The harrowing sexual abuse and murder charges brought forth in The Keepers (Netflix) have had a devastating effect on viewers. The seven-part docuseries examines the still-unsolved 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik and allegations of horrendous abuse at the hands of Catholic priests at the Baltimore parochial school where she taught.
The series follows two of Sister Cathy’s former students — retired grandmothers Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub — who have spent the past several years looking into the case. Since the release in May, every tiny detail and aspect of the case has been debated and teased apart on social media — one Facebook group, “The Keepers Official Group – Justice for Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki” has over 65,000 members and says it’s “a space for fans of the show to come together to discuss, theorize, and pursue justice for Sister Cathy and other survivors.”
The filmmakers have launched We Hear You, a social impact campaign designed to get help to survivors and those around them. Real Crime spoke to Christina Lindstrom, Impact Producer of The Keepers about the staggering sexual abuse statistics in the U.S., and what to do if someone tells you they’ve been abused.
Real Crime: How did the We Hear You campaign come about — was it because you had seen in making the film that silence and secrets had been so damaging?
Lindstrom: We knew that there would be some sort of response when the series was released on such a widely accessible platform. We wanted to be ready. Based on our research, we knew it was likely that other adults would come forward with their stories of childhood sexual abuse for the first time. Often adults don’t come forward until much, much later in life, which typically is well past the statute of limitations in the U.S. This means that seeking justice from a legal or judicial perspective is pretty much impossible. Director Ryan White and producer Jessica Hargrave always had the intention of creating more than just a documentary series — they viewed an impact campaign as part of responsible filmmaking. What makes The Keepers unique is that I was brought on before the show was actually finished, early enough that there could be impact considerations made during the editing process. We had contact with the film’s subjects [abuse survivors] who were able to give advice.
RC: You are reaching out not just to the victims but to their loved ones. Is this because saying the wrong thing can be unhelpful?
Lindstrom: Not only that, it’s also re-traumatizing. It can push someone backwards instead of moving forward. And the whole purpose of this campaign is to help move forward on a path to healing. Often, people are coming forward to friends and family, not necessarily to trained professionals. The subjects of the film told us how much damage was being done just by simple conversations. They said, “I’ve heard so many things in response to telling my story that were so hurtful that people don’t even realize is hurtful.”
RC: How important is it to avoid telling people what they should be doing?
Lindstrom: Whatever works for an individual is what’s right for them. And that could end up taking on a million different forms. We want to be sure we’re not using the language of what “should be happening” or what’s right and what’s wrong, because it’s just not applicable here. But we certainly have seen, unfortunately, through the struggles of others that some things have worked and some things haven’t. So, we wanted to offer those helpful therapies.
RC: It’s amazing to look at the Facebook page and see such incredibly long threads of comments.
Lindstrom: I think everybody wants and needs to be heard.
RC: What are your next priorities?
Lindstrom: One of the things we’re trying to focus on now is what the survivors of Baltimore have had to endure. There has been an increased amount of media attention there within the past six months to a year. There are mediations between the archdiocese and local survivors that have continued to take place. So, there’s a real need for a support network there. We’re fundraising to do some in-person training for families and others. We’re prioritizing the Baltimore area just because so much has happened there within the past year, especially.
RC: What is the best way to help if you’re not a family member or survivor and this film struck a chord with you?
Lindstrom: I would say the primary call to action is to be aware and to understand how to be a helpful and healing listener. That’s what people can learn via our website. The resources I’d call out specifically are the ones that we designed—the “what to say/what not to say” wallet card and the ring theory infographic.
But even if you are not a survivor yourself and you don’t think you know a survivor, the reality is that you probably do have someone in your network (whether you’re close to them or not) that is a survivor either of sexual assault or abuse. One in six boys and one in four women have histories of sexual assault or violence or abuse in their life. You may know somebody who hasn’t told you. And, after watching the series, you can probably tell why, because telling the secret is really, really difficult.
RC: Where can viewers get urgent help?
Lindstrom: RAINN, the Rape and Incest National Network, offers a hotline [800-656-HOPE (4673)] so you can call in 24-7. There’s also a chat line where you can IM your concerns. We’ve been in touch with them for past six to eight months. Prior to The Keepers being released, they trained additional volunteers and staff just because they thought they would have an uptick in calls. RAINN and SNAP [Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests] in particular had warned us about the strong response. What we weren’t expecting was that the subjects of the film and the filmmakers would be so overwhelmed with calls. We’ve tried as best we can to reroute those to professional networks of support.
RC: Is it common for a film to have an impact campaign?
Lindstrom: It’s something that documentary filmmakers think about more often. What makes The Keepers so unique is that I was brought on before the show was actually finished, early enough that there could be impact considerations made during the editing process. That this was part of the filmmaking process is unique and makes for a much more powerful and, honestly, authentic campaign. We had contact with the film’s subjects [abuse survivors] who were able to give advice.
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