Documentary

The Keepers, The Cosby Victims: Repressed Memories Versus the Courts

Netflix’s True Crime binge The Keepers has us captivated from episode 2 through its finale in episode 7. I leave out the first episode only because we don’t see the whole terrifying picture initially. We hear in episode 1 that a nun was murdered – suddenly, brutally and seemingly without context – and that’s not something to take lightly at all. However, we’re given an even weightier context in episode 2, the equation of murder plus molestation. Around the same time Sister Cathy Cesnik was abducted (and later found lifeless in the woods), a local girl suffered the same fate.
In episode 2 we learn that the young nun had been a protector of students in a girls’ Catholic school who were being molested and raped by the head priest in charge. We soon discover that the story is more intricate than we ever could have imagined. The nun very likely may have been killed because she was about to report the crimes to the police and had just let the main perpetrator, Father Joseph Maskell, know that she was on to him.The Keepers becomes focused on the acts of molestation that occurred in the school and how it seemed impossible they were not linked to the murders. The documentary arose after a Facebook group of former students (now in their 60s) formed with the objective of solving the crime, supporting each other as fellow victims, and ultimately, bringing justice for their beloved teacher’s murder and to Sister Cathy’s living family members.

 

We often hear of molesters grooming their victims, but we don’t hear as much about them enlisting other perpetrators to join them in their crimes. In the Keepers, some young students in the 1970s were sought out by these molesters because they seemed easy to take advantage of. Father Maskell is the first who then encourages another priest and a Baltimore police officer to have their turns with the minors. It is horrifying to hear and these minors are now mothers and grandmothers, women trying to remember the terribly shameful abuse that their minds have done everything possible to block out. Some of the victims have NOT repressed the memories and when they finally came forward, thanks to Facebook, their accounts lend credence to the case for Jeane, a woman who struggled with the memories.

Unfortunately, Father Maskell passed away and will not be brought to ultimate justice in this life time, although he was brought to court in the 1990s before the notion of “repressed memory” was discredited. Back then, there was no Facebook to bring forth the women (and a man) who so clearly did remember the abuse. Today, there is strength in number for his victims when it comes to recalling past experiences and feeling validated after suffering psychologically for decades.

“Experts in the field of memory and trauma can provide some answers, but clearly more study and research are needed,” states the American Psychological Association website APA.org about repressed memory. “Experienced clinical psychologists state that the phenomenon of a recovered memory is rare (e.g., one experienced practitioner reported having a recovered memory arise only once in 20 years of practice). Although laboratory studies have shown that memory is often inaccurate and can be influenced by outside factors, memory research usually takes place either in a laboratory or some everyday setting. For ethical and humanitarian reasons, memory researchers do not subject people to a traumatic event in order to test their memory of it. Because the issue has not been directly studied, we can not know whether a memory of a traumatic event is encoded and stored differently from a memory of a nontraumatic event.

Some clinicians theorize that children understand and respond to trauma differently from adults. Some furthermore believe that childhood trauma may lead to problems in memory storage and retrieval. These clinicians believe that dissociation is a likely explanation for a memory that was forgotten and later recalled. Dissociation means that a memory is not actually lost, but is for some time unavailable for retrieval. That is, it’s in memory storage, but cannot for some period of time actually be recalled. Some clinicians believe that severe forms of child sexual abuse are especially conducive to negative disturbances of memory such as dissociation or delayed memory. Many clinicians who work with trauma victims believe that this dissociation is a person’s way of sheltering himself or herself from the pain of the memory. Many researchers argue, however, that there is little or no empirical support for such a theory.”

When watching The Keepers, one must keep in mind how taboo sexual abuse was for those who attended high school 47 years ago. One must furthermore imagine why such shameful memories from those times could be mentally shunned by an individual (even subconsciously). Jeane recalls attending confession as a student in the catholic school to disclose how her uncle had molested her. The priest then asked to see her face and she felt the shame as he let her know that’s exactly how she should feel – like a damaged slut, a bad girl for having been molested and deserving of further punishment. She was someone he would go on to molest and he would encourage his small circle of trusted friends (including the other priest and the police officer) to do the same. As mentioned above, some of Father Maskell’s victims went public with their accounts of abuse as adults and in 1992, when reports were first made, people questioned the idea of “repressed memories.” The victims’ testimonies were discredited temporarily as those in the psychiatric community suggested that members of their own profession had planted false memories in patients’ minds.

Despite the schism between clinicians and practitioners and the difficulty of quantifying empirical evidence, practitioners who attest to the realness of “repressed memories” explain that victims of abuse mentally shut down in the face of trauma and post traumatic stress. Before The Keepers outlined the efforts of the women to trace Sister Cathy’s murder and tie up loose ends of a mystery, comedian Bill Cosby’s victims began to come forward and that drama played out in the public arena. Drugs were administered by both Father Huxtable and Father Maskell to their victims, to cloud the already murky memories of torturous and incomprehensible situations, crimes committed by publicly respected and trusted paternal figures.

MSNBC.com
Cosby, The Women – a recent New York Magazine cover

Today, people are commonly taught from a young age: No one should touch you in this way. In the post- Spotlight (the recent blockbuster hit about sexual abuse in the Catholic church) era, there is much discussion and an awareness of the sexual abuse history attached to the Catholic Church. Those who teach in religious schools are more seriously vetted. New, strict rules are in place (i.e. more than one teacher in the classroom) and everything is sized up greatly behind a veil of scrutiny. It cannot be easy to be a priest in 2017. Inappropriate behavior is more likely to be reported, but there are still children in the United States who are vulnerable and don’t have proper and adequate support systems. There are still children who do not have the strength to come forward as compared to their peers. Victims of circumstance, these boys and girls may also lack the mental fortitude to remember.

The Keepers is currently available on Netflix.

(This article originally ran on in my Huffington Post archive in July of 2017.)

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