Jane Roe, two women who had the courage to speak out against the abuse by Father Maskell.

I do not know how someone unfamiliar sex abuse crisis in the Church might view this program. Unfortunately, it is a topic I have studied in sad and great detail (watching "Spotlight" does not qualify). I have read the John Jay Report as well as lengthy articles by survivors and bipartisan reporters, but "The Keepers" gave faces to the names and stories beyond the numbers. To me, Church has always extended beyond the confines of the parish and those who are clergy. Sister Cathy is Church, and so is who taught catechism and offered spiritual direction in spite of the abuse. For others, these testimonies might be too much.
One of the survivors, Jean.

In episode 7, Abbie Schaub shares that Seton-Keough high school would be closing its doors at the conclusion of the 2017 school year. While I won't spoil the ending, I would like to offer one insight I still hold as the program came to a close and my jet lag lessened. 

"The Keepers" begins with a report on the death of two women: Cathy Cesnik and Joyce Maleki, but I believe it concludes with another. The closing of a Catholic school is also a death. When the doors of our campuses are shut, the signs are taken down, the statues removed and the halls are left empty—truly—there is a loss. 

I write about "The Keepers" in Sports and Spirituality because closing Seton-Keough or any Catholic school ends the traditions, practices, and gifts of a given community. Seton-Keough carries wounds, deep ones, in that too many young women were abused by the hands of those who should offer to heal. One case is one too many. I do not want to make light of any person who was subjected to sexual assault. The Church both capital "C" and lower "c" must continue to seek forgiveness and reconciliation for these sins. A zero tolerance policy is non-negotiable.

But Seton-Keough is much more than its failings and this tragedy. Before its closure, it was one of the most diverse Catholic girls' schools in the Archdiocese. In 2012 alone, five of their twelve sports teams captured championships in their league. To honor Meghan Puls, a three-sport student athlete who was killed in a car accident, SK hung her jersey in their gym and her number adorned the scoreboard. For Meghan's friends and family, her legacy will live on but other three sport-athletes in other schools will not learn about her life. And most impressively, the numerous testimonials given throughout the series feature SK graduates. These women truly embody what the school set out to form when it opened its doors in 1965. In spite of the abuse, these women have persevered and paved a path for others with a similar fate may follow, God willing.
Nothing can bring back the dreams deferred and the lives lost by the "stomach-turning, anger inducing stories of sexual assault." America magazine's review had it right, I did wonder several times how this could be possible. The viewer will see the power that evil has as well as the corruption in the Church and among the Baltimore police. But they will also get a glimpse many sacraments—visible signs of God's invisible grace. Indeed Jean's husband, Sister Cathy, and many other alumnae from Seton Keogh who emerge as lights in the darkness; they are sacraments for all to receive. 

When Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis visited the United States, they each met with abuse survivors. Their calendars allotted for a given, and generous amount of time to listen and pray with them and for them. Both men extended their meetings, which must have been heavy and from what I read, they cried with them too. I don't know if they met anyone from Seton Keough, but through this series, anyone can gain a sense of who they are and what made them special. Though the doors of SK have closed, I hope that spirit lives on. 

I didn't need jet lag to appreciate their fortitude, grace and spirit, but if you find yourself crossing a few time zones, you know what to watch....and who to pray for. 

Photo Credits
Gemma and Abbie

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