PEOPLE is exclusively premiering The Keepers‘ first trailer, ahead of its May 19 premiere, and spoke to White, the director, in his first interview about the show.
“This one fell in my lap,” he says, explaining that his mom is from a large Catholic family in Baltimore, and his aunt’s favorite teacher at her Catholic high school was a 26-year-old nun named Sister Catherine “Cathy” Cesnik, who taught her English in the 10th grade.
Cesnik vanished in 1969. Her body was found two months later — but her death was never solved.
“That alone was devastating for my aunt and kind of shaped the trajectory of her life,” White says. “It was a story I had never heard about.”
Cesnik’s disappearance and killing was the most visible entry point into The Keepers, White says, and she is a pivotal part of the series and one of its leads. But the “lynchpin,” he says, was Jean Wehner, “a really brave woman who’s been trying to tell this story for decades and has been silenced.”
For years, Wehner was known in Baltimore only as “Jane Doe,” after she and “Jane Roe” accused the chaplain of their all-girls Catholic high school, Father Joseph Maskell, of repeatedly raping them when they were students.
At the time, Cesnik was an instructor at their school, though she moved to another school the fall before she died.
Wehner and “Jane Roe,” who later revealed she was Teresa Lancaster, have gone public in recent years — after Maskell’s death in 2001 — and they agreed to participate in White’s docuseries.
It turned out White’s family actually knew Wehner, too. And so, three years ago, White flew to Baltimore to meet with her, knowing that he would only make the documentary with her cooperation.
“I just knew with Jean, we were doing something so painful, so traumatic. … I felt a huge responsibility, a bigger responsibility than I ever have,” he says.
“This is not just a trauma victim,” he continues. “This is a person whose story has been deliberately buried, and she’s had to live with that her entire life.”
What White didn’t realize, he now says, is how deep the story ran.
‘This Really Horrific Web’
The Keepers is a docuseries about Sister Cathy Cesnik, a beloved young nun in Baltimore, and what may have happened to her — and what she knew — when she died.
More broadly, and more darkly, White tells PEOPLE the series is about a network of child sexual abuse survivors and “this really horrific web” of adults who abused them in Baltimore.
Multiple people allege that, at the center of that web, was Father Maskell, a priest at Cesnik’s school who had “unbelievable power” and connections in the city, White says.
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The church has acknowledged Maskell was “credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors,” the Huffington Post reported in 2015 (though he denied the initial accusations in 1994, according to the Baltimore Sun). Several settlements were later paid out to his accusers, the Sun reported in 2016.
“This is a story of accountability and, at best, dozens of people and institutions dropped the ball and didn’t protect children and adults,” White says.
“At worst, dozens of people and institutions covered things up so it could never be brought to light or were directly involved in crimes.”
White describes Maskell as a “sociopath” who used drugs, hypnosis and psychological manipulation, among other tactics, on those he abused. Cesnik, he says, may have been one of the few adults who tried to do something about it.
She “was trying to help multiple people” before she died, he says.
‘This Murder Can Be Solved’
Among The Keepers‘ most important participants, according to White, are Wehner, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub — two former students of Cesnik’s who run a grassroots Facebook group about the case — as well as Cesnik’s sister, Marilyn, who took “the torch in a lot of ways” in solving Cesnik’s death.
“So much of our story focuses on the harm done to children when they’re sexually abused and the people who survived that and are still around today, or the people that didn’t survive that,” White says.
“A lot of people got away with that and a lot of people died freed adults, because the story is 45 years old,” he says. “But there are people still alive who I do believe need to be held accountable.”
He’s clear that their goal was never to answer the question of Cesnik’s killing, but “I finished this project thinking this murder can be solved.”
White salutes the “incredibly brave” abuse survivors and others who agreed to participate.
He says it was one such survivor who gave the series its title, when she used “keeper” in an interview to refer to the legacy of secrecy and shame so often created by abuse. As in, “We are the keepers.”
White, who has directed documentaries about The Beatles’ secretary, same-sex marriage and Serena Williams, says the Netflix model is a “very exciting way” to immediately tell the story to a mass audience.
When The Keepers is released in May, it will go global all at once. For the victims, it will bring both pain and relief — like a bandage being ripped off.
“We’d always say to each other, ‘The least we can do is bring these stories to light,’ ” White says. “Because they’re the ones who lived it, and they lived in darkness their whole lives.”
“I’m proud of it and I’m glad that we’re finished, but it doesn’t change what happened,” he says. “If some good can come of bringing it to light, and I hope it can, then I’ll be very fulfilled.”
The Keepers will be released in full on May 19 on Netflix.