Almost 50 years after Roman Catholic nun Catherine Sesnik was murdered in Baltimore, there are still many unanswered questions about her death.
Those questions are explored by gay filmmaker Ryan White, who directs the seven-episode Netflix original The Keepers.
I spoke with White in May.
Wisconsin Gazette: Were you raised Catholic?
Ryan White: Yes, I was. Very Catholic. I had a very positive experience in the Catholic church. It was the center of my life growing up and in high school. I was a Eucharistic minister. I actually look back fondly on my experiences with the Catholic Church.
Did you feel any trepidation about what was to become The Keepers’ subject matter?
I’m surrounded by Catholics. I’m from a big Catholic family. We watched Spotlight come out, too. I felt like the Catholics in my life were excited about the truth coming out in those kinds of stories. The Keepers is about bringing the truth to light. I would hope that any church would be supportive of that, especially their own parishioners telling their truths about harm that may have come to them within the church. Of course, everybody wants to hear the truth. It wasn’t until I started working with the Archdiocese of Baltimore on the documentary that I felt the resistance. My blinders got ripped off about how my church operates.
How did you first become aware of the unsolved mystery of Sister Cathy’s murder?
Through a personal connection. My aunt went to Archbishop Keough High School. She was Sister Cathy’s student and also a classmate of Jean Wehner. She had connections to both central figures, Cathy and Jean. She connected me with Jean. My mom is from Baltimore, by the way. I was raised in Atlanta, but my mom and all of her siblings and my grandparents were all from Baltimore. My grandparents lived and died there and all of my aunts and uncles stayed there. I’m from a big Baltimore Catholic family.
Did you feel like there was an urgency to speak with those affected by Sister Cathy’s murder because they were part of an aging population?
I wouldn’t say it was an urgency, but I felt the unique, fresh perspective of looking at a mystery through the point-of-view of women of this age. These women are my aunt and my mom — Baltimore women in their 60s who grew up in working class neighborhoods going to Catholic schools. It’s a group I relate to because I grew up around them. I also think it’s a demographic that doesn’t ordinarily get attention in the entertainment industry, in fiction films, but also in documentaries. It’s not that they were aging and it would be too late soon, I was just really drawn to the idea of them being this age and saying it was not too late. I thought that was compelling and an interesting way to tell one of these stories.
The Keepers contains many surprises. One is the way the story of Sister Cathy’s murder runs parallel to the rampant student sex abuse that was taking place at Archbishop Keough High School and the related cover-up of the scandal. What was the most surprising revelation to you?
As you said, The Keepers is full of twists and turns. Every time I came to Baltimore, I was surprised or totally blindsided by something or new information or a new survivor or a new piece of missing evidence that we knew should have been documented. Episode five, for example, when we delve into these two families that popped up during production. Both families were saying that their family member was involved in Sister Cathy’s death. They were two very similar stories from families that didn’t know each other and were from different parts of Maryland. That’s when it dawned on us how convoluted the story was. There was so much folklore and urban legend and family secrets and narratives over the past 45 years because the murder was never solved that we had our work cut out for us trying to figure out which version of the truth actually happened.
There is an unexpected gay element to The Keepers — Sister Cathy’s gay neighbor Billy Schmidt and his boyfriend Skippy. As a gay filmmaker, how important was it to maintain that aspect of Billy’s identity in the story?
That’s a good question. I don’t think it would have been part of the documentary if it didn’t directly relate to the evidence at hand. The relationship between Billy and Skippy — as you saw in the series, their family member believed they were in a romantic relationship — was integral to whether or not he was involved with Cathy’s murder. It was relevant. I don’t think that, as a gay filmmaker, I would have included that he may or may not have been gay if I didn’t feel like it was part of the inner-workings of how he could have been involved in Cathy’s murder, but it played a part. That’s why we included it.
When did you realize The Keepers would be a multi-part documentary series and not a two-hour documentary like your previous work?
That’s a great question! It was somewhere at the middle point of making it. It definitely wasn’t the intent from the beginning. When we began The Keepers, (the podcast) Serial hadn’t come out yet, much less (the HBO series) The Jinx or (the Netflix series) Making a Murderer. There wasn’t the notion or the business model, even, for making long-form documentaries at that time. I assumed we were making a feature-length film. The story kept growing in scope, darkness, twists and turns while we were shooting it. Then, those other documentaries started coming out. We watched all three of them as we were shooting. It wasn’t until Making a Murderer came out that my producer and I looked at each other and said, “We need to do this story justice. To do that, we need to start pursuing networks that will do it episodically with us.” That’s when we found and partnered with Netflix.
Do you feel The Keepers has the potential to have the same effect as Spotlight and David France’s book Our Fathers had on the Boston Catholic church scandal — to make sure people never forget?
Yes. I think it’s universal. I don’t think Spotlight should be relegated to Boston. I hope The Keepers isn’t relegated to Baltimore and seen as a bad priest or archdiocese or police force. These stories are universal and have undoubtedly happened, are probably still happening, all around the world. The Catholic church isn’t the only institution guilt of this, clearly. I loved Spotlight and I hope our documentary can be complementary in some way. Our documentary focuses a little more on the victims and their stories. I hope people will watch both.
The Keepers won’t do much to change Baltimore’s already tarnished reputation. On the other hand, Boston appears to have survived. Why do you think the Catholic church has been able to continue to thrive in these cities in light of these kinds of scandals?
I think people still see the good in the institution. Obviously, the Catholic Church has done a lot of good things throughout its history. People grow up with that religion, like I did, they want to hold on to that. I don’t by any means hope that The Keepers leads to the downfall of the Catholic church. Just the opposite, I hope it leads to the Catholic church acknowledging what happened and showing transparency — finally being a part of the healing in the communities. In some ways, it could lead back to the building up of trust in that church. But it has to start from the ground up. In my experience of making The Keepers, and working with the archdiocese, that’s not what they’re interested in doing.
Your previous film, The Case Against 8, also had a religious component in terms of religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Do you think religion is a theme that you will continue to incorporate in your work?
Maybe, because religion is so prevalent and plays a role in so many stories in some ways. I have never chosen a documentary subject because I wanted to explore religion. What I’m interested in exploring is human stories, like the plaintiffs in The Case Against 8 or the victims in The Keepers. It just so happens that religion has been a part of the battles that those stories have been up against. I hope one day to be telling a story where religion is the good guy. So far, in those two stories, it’s been these everyday people and religions who have been battling them.