Netflix’s true-crime series The Keepers starts with a simple question — “Who killed Sister Cathy?” — and doggedly pursues multiple avenues of evidence down a winding, seven-episode path that covers everything from the widespread sex abuse in the Catholic church to the difficulty of presenting recovered memories in court to the sobering bureaucratic reality of unsuccessful FOIA requests. The result is a series that’s remarkably wide in its scope. But as director Ryan White tells Vulture, the show started with a tip from his mom. In an interview, White talked about unraveling Sister Cathy’s murder from the Catholic Church’s wider sex-abuse scandal, navigating incredibly tense interviews, and whether he thinks there ever really will be justice for Cathy Cesnik.
I understand you have personal ties to Archbishop Keough High School — your aunt went there. When did you first hear about Sister Cesnik’s murder?
I had never heard of her murder until three years ago when my aunt and mom reached out to me because they found out who Jane Doe was. [Editor’s note: White is referring to the woman who came forward anonymously in the ’90s with claims of sexual abuse against Archbishop Keough High School counselor and chaplain Father Joseph Maskell in the late 1960s.] That generation of women, especially in Baltimore, had always wondered who Jane Doe was. My mom and aunt were shocked because it was a woman they had grown up with and were friends with, and [they] had no idea about Jane Doe or this horrific past. They connected me with her. That was the summer of 2014. I flew out and met Jean [Wehner] in Baltimore and had a five-hour conversation with her at her dining room table and left wanting to partner with her. She spent a few months deciding if that was the next best step for her. Lucky for me, and I think the world, she decided she wanted to do it.
You went to Baltimore specifically to see if her story could be part of a documentary?
Yeah, exactly. I’m so mean to my mom, but I always joke I have a whole email full of her bad ideas for documentaries. [Laughs.] Sometimes she has some really good ones, and this one she hit out of the park. I was skeptical, I’ll admit. I was like, “This story is out of a horror film. This doesn’t seem real or possible.” I remember saying to my aunt and my mom, because I had no budget, “Are you sure this is worth flying out to Baltimore? Are you sure this woman isn’t crazy? Is it worth it?” They both said they don’t know her that well this late in life, but they were like, “She’s a lovely woman, I think it’s worth your time.” They actually persuaded me. Obviously, once I sat down with Jean and got a sense of who she was and how raw and honest she is, I felt so compelled by her in those very first few minutes and increasingly as the hours went on.
The only other person that I met before any filming began was Gemma [Hoskins] because my aunt was also a part of the [Justice for Catherine Cesnik] Facebook group. She said, “You should sign up for this group that these two women started. There are a lot of conversations starting to happen.” I met Gemma in Baltimore in one of those early trips and was just sold right away. She was cinematic gold to me: an interesting character that was such an organic inroad to a true-crime genre that doesn’t normally get that type of investigator character in someone like Gemma.
Your filming started with Jean, but she wasn’t revealed to be Jane Doe until the second episode. How did you decide how to structure the series?
I have a brilliant editing team. I have three full-time editors and three assistant editors who were cranking away while I continued to shoot on the road. We did a lot of reshaping, but to me the real appeal as a storyteller [and] as a creative for The Keepers was what lies beneath. I knew that we were going to be put in that aisle of true crime and I almost deliberately put that first episode in that aisle so as to say, “This is how things seem. This is how this day unfolded, this woman going missing and then being found dead two months later.” Beginning with episode two, it’s the whole world beneath and that’s how I wanted to structure it.
People are calling that second episode such a curveball or a gut punch. I wanted people to understand that things aren’t always as they appear on the surface. That’s what episodes two through seven are. They’re continuing to dig. I realize that can be painful for audiences because it’s digging into things you don’t want to look at. That was the idea of the structure, and then obviously the story spans so many decades. So we begin in the ’60s and then the middle of the series all happens in the ’90s when Jean tried to bring this forward. By the end of episode four, we’ve ended in the modern day with this whole web [of evidence] that still has not come to light.
Part of what makes true-crime dramas like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and Serial so compelling is the documentarians’ unique and arguably biased relationships with their subjects. I know you began shooting The Keepers before any of those came out, but did seeing the response to those projects make you change your approach to The Keepers?
No. I really enjoyed all of them, but the role the filmmaker-narrator played in those series never really helped shape what I was doing. I’m not a narrator type. I’ve never been in any of my films; I’ve never wanted to be. There were times during The Keepers where I was probably more willing. I would have arguments with my editors about that, where they would say, “You have to be included in this at some point,” where you can hear my voice a lot. That was really in the latter half of the series where there was no choice but to sit people down if they were willing and make them answer for what they did or did not do in some cases. I had to play an active role with that. [With interviewing] police or with Sharon May, that district attorney, part of the scene is me having to challenge those people or ask them about certain information I have. Perhaps things like Serial did make me a little more comfortable with that idea.
One of your most harrowing interviews is with Edgar Davidson, who may have been involved in the murder but gives maddening one-word answers. Were there times while shooting or doing research where you feared for your safety or you weren’t sure what would happen next?
Yeah. This is a very unsettling documentary to be making because virtually every day we felt the tension that we were rooting into something that people didn’t want us rooting into. I never felt directly threatened per se, but I definitely felt the emotion and tension of multiple people throughout it saying, “You shouldn’t be doing this.” I mean, I’m alive now. I survived The Keepers, at least so far. Hopefully that was worth it, but there were many moments where I felt like people wanted us to go away.
I’m sure you’re aware of the statements the Archdiocese of Baltimore has tweeted. I suppose it’s to be expected that they would not be thrilled with The Keepers. Do you have any response to what they’ve been saying about the series?
No, and I’m horrified. It’s interesting that you say it’s to be expected because I don’t know if it’s the Catholic boy in me, but I actually didn’t expect that, which is foolish because I had been documenting Jean for three years and understanding how this institution has repeatedly harmed her. I knew that the documentary was made with integrity. I knew it was comprised of virtually all of survivor stories. The naïve Catholic boy in me thought, “They’re going to react compassionately.” That’s not what we saw. I was sickened by it. It makes me very angry having worked with these survivors for so long, being on the phone with them, and then having to be put through the ringer again by this institution that’s continuously harmed them throughout their lives. It’s been sickening, but it’s also made me realize this is what they are. There are new people there. They weren’t around when [Father Joseph] Maskell was there, but they’re still reacting in the ways that are harmful to survivors. I’ve lost all respect and I don’t think it matters to me what their responses are at this point. I see enough of them where they feel empty to me. I don’t want the people in the film — the survivors that I worked with — paying them any credence anymore. It’s empty.
What’s your big takeaway been from the response to the series?
It’s twofold. Let’s put the archdiocese aside. I’m feeling immense power of what’s happening. I feel so proud of the people who participated in the documentary to see how they’re affecting people’s lives, because this was not easy for them to speak up. They’re still afraid. It only came out two weeks ago, and they’re taking the temperature of the world right now and how the world is responding to them. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’m thrilled they didn’t do this for nothing. They had an impact on the world.
The flip side of that — and it’s not negative, it’s haunting — is that I’m getting flooded with people’s personal stories of child sex abuse. We all are. Gemma and Abbie [Schaub] are. I probably should have predicted that more, but I wasn’t expecting the amount of outreach I’m getting from all over the world, from all different types of people. That’s really nauseating — [that’s] the word that I can come up with — when people are asking you to come to their part of the world and document their story of child sex abuse and I know I can’t do that, having to say to no to someone. It’s having a positive impact, I think, but I’m having to learn to deal with the fact that it wasn’t just one little story in Baltimore. This is happening worldwide in a million different iterations and people want to be heard. People want their stories heard.
There have been a ton of new developments in the investigation. Would you consider continuing to chronicle the story as it unfolds, or do you want to cover sex abuse in the Church in some other capacity?
No, I don’t need to document the sex-abuse scandals in the Church anymore, but that was never my draw. My draw was Sister Cathy and my draw was Jean Wehner. They, to me, are the central figures in the story, and I feel like Jean invited me on this journey with her that lasted for three years and was painful and terrifying for her. She felt like we reached a point at the end of last year, maybe the beginning of this year, where it was time to end this and put it out in the world and see how the world responds to The Keepers. Even though Jean and I reached the end of that journey, I hope that the theories lead to answers as to who was involved in Sister Cathy’s murder. I think that’s completely possible, and we’re seeing a lot of movement right now. I think the police are getting a lot of information. I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t absolutely do any follow-up, but so far I have no plans to do that. I’m so happy with where we ended it that I don’t plan on continuing to document any of the revelations that come out of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.