It was the year 2015 when a nonchalantly publicized movie called “Spotlight” was strongly justifying its name by stealing the spotlight from some of the biggest fan favourites like Birdman and Whiplash from the spectacular race to the Best Picture Oscar. Despite sweeping almost all major categories, Birdman was ultimately defeated by Spotlight in the Best Picture category.
While the former was a masterpiece of story-telling and provided a transcendental cinematic experience, it was the stark social implication of Spotlight’s subject which elevated it above the rest. This true-story adaptation revolves around a group of vivacious journalists from the Boston Globe who run a special called Spotlight whose mission is to conduct investigative reporting to bring forth cases which usually didn’t reach the public eye due to rampant red-tape or corruption, somewhat like the Millenium team from Steig Larsson’s genre-defining trilogy The Girl with a Dragon tattoo. Through untiring research against all odds, the team blows open one of the most scandalous cases in Boston’s history wherein a local church is charged with the heinous crime of child molestation. What starts with the pursuit of the acts perpetrated by a single priest, soon uncovers a devastating pattern of similar cases against several priests across the state of Massachusetts. This was in 2001-02…
But this isn’t the story we are here for. Spotlight merely serves as a premise to a true incident which shook a small community in Baltimore almost thirty years before the Boston controversy. Netflix’s new Documentary series The Keepers delves deep into the dark façade of an idyllic town where the brutal murder of a nun – Sister Cathy Cesnik – has remained unsolved since the late 60s. 25-year old Catherine Cesnik was one of the most beloved patrons in the all-girls Keough Convent School. Forgotten for 20 years, the case is reopened as a former Keough student, who had remained anonymous for all that time, comes forward with some damning allegations against Priests who presided over the School administration. Once the wall was broken, more stories started to emerge from other former students of the school – stories about sexual abuse metted out to the teenage girl students on the pretext of religious absolution. The priests would single out their victims by going through their files and choose girls who had been through some kind of child-abuse. They would use their traumatic past and their vulnerability against them to satisfy their perverted needs.
The witness Jean Hargadon’s case was formally opened in court with the charges against the Archbishop Keough, based on the terms of repressed memory recalled which could serve as potential testimony against the School’s Chaplain George Maskell. What ensued was an ugly and iconoclastic battle to cover-up and uphold the Church’s reputation by forcibly pushing to dismiss all allegations from the victim(s). Disheartened by the lack of support from the law, the victim’s family were left incapacitated while the perpetrators were allowed to walk free and were assigned church parishes in other communities. Free to walk among children. The grotesqueness and injustice of it all hits you hard as you watch a religious institution weild its power over common people bludgeoning them into despair. What couldn’t be done through conventional means was taken up as a mission by other former students of the School. Abbie and Gemma started a Facebook page – Justice for Cathy Cesnik hoping to encourage other people with information to come forward and help them fight. The duo traced down the events of the day of the murder from available witness accounts and painstakingly pieced together the what and who of the horrid sequence uncovering the story layer by layer.
Watching Jean’s traumatic story unfold, something so destructive that she had forced her mind to suppress it for twenty long years, gives you a tiny glimpse into the mind of a victim and what sexual abuse of any kind does to them. Several times she was asked how she could keep it a secret for so long or if she enjoyed it. But the only thing she knew was that if she kept her mouth shut, her family would be safe, she would be safe. The people who were behind this were powerful people. They were people who held respectable positions in society, people who represented god.
You cannot help but draw parallels between this story and the scandal that threatened to bring down one of the most influential content creators in the Indian Web space. When TVF’s CEO and Co-founder Arunabh Kumar was charged with sexual harassment, the whole nation was shocked. What started as an anonymous article in the social media portal Medium, turned into a “viral fever” bringing forth an ugly, diseased face of one of the most beloved startups in India. As the reactions grew more and more divisive, accounts of other women who had had a similar experience while working with Kumar started pouring in. The same argument was being used by the naysayers here – Why was this not reported the moment it happened ? Why did they wait for someone to raise a voice ? Logically, it might feel like the most suitable thing to do but we don’t realise how an incident like this affects the psyché of a person. As the initial shock of the personal attack starts to wane, it gives rise to a spate of self-loathing which cannot be shared even with the best of friends. Your very skin seems to have caught a disease which would contaminate you for the rest of your life. It’s not a surprise that many victims find it their only recourse to walk on a self-destructive path of drugs, alcohol or even suicide. Many like Jean suppress their traumatic experiences so deep into their minds that a part of their memories are gone and they live like a hollow shell of themselves. It’s not proven at this point of time if Kumar is indeed guilty but the point I am trying to make here is, we dismiss sexual offences far too often and far too easily, especially when they have been raised against a popular individual. We are so stricken by the ‘Halo effect’ that we feel that these people are infallible. Well, the fact of the matter is that people are complex. You may seem to know a person for years and still find them surprising you. As the Joker would say – People just need one bad day to turn to the dark side. One bad day is all it takes. That is a profound statement coming from a comic book character that holds perfectly true in our lives.
The Keepers is not just the story of Sister Cathy who had stumbled onto a dark secret and was punished for standing upto it. It is also about our women who are hiding sexual abuse, domestic violence and marital rape behind their smiles. They have inadvertently become ‘keepers’ of the injustice we serve onto them. A society which cannot protect its women, a society which holds religion higher than basic human rights doesn’t deserve to be called a society. If Dante was ever to draw an analogy with his vision of the purgatory and hell, this would be it…
Disclaimers: The images used in this post are the sole property of the makers of this Documentary and Google images. They are not owned by us in any form whatsoever.