Monday, June 19, 2017

Judgment, Religion, and Modernity in The Keepers

This post is part of our "popular mythology" series, investigating the intersections of religion and popular culture.

By: Kiegan Irish



Recently I found myself thoroughly wrapped up with a new documentary series called The Keepers. The series is interesting for a number of reasons. It seems to be a continuation of the trend in 'true crime' documentaries that has had such widespread appeal lately. The Keepers is extremely well shot, edited, and researched, especially given the quality of some of the offerings in this genre. It is also profoundly disturbing. It deals explicitly with sexual violence, and some of the interviews where the cases are described in detail are difficult to watch. That being said, I think that the series raises some important issues about the relations between guilt and judgment as well as religion and modernity, and handles them in a unique and thoughtful fashion.

The story of the series revolves around two women who had been students at a Catholic girl's school in Baltimore in the late 1960s. During their time at the school, a young and beloved nun was brutally murdered. The police investigation carried out at the time came up with nothing and the case was eventually abandoned. Years later, in their retirement, the case still haunts the two women and other students of the school and members of the community. They band together and attempt to seek all the information they can, regarding the murder. During their investigation, they uncover connections to a sinister conspiracy.

The real story then, we're told, is not the murder itself, but the cover up. The murder of the nun called Sister Kathy in '69 was committed precisely because she had threatened to report the abuse.

The Catholic school, called Archbishop Keough, was the site of extensive sexual abuse of the girls attending, specifically by a priest named Joseph Maskell. But he did not act alone; the show reveals connections to the police and other authority figures, including their complicity and participation in the abuses committed. The real story then, we're told, is not the murder itself, but the cover up. The murder of the nun called Sister Kathy in '69 was committed precisely because she had threatened to report the abuse.

One former student at the school saw the body of the nun after she was murdered. She comes to be known as Jane Doe after her role in a court case in the early 90s. Jane Doe had a whole series of repressed traumatic memories resurface at that time, and litigation was launched against the Archdiocese of Baltimore in an attempt to punish Maskell for his crimes. A huge number of former abuse victims came forward and reported their experiences with Maskell to police. The case was nonetheless unsuccessful, leading those most prominently involved to lose hope.

In the present day, the filmmakers and independent researchers attempt to gather together all the information about what took place at Keough, and to confront the authorities who worked to cover up the abuse and the related murder. The interviews we’re shown reveal a sprawling network of involvement in the abuse, deeply intertwined institutions in the state and the Archdiocese, and a long history of lack of accountability in cases of abuse.

All of these disturbing investigations open a window onto the infrastructure of our world, which is at once crucially important and easily misunderstood. In her own journalistic investigation, eventually published as Eichmann in Jerusalem, philosopher Hannah Arendt was struck by the unwillingness of those around her to cast judgments on particular people for particular acts. She points out the comfort modern people feel with condemning vast swathes of the population, or entire histories of ideas—the broader the better. She fights against the notion that Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official whose job was gathering and deporting Jews to concentration camps, was a monster, a representative of the evil Nazi party. Coining instead the oft-quoted phrase “the banality of evil,” she attempted to showcase that the Nazis were nothing other than particular individuals, in a particular society, carrying out horrific acts with greater and lesser degrees of involvement. She claims people are too quick to blame all of humanity in its brokenness, or all of Christianity, for the horrors of Nazism, as though those ideas were capable of murder. Instead, Arendt recommends deliberate and thoughtful judgment, dealing with particularity.

If we can get past this initial judgment condemning religion or Catholicism in a sweeping fashion, The Keepers reveals a much richer portrait of modernity and religion.

The story of The Keepers, with its explicit descriptions of sexual violence and institutional horror, elicits a strong affective response on the part of the viewer. This disgust and outrage is completely legitimate in the face of such unrepentant evil. However the question of how this affective response is deployed needs to be posed here. This is Arendt's challenge, to make thoughtful judgments and avoid sweeping condemnations that miss the particularity and banality of the evil perpetrated. Watching this show, it is easy to say that Catholicism itself, or Christianity writ large, are to blame for the evils carried out in the 1960s in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. But I think that this judgment fails to be thoughtful in the sense Arendt calls for, and instead comes up with a sweeping verdict of collective guilt that leaves the particular untouched. Not every Catholic carried out horrific abuse on those girls, or made the choice to move Maskell to another parish rather than take punitive action. However there is a particularly religious register to the abuse and the circumstances that allowed for it, so what exactly should our judgment be in this case?

If we can get past this initial judgment condemning religion or Catholicism in a sweeping fashion, The Keepers reveals a much richer portrait of modernity and religion. In the way the story is told, the school itself takes on a character all its own, submerged in an even larger institutional network. There are shots of the loudspeakers in classrooms by which the victims would be called down to the priest's office to be abused. There is an explanation of the floor plan, revealing that the design of the building put the priest's office far from the other administrative services, and that it had its own exit. The role of the priest in the context of these schools is also examined, with interviews describing the priests as god-like figures who elicited fear, and kept strict discipline. This architectural and social organization, which has proved through the numerous scandals and cover-ups to be a breeding ground for abuse, is the product of a complex history. It is not enough to blame Catholicism (although the agents of the Archdiocese are revealed to be complicit in some unconscionable ways—the show does a good job of bringing this out, with one interviewee describing how she had come to understand that the Archdiocese is not a spiritual community but rather a business), as the whole disciplinary infrastructure of 20th century Baltimore is the more immediate site of this abuse. Yes this involved Catholicism in an undeniable way, but it is more than its Catholic trappings.

Michel Foucault discusses the architecture of disciplinary power, and the way in which subjects—citizens—are produced by institutions, which is a key issue here. Catholicism did not create this architecture, although it has wedded itself to it. Foucault outlines that in the context of the modern state, the concern for governing the lives of every single individual in its daily actions is essential to the state increasing its overall power. Knowledge must be procured from every single subject in order to provide the basis for the optimal operation of power. In order to procure this knowledge, the state must institute a widespread obligation to confess. People must confess the truth about themselves in order to be governed. The procedure of confession is something that the modern state adopts from Christian tradition, although in this adoption, Foucault claims our societies have become truly demonic, as they've abandoned the old goal of confession (the salvation of the soul) for the goal of pure control.

The infrastructure of our society is what is really in question in The Keepers; and that is truly modern, though it is religious as well. Religion and modern state rationality require their demonic marriage in order to produce the kinds of horrors that took place at Keough.

Maskell was not only a priest, he was also trained as a psychiatrist and his role at Keough was that of counsellor. He took students for gynaecological examinations, conducted psychological experiments and research, generating a huge body of literature--confessions procured from the subjects under his domain, the truths the state requires. Maskell was furthermore a police chaplain with deep ties to the police force. He was placed at the top of a disciplinary structure which was neither strictly religious nor wholly secular, but that was entirely demonic. This position should never have existed; Maskell was the conduit for far too much power. The show brings this out effectively, with former students observing succinctly, “Maskell wielded a lot of power.” And this is precisely why the police and the Archdiocese (and the district attorney and other state operatives, etc.) covered up the abuse and the murder. If judgment had been cast on Maskell in a legitimate and official capacity, it would have opened up too many others who held similar roles in a variety of disciplinary institutions to scrutiny. The legitimacy of those institutions--the source of so much power over so many people at the expenditure of so little energy--would be called very publicly into question.

And here, finally, is the point about religion and modernity. The clerical sex scandal (in general and in this particular case), too easily appears as a relic of the past. And it is my contention that the judgment that Catholicism or Christianity writ large are guilty for that horrific anachronism plays into a certain secularist narrative that claims that as the public power of the church recedes, it will take these sorts of horrors with it. That judgment and its narrative ignore the fact that these scandals are the product of modern institutions; they require the whole disciplinary infrastructure of the power of the psychological confessor, the access to and supreme power over young people, the surveillance networks and loudspeakers, and the legitimacy of the demand that one tells the truth about themselves to someone with total power over them. All of these elements are particularly modern, and characterize the techniques of governance in our societies and institutions. If we blame Catholicism for the reality of the abuse, we leave all those elements untouched that established the possibility of the abuse whatsoever. The infrastructure of our society is what is really in question in The Keepers; and that is truly modern, though it is religious as well. Religion and modern state rationality require their demonic marriage in order to produce the kinds of horrors that took place at Keough. And it is in service of that marriage—embodied in our schools, asylums, and prisons—to judge Catholicism in the abstract as guilty for the abuse that results.

To return to the question of judgment and guilt, it is obvious that in the case of the abuse at Keough in the 1960s, and the attending murder, the priest Maskell and his associates are guilty. They perpetrated horrific crimes, and the victims deserve justice, which the city of Baltimore and the Archdiocese colluded to deny them. That being said, the fertile ground out of which these crimes grew was not Catholicism in a general sense, but was instead the particularly demonic marriage of religion and state rationality that underwrites the architecture of power in 1960s Baltimore. It is that architecture—not Maskell himself—that the cover-up worked to defend. And while the explicit disciplinary institutions of that time are falling out of fashion today, that is not the end of the kind of power that positioned the victims within reach of their abuser in the first place.

Kiegan Irish is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, currently in the second year of his Master’s studies. He is working on a thesis exploring the theme of natality in the work of Hannah Arendt.

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