May 29, 2017


Netflix's truth-is-stranger-than-fiction docuseries, "The Keepers" (unofficial subtitle: "Who Killed Sister Cathy?") is beyond disturbing. Just when you thought you'd heard some of the worst, most sordid stories of the clergy sex abuse scandal, another multi-pronged, intricate, twisted tale of predatory characters and those who shielded them emerges in all its sickening ignominy.


But this time, there's a beautiful-in-every-way young nun involved, deeply involved. So involved, in fact, that she's (coincidentally?) murdered in cold blood and her body dumped in the woods--as a warning to never break the silence, never tell tales out of school (literally)? The impunity with which pedophiles, perverts, sexual deviants, sadists and life-destroyers operated in the Catholic Church virtually unchecked until 2002 is as appalling as it is mind-boggling.


"The Keepers" chronicles the reign of terror of a particularly evil Fr. Joseph Maskell (who had studied psychology himself) and a priest associate, Fr. Neil Magnus, along with several non-clerical co-abusers in Baltimore, Maryland--the primatial see of the Catholic Church in the United States. His brother was a police officer and Fr. Maskell made sure to become well known to the local police force. He couldn't really be called "charismatic" as many priest-abusers were, but was known for his intelligence and energetic civic involvement, as well as his love of guns. When he took a position as a priest-counselor at a prestigious all-girls Catholic high school, he performed the most heinous sexual crimes right in his out-of-the-way office on the grounds. When evil knows its protected? It gets very, very bold.


To understand how so many young women (and others) could have kept silent for so long--not even talking to their parents, each other, the nuns that taught them (some nuns at least seemed to know something was wrong but chose to either live in denial or look the other way and not rock the boat), you need to understand that this is normal for trauma victims. You also need to understand the kind of pedestal that priests were put on for the better part of the 20th century in America. They were sacred authorities, super-human, not like the rest of us, automatically virtuous and displaying holiness of life in everything they said and did, never wrong, beyond reproach, unquestioned, esteemed. No one dared confront or challenge them. It was unthinkable. It would be like confronting or challenging God's very representative. Their power was absolute. Much of Maskell's abuse was heinously "spiritualized" as a kind of penance. Break down a young person's already fragile self-esteem and join that to a religious guilt dimension? You've got 'em.

Many abusive clergy (or how I like to think about it: "pedophiles/psychopaths who got themselves ordained") used textbook grooming, conditioning, threats and criminal genius, toxically coupled with the entrenched power and influence of the mighty Catholic Church, with its reaches deep into people's strongest religious beliefs, families, ethnic cultures, faith practices, memories, neighborhoods, schooling, upbringing and formation.

There was also a kind of homogenous social conformism in society at this time, as well (remember that concurrent to the Swinging 60's was Camelot): a kind of unhealthy, passive obeisance to any kind of authority or authority figures.


I thank God every day that my dear, devout Irish Catholic father was also a woke, free-thinking, shrewd, egalitarian, intelligent, worldly, self-made New England businessman who brooked no guff from anyone, even those on pedestals. We were never, ever taught--and he didn't model--any special treatment for priests. My father would say of anyone who tried putting on airs: "they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else." In his younger years he had a beloved long-time golf partner, Monsignor Sheridan, of whom he spoke often and fondly. We were casually acquainted with the priests at various parishes (we were parish-hoppers)--but that's about it. My father had had run-ins with various clergymen through the years--over their demands for money and other slights (which could have given him plenty of excuses to leave the Church), but my father believed the Catholic Church was the Church of Jesus Christ and no ungracious human shepherd was going to send him packing. I always sensed a certain unspoken prudence and reserve in my father when it came to the church (little "c").


One of the worst-abused students from the 1960's, Jean Hargadon Wehner, came forth in the 1990's--after horrifying repressed memories began to surface and give her no peace. In all innocence, good will, honesty, courage and uprightness, she reported it to the Church. The Archdiocese of Baltimore made her believe that she was the first to come forth with a report of abuse (she wasn't). A team of crack lawyers were assembled and arrayed against her to successfully stonewall. And very sadly, the otherwise astute head psychiatrist at John Hopkins, Dr. Paul McHugh, was an expert witness in her case against the validity of repressed memories--even ridiculing with levity the very concept. We know much more now--even from the 90's--about how repressed memories actually legitimately work.

So where does the murdered Sr. Cathy Cesnik, SSND, come in? When she was murdered in 1969, and her body found two months later, no one had any clue why anyone would target this beloved, spunky and innovative, twenty-six-year-old teacher from Archbishop Keough High School (where Maskell committed his atrocities with his cronies). It was chalked up to randomness, especially when, four days later, a twenty-year-old woman, Joyce Helen Malecki, was murdered close by in similar fashion--a second unsolved crime. (Was the killer trying to make Sr. Cathy's death look like the work of a serial killer? Did the killer do it for kicks--because they got the taste for homicide? The second one's always easier? To see if they could get away with two?)

It was only when the sexual abuse at Sr. Cathy's school came to light in the 90's that a motive for her murder surfaced--was she going to expose Fr. Maskell? Abused students had begun to confide in her and she promised that she would make the abuse stop. DNA evidence does not put Maskell at the scene(s) of the crime, but several witnesses in the documentary posit other likely suspects who may have been doing his bidding (blackmail? payoffs?) 

The police work at the time? Shoddy at best. Sr. Cathy's murder wasn't even considered foul play for quite some time--even when her car was found crazily parked with evidence of a chaotic event inside and outside of the vehicle. Other potentially damning evidence disappeared. Survivors claim they were also abused by police in uniform, under the auspices of Fr. Maskell.


Now, if you think this series is based on the evidence of a few survivors and one zealous documentarian, you are sadly mistaken. Time is the great discloser. The birds start singing. The puzzle pieces start to fit together. Now-white-haired journalists from 1969 who were shut down when they got too close to the truth--remember all the frustrating details as if it were yesterday. Kids who witnessed grownups talking (or worse) are adults now with corroborating stories to tell (even though they hadn't heard each other's stories). 

But the two real heroines of this documentary are two former students of Sr. Cathy who were not abused and had no idea what was going on right under the roof of their alma mater. (One was inspired to become a teacher herself by the example of Sr. Cathy.) These two determined ladies, Gemma and Abbie, in their retirement, decided to do their own sleuthing (the filmmaker came calling later in the game). They began pouring over microfiche, contacting anyone who knew anything about the school, the priest, Sr. Cathy, Joyce, even the police on the cases. These two dogged detectives got very, very far on their own.


"The Keepers" (like "Spotlight") appropriately and justly focuses on the survivors, not the incredibly intriguing "Who Killed Sr. Cathy" component: macabre, and all-important as it is. You will love Sr. Cathy, who is, perhaps, a true saint and martyr. And she wasn't posthumously canonized by wistful, dreamy remembrances. Her students and her family knew she was great, even before she was cut down in the prime of life--as a sacrificial lamb, it seems. I hope I have even a fraction of this woman's guts.

You will also love Jean--a very average woman, with no particular resources or inner reserves of strength to have endured the awful, awful hand that life dealt her. But she was blessed with a large, close family (siblings) and a phenomenal husband and children that gave her all the love she needed to face down the institutional evil that made her suffer and bear the brunt of its flagrant abuses and subsequent intransigent injustice.


It's difficult to comment on a series this long--I have so much more to say--but I think I've hit the salient points. Should you watch it? Many of my friends have said they just couldn't stomach it after just the first two episodes. They could handle neither the lurid, detailed descriptions by survivors of the grotesque abuses (if you want just a sample: ) nor the murder of Sr. Cathy. 

I watched the entire series in order to understand, in order to honor the suffering of the survivors and HEAR THEIR STORY. It's no good to finally, finally, finally GET TO TELL YOUR STORY IF NO ONE LISTENS.


Here's my movie review of "Spotlight" (also a fine work) where I give some historical background to the clergy sex abuse scandal, as well as some pointers on how we can attempt to assure for the future: NEVER AGAIN.


On behalf of all the good guys, the majority of priests, the clergy sex abuse scandal is not part and parcel of the structure of the priesthood or celibacy (read my "Spotlight" review)! Tragically, our priests, young and old, now have a stigma attached to their "profession." This need not be. In the USA, you're innocent till proven guilty, and there's no reason to look askance at any priest. Just take a page from my Dad's playbook: "we're all human." Or my own playbook: "put nothing past no one." I remember in 2002, bunches of priests, horrified by the revelations (not all priests were privvy to the horrors going on within their own dioceses) began doing some forms of public and private penance. Let's pray for our priests. We love them and we need them.


A friend of mine said of the clergy sex abuse scandal: "It's Satan trying to take the Church down." To which I replied: "And the Church trying to take the Church down." When a male victim of Maskell was asked by the Archdiocese of Baltimore what he wanted when he came forward (he was sarcastically offered a boat), he replied: "For the Church to do the right thing."


May 19, 2017


Where's Sr. Helena?

People have been asking for years how they can track where I'm traveling to/speaking at.

So, here you go!

Just scroll down to the events:

(To return to this blogpost for updates, just Google: "Where's Sister Helena?")


The small film, "Gifted" (small in scope, feel, settings, and in its pint-sized protagonist) is delightful, well-crafted and asks the question of what it really means to be a successful human being, what it really means to be "gifted."

Mary, a seven-year-old math prodigy like her mother (who committed suicide) has been raised by her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), from infancy. We have an inkling that Frank might also be highly intelligent in his own right (he uses a lot of big words)--and we find out later that he used to be a philosophy professor, but now fixes boats and lives in a very modest housing complex with Mary and their one-eyed cat, Fred. However, the arrangement is unofficial and hasn't been ratified in the court system. Frank is homeschooling her because she's too smart for school, and can be rude and impatient with her peers. Roberta (Octavia Spencer) is the earth mother landlady whom Mary loves and who helps her to be just a little girl, have fun, and be warm and huggy. But Frank decides it's time for Mary to go to a regular school, so Mary reluctantly trundles off to the big yellow school bus. Roberta warns Frank that the shaky legal status of he and his niece could now easily be exposed and he could lose Mary. Frank doesn't seem too concerned. Everyone at school assumes he's Mary's dad, and he lets them.


Needless to say, Mary acts up and acts out on her very first day. She is bored silly and becomes sarcastic with her teacher, Bonnie (the squeaky-voiced Jenny Slate who gives a nuanced performance), and her fellow students. Bonnie practically stumbles across the fact that Mary is a genius. When Mary claims the little math problems she's given in class are "easy," her teacher throws an equation at her that no first-grader could pull off. (We know where this is deliciously going.) Mary does. Bonnie tries something harder. Mary does it in her head. The next, even harder problem that Mary does in her head, Bonnie needs a calculator for.

The tale starts off with heavy-handed exposition and super-stylized mis-en-scenes, but then relaxes into a more standard, almost made-for-TV dramatic milieu. But it's a comfortable style, and well-suited to this as-yet-unknown little girl whom we know will not have the luxury of remaining anonymous much longer.


Although Mary doesn't know how to be a kid, her uncle knows how to handle her and her giftedness, and they have a great relationship. After a few incidents at school, she and Frank have a chat. He tells her that she knows she's not supposed to "show off," and that she should have "compassion" on what she calls "idiot kids."

Chris Evans is almost "too big" for this movie--not just his Captain America star power, but his acting style and his movements: pause, linger, smolder, barely move, let the camera lean in and do all the work, barely emote, barely react, activate radio voice.... Maybe it's the director. Frank is meant to be the mysterious, nonconformist, "damaged hot guy"--but he's just a little too suave and casual somehow. Too much mugging and scenery chewing. Sorry. And I really like Chris Evans as an actor. He's just not displaying the earnestness of "Puncture."

And what of his petite co-star? Au contraire! This little actress may not be a real math savant, but she's certainly a thespian savant. Not one false note. A real natural. Her many contorted faces are the faces a real kid makes--and those tears! But then again, what is it with child and teen actors these days? Even mature, seasoned actors admit: "they're better than us."


Enter, Grandmother. Grandmother (Frank's mother who prefers to be called "Evelyn" by her progeny) is the cold-as-ice British matriarch, a somewhat frustrated mathematician who may have lived vicariously through her daughter and may have even pushed her daughter over the edge. She wants Mary to be in a gifted school to reach her full "potential." Frank insists that it was his sister's wish that he raise Mary as a normal kid.

There's are some sad little jabs where Mary realizes that figuring out who can/should/wants to raise her is a bit of a problem for everyone. She also realizes that Evelyn kind of regrets having children because "after more math." "Gifted" also seems to be a bit of "girls in STEM" propaganda. I mean, I'm all for equality and progress, but what if the majority of young women aren't terribly interested in making STEM their career or their life? Is that OK?

Evelyn fights valiantly in court to gain custody of her granddaughter (employing the aid of Mary's deadbeat Dad). She is vilified by Frank's lawyer, but smartly defends herself and her view of what is best for gifted individuals (and humankind), claiming that her deceased daughter "knew the responsibility she had been given" to make things better for all humanity.

The beautiful takeaway from "Gifted" is that being "gifted" is so much more than our talents, skills or abilities. Or as Mary says about Frank: "He wanted me before I was smart."


--As a philosophy aficionado, I recoiled in horror at Evans' mangling of "Cogito ergo sum."

--Frank talking with Bonnie about his "getting laid," as well as jumping in bed with Bonnie on the first date, cheapens Frank/Evans, Bonnie/Slate, "Gifted," all.

--There's a lovely little God dialogue--a bit of a cop-out and "throwing God a bone," but it has a nice "reason AND faith" ending:

Mary: Is there a God?
Frank: No one knows.
Mary: Jesus?
Frank: Good guy. Do what he says.
Mary: But is he God? (Roberta's a "believer.")
Frank: Be smart, but don't be afraid to believe in things, too.

I actually met a mom in New Orleans who had a little genius son and daughter (she and her husband aren't sure where their kids got their brains, either that or they were just being humble). The son was the elder of the two and was invited to attend a particular college while still in elementary school. He sat down with his parents and the administrators and told them he wasn't interested in going to their secular college because he wouldn't be able to talk about God there, and God was the most important thing in his life. He was presently going to a Catholic school where he could talk about God, and he liked that better.  :)