Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Dangerously Misleading Narrative Of "The Keepers"

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Science writer Mark Pendergrast should be familiar by now to readers of  We have published several excerpts from The Most Hated Man in America, his forthcoming book about Jerry Sandusky.  This article on The Keepers is adapted from Memory Warp, his book about the repressed memory epidemic that will be published later this year. 

By Mark Pendergrast

The Keepers, a wildly popular seven-part documentary series aired by Netflix in May 2017, promotes the theory of repressed memories by resurrecting and validating a previously dismissed Baltimore case from the early 1990s. 

The show relies heavily on recovered memories of abuse to convince viewers that a now-deceased Catholic priest, Joseph Maskell, or another priest known only as “Brother Bob,” murdered a young nun named Cathy Cesnik in 1969, in order to prevent the nun, an English teacher, from reporting sexual abuse of high school students at Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland.  

The series is dramatic, artfully constructed, and based on real events, but it is extremely misleading, especially in accepting without question the validity of repressed memories.

The Keepers purveys all the old stereotypes, including a psychologist who explains confidently:  "Some things we experience are so unbearable and so painful that we shut them out.”  This popular series could undo years of good memory science in the public arena.

The star of The Keeper series is Jean Hargadon Wehner, known as “Jane Doe” in the dismissed lawsuit, who was a student at Keough High School, a private Catholic school, from 1967 to 1971.  

She had no abuse memories until she reach adulthood, but beginning in 1981, the year after the publication of Michelle Remembers (the first blockbuster book about repressed memories and satanic ritual abuse), Wehner began to see a series of counselors and therapists, including massage and movement therapists.
She also learned to put herself into a prayerful trance, which she called “dialoguing with the inner child,” a kind of pseudo-multiple-personality state in which she identified various internal child personalities named Jeannie, Beth, Gloria, Ethel, and Martha, each of whom apparently held different abuse memories. 

During the 1980s, she recovered memories of how her uncle and an array of strangers abused her from age three to twelve – typical of false “massive repression” memories with a ritual abuse flavor. She also recalled that this uncle abused her ten siblings, though none of them remember it.

During the 1990s, Wehner read an array of popular books about repressed memories, no doubt including The Courage to Heal. In 1992, Wehner began therapy with Ph.D. psychologist Norman Bradford (currently in practice and a professor at Goucher College in Baltimore), who had her keep a dream journal. 

Shortly afterwards, she began to retrieve her first memories of priest abuse, starting with Father Neil Magnus, whom she envisioned masturbating while he took her confession. When she discovered that Magnus was dead, Wehner switched to retrieving memories of abuse by another priest, Joseph Maskell, who had been her high school counselor. She eventually recalled vaginal and anal rape (sometimes with a vibrator), oral sex, enemas, him putting a gun in her mouth, and forced prostitution. 

But Wehner’s sex abuse memories expanded dramatically beyond Maskell to include two policemen, three high school teachers, a local politician who practiced a political speech while she performed oral sex on him, three more priests (Father Schmidt, Father John, and Father Daniels), four religious brothers (Brother Tim, Brother Bob, Brother Frank, and Brother Ed), two religious sisters (Nancy and Russell), and another religious brother known only as Mr. Teeth, who read from the Book of Psalms as he had sex with her. Wehner also remembered that she herself killed an unidentified nun at her school.

Yet the millions of people who have viewed The Keepers did not learn many of these background facts. (Netflix is notorious for keeping viewer numbers secret, but Newsweek revealed that it had the top two streaming shows in 2016, both with over 20 million viewers.) What viewers see is that Jean Hargadon Wehner seems to be an attractive, sensitive, self-assured woman with a supportive, wholesome family, and that she claims to have recovered memories of abuse by Father Maskell and a
few others. 

And director Ryan White – whose aunt was Wehner’s high school classmate -- goes out of his way to portray her memories as real. After listening to her tell her story for hours, White told his producer, “This woman is telling the truth and we need to be part of this.”

It is true that Sister Cathy Cesnik, 26, an attractive, popular English teacher, was murdered and probably raped on November 7, 1969.  Only three days later, another young woman, 20, was killed two miles away in a very similar fashion.  It is quite likely that the same unknown person killed both of them, but the murderer probably didn’t know that Cesnik was a nun, because she had just begun working at a public high school and had permission not to wear her habit.

As part of her prayerful memory process, Wehner visualized how Father Maskell had taken her to see Cathy Cesnik’s body, and that her face had been crawling with maggots.  Maskell must have known that she would immediately repress the memory, just as she allegedly forgot her rapes every time the door clicked shut as she was leaving his office.  When Maskell’s body was exhumed in 2017 (he died in 2001), his DNA did not match the DNA at the murder scene.

As background, readers should know that the late 1980s and 1990s featured the height of an epidemic of false memories of childhood sexual abuse, fomented by this misguided, pseudoscientific form of psychotherapy. The theory behind this fad stemmed from Sigmund Freud’s work a century beforehand, in the 1890s. 

Freud called it his “seduction theory,” which he himself soon abandoned. But the idea – that people can “repress” or “dissociate” years of traumatic childhood memories and then recall them as adults -- refused to die, in part because it provides an appealing plot device for novels, movies, and sensational media coverage, and because many psychologists have imbibed the theory somewhat like mother’s milk.  

It has become an underlying professional assumption that people really can and do banish traumatic memories from their consciousness.  And Freud himself promulgated his modified theory as “the return of the repressed” – the pseudoscientific notion that buried desires or fears return in symbolic dreams or actions.

Freud’s theory was resurrected in the 1980s by a group of therapists who were concerned about sexual abuse and who believed that women in particular (but men, too) with “symptoms” such as depression, eating disorders, or sexual issues must have been molested as children and repressed the memories so that they had no current knowledge of a horrific childhood.  

Only by remembering the abuse would they be healed.  These therapists believed that they could help their clients unearth these repressed memories through methods such as hypnosis, dream analysis, interpretation of bodily pangs, induced panic attacks, or group experiences. 

 In 1988, with the publication of The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, this movement exploded into a full-fledged epidemic in which women in therapy became convinced that they should accuse their fathers or other family members or caregivers of having raped them for years during their childhood and, with the encouragement of their therapists, they cut off all contact with their families.

Many hundreds of lawsuits were filed by therapy patients with brand new abuse “memories.” Thousands of stunned parents and other relatives became the first innocent people targeted by the repressed memory epidemic. In the 1990s, over 500 reported cases were filed in which the only evidence stemmed from recovered memories – 15 percent were criminal, 85 percent civil cases.  Hundreds of additional cases were quietly settled without formal filings, as many parents or other accused relatives or caretakers were embarrassed, devastated, and terrified.

As Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally observed in 2005, “The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry. It has provided the theoretical basis for ‘recovered memory therapy’ — the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.” 

McNally came to similar conclusions in his book, Remembering Trauma, and most reputable memory scientists agree with that assessment. 

“There is no good scientific evidence that these unconscious forces exist,” wrote psychologist Charles Fernybough in Pieces of Light, his 2012 book on memory. “Traumas are remembered, and they are remembered only too painfully. They may not be thought about for a long time…but they are not forgotten.”

Nonetheless, despite the furor over false memories produced by pseudoscientific theories, those who believed in recovered-memory therapy did not give up their dogma or belief system.  Thus, repressed memories did not disappear.  Indeed, the idea that people could completely forget years of childhood sexual abuse and then remember the abuse later has become enshrined in the popular imagination, despite its widespread scientific debunking.  Unfortunately, the repressed memory epidemic has not really subsided.  While it was slowed by scientific analysis and retractor lawsuits, the epidemic continues to this day.

Since the height of the repressed memory epidemic, media coverage has swung wildly between solid scientific reports on the malleability of memory to uncritical regurgitation of recovered memory claims. Most young journalists don’t know what happened during the “Memory Wars” decade that followed the 1988 publication of The Courage to Heal and similar books.

 Add to that the impact of the Internet and acceptance of fake news (really fake, such as the 2016 “news” that a pizza parlor harbored a pedophile ring) and conspiracy theory as reality, and you have a recipe for disaster, which is why I have written Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die, to be published by Upper Access Books in October 2017, and The Repressed Memory Epidemic: How It Happened and What We Need to Learn from It, to be published in September 2017 by Springer.

Once an idea enters the cultural mainstream, it has a way of resurfacing like a bloated corpse every few years. The corpse has risen again, if it ever truly sank, and The Keepers is one of the most pernicious examples.

The second star of The Keepers is Teresa Lancaster, “Jane Roe” in the 1994 lawsuit, who was a year behind Wehner at Keough High School.  She claimed to have always remembered that Father Maskell forced her to disrobe, sit on his lap, endure his fondling, and take enemas and douches while he watched, and that he was present during a gynecological exam.  But it was only after she learned about “Jane Doe’s” claims and met repeatedly with Wehner’s lawyer (who also represented her) that she recovered memories of rape by Maskell, the gynecologist, and a policeman. Those recovered memories were confused and inconsistent. 

Lancaster has recently changed her story (and memory), alleging that she always remembered the rapes, but that is not what she said when she made the allegations in the early 1990s.
In 1993, Wehner and her siblings sent letters to other former Keough High School students, asking about possible abuse, and they received many responses. The Keepers makes it appear that a hundred or more people claimed that Maskell sexually abused them, but since none of them appeared as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, it is unlikely that any recalled severe abuse.

It is more likely that Maskell was inappropriate in many ways, and he may have been a voyeur who hugged and fondled girls and watched as they took douches. He may have also acted badly with boys.  In The Keepers final, seventh episode, Charles Franz, now a dentist, alleges that Maskell abused him in some unspecified way prior to his counseling position at Keough High School. 

In a 1995 article, in which he was called “Bill,” Franz revealed that there was no severe molestation, but he claimed that Maskell, then an associate pastor at St. Clement in Landsdowne, PA, had grabbed his crotch and said “Hold onto your balls” as he drove over a bump in a car, when Franz was 13.

Other former Keough students also recovered memories or tried to. One classmate thought Maskell must have drugged her Coca-Cola. “I've never been certain of what happened. There's so many gaps in my memory of being with him, and I only have fragments,” she said in The Keepers. In a recent interview, Teresa Lancaster said that she was “focusing on victims that are coming forward. There are a lot of people who can’t remember a lot.”

Donna Vondenbosch is another alleged victim of Father Maskell.  In The Keepers, she says, “He would hypnotize me sometimes; sometimes it was with a pocket watch he had. There are blocks of time when I have no idea what happened. 

In a long article on the Maskell case by Paul Mandelbaum, published in Baltimore Magazine in 1995, a woman identified in the article as “Eva Nelson Cruz” makes very similar claims; it is likely that “Cruz” is in fact Vondenbosch. 

In the article, Cruz admitted that she had recovered memories of the abuse with the help of therapist Kenneth Ellis.  As a child, the journalist wrote, “She was certain that God didn’t love her, and sometimes, at random moments, she would hear a little voice in her head, her own voice, imploring Jesus to have sex with her.” In incrementally recovered memories, she eventually came to believe that Father Maskell had raped her aboard a boat, in the presence of another man whom she had kicked, and that Maskell had also stuck a wooden crucifix into her vagina. 

“In her [Cruz’s] mind’s eye, she saw him [Maskell] wearing the black clerical cape that he often favored during the winter, and she claims that he asked her to look deeply into his eyes and told her: ‘You won’t remember. You won’t remember. If you remember you’ll die.’ She could picture him twirling fiercely—the cape flapping around his head.”  Kenneth Ellis, the therapist, had helped her interpret her dreams to retrieve these memories.

 “It’s not unreasonable to interpret Eva’s dreams as tapping into repressed memories of her experiences with Maskell,” Ellis told Mandelbaum, the reporter.  (Ellis is still practicing in Maryland, and he still promotes dream interpretation, writing: “Dreams can be viewed as the dreamer’s attempt to ‘work through’ or resolve some conflict that they are experiencing in reality.”)

Some Keough alums may have reinterpreted always-remembered incidents to make them more sinister in retrospect. As one of them says in the series, “Something that may have seemed insignificant at the time has relevance now.”

Unforgivably, The Keepers puts two true believers in repressed memories on screen as “experts.” Psychologist L. M. Lothstein asserts: "Some things we experience are so unbearable and so painful that we shut them out. The major systems for protection of the self, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal, fight-flight response, the vagal response to play dead, to dissociate, to be unaware of something, they'll come right into play in order to protect the self from harm." 

This is pseudoscientific claptrap. He goes on to say, “We now know so much more about memory. It's scientifically accepted that memories can be compartmentalized and not known to the conscious ego." 

This is absolutely untrue.  Reputable memory scientists know that repeated traumatic events tend to be recalled all too well. As Lothstein pontificates in The Keepers, the filmmakers flash sensational headlines about a 2004 study, claiming: “Psychologists Offer Proof of Brain’s Ability to Suppress Memories,” and “A Freudian Theory Proven,” even though this was a study of word pairs that demonstrated nothing whatsoever about repressed trauma memories.

The documentary also features psychiatrist Richard Sipe of Johns Hopkins, who served as a witness for Wehner and believed her recovered memories. “There are things that have the ring of truth, even if they are hard to believe,” he explains in The Keepers. Sipe diagnosed Wehner with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he compares to that of war veterans.  

“Naturally we know so much more about this because of men and women coming home from war and being traumatized.  We have all sorts of knowledge now about how the brain handles those.”  But the brain does not handle war experiences by repressing them, but by being unable to forget them.  That is what causes PTSD. 

Sipe criticizes his colleague Paul McHugh, the head of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, as having a “blind spot” about repressed memories because McHugh testified that they had no scientific validity. McHugh, the author of  the book Try to Remember, a critique of repressed memory therapy, apparently convinced the Baltimore judge in the case, who dismissed it before trial, a decision upheld on appeal.

In The Keepers, Jean Wehner tells viewers, “There’s an awful lot I still don’t remember,” so stay tuned for more horrific abuse memories yet to come.  In the series, she demonstrates how she recalls her memories, lighting a candle and lying down to go into her prayerful state.  As she does so, the camera zooms in on an angel figure beside her, which says “Believe Believe Believe Believe Believe.”

The courts, however, didn't buy it.

When the Maryland Court of Appeals threw out the case of Jane Doe et al. v. A. Joseph Maskell in 1996, a panel of seven judges wrote, "First, the advisories of repression state that there is no empirical, scientific evidence to support the claims that repression exists. The studies purporting to validate repression theory are justly criticized as unscientific, unrepresentative, and biased."

"Second, critics of repression theory point out that the scientific, and specifically the psychological community has not embraced repression theory, and that, in fact, serious disagreement exists," the judges wrote. "Finally, critics of repression theory argue that the 'refreshing' or 'recovery' of 'repressed' memories is more complicated than repression proponents would have us believe."

"Memories refreshed with the assistance of a mental health professional are subject to manipulations reflecting the biases of the treating professional," the judges wrote, adding that "a repressed memory cannot be retrieved whole and intact from the cold storage of repression."

"After reviewing the arguments on both sides of the issue, we are unconvinced that repression exists as a phenomenon separate and apart from the normal process of forgetting," the judges wrote. "Therefore we hold that the mental process of repression of memories of past sexual does not activate the discovery rule."

"The plaintiff's suits are thus barred by the statute of limitations," the judges wrote. "If the General Assembly should wish to write the law, that is its prerogative and responsibility."

Jane Doe and Jane Roe, however, have fared far better in the court of public opinion. Critical response to The Keepers has been overwhelmingly positive and credulous. In a review, Baltimore Sun reporter asked rhetorically why Wehner had not come forward earlier. “Because that’s how ritualized long-term abuse works in children,” she wrote. “The abuser is able to control the victim through threats and intimidation…. Jean says that to survive the horror, she in effect dissociated herself — severed herself from the experience, put the entire ordeal into a box, sealed it up, and buried it. It would stay buried for over 20 years.”

New York Times reviewer Mike Hale called The Keepers “a fascinating and devastating experience” and identified Jean Wehner as “a steely heroine.”  He wrote that “trying to obtain justice based on recovered memories has the outlines of a classic tragedy,” without expressing any skepticism about the validity of such memories.  The Guardian called the series “a breathtakingly brave true crime documentary."

Prompted by The Keepers series, Vice magazine’s Kaleigh Rogers published an article reviewing the alleged scientific validity of repressed memories, asserting that since the 1990s “we've built a much stronger understanding of how and why childhood trauma could lead to repressed memories.”

On the contrary, reputable memory scientists have found that years of traumatic events are impossible to forget and that false memories of abuse are frequently produced through suggestion and influence. Rogers erroneously concluded: “The science is firm that traumatic events can cause memory loss, and that these memories may resurface years or decades later.”  I am sure that she sincerely meant well, but from her photo, Rogers is a young Millennial who was swayed by the series and accepted the myth of repressed memory hook, line, and sinker.  I fear that she is representative of a new generation who will be vulnerable to these dangerous theories.

--Mark Pendergrast is a science writer and independent scholar and the author of many books ( He discusses The Keepers in his forthcoming book, Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die (October 2017).

The author notes that he submitted a shorter version of this investigative expose of the popular Netflix series to SlateVice, Discover, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street JournalPsychology Today, and other publications, to no avail. 

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said, “that the mainstream media have no interest in debunking sex abuse allegations, even if they are based on psychological myths.”


  1. While the mechanism of mental repression is a myth, forgetting history is very real. People have completely forgotten what was known in 1995 following the epidemic of daycare prosecutions employing suggestive interrogations of children leading to prison for innocents...and thousands of parents accused of abuse after attending therapy sessions and thereafter being shunned by such mistaken and deluded children. In 1995 Frontline ran "Divided Memories" by Ofra Bikel exposing repressed memory therapy's dangers. You can see it free on Youtube by typing in Divided Memories. This is a true documentary.

    1. A true documentary does not mean the science behind it isn't junk. My sister and I witnessed the same murders. She repressed the memory, and I didn't. Every human and brain is different. Junk science has invaded psychology and the courts. Unfortunately, the psychological damage or long-term prison sentence has already been laid down as gospel. We know little of psychology, and we know little of psychiatric science. Whether a victim or perpetrator, it's far safer to be shot than emotionally damaged. People can see physical damage. To many, accepting psychological damage is like believing in ghosts. They generally don't get it until they lose one of their own and see the widespread destruction for themselves. I have no family. My father was the killer, and my mother was one of the victims. He might as well have killed me than to leave me in years of foster care, rejected by both families. I have no place to call home, literally or figuratively. Please tell me more about your knowledge of psychiatric issues.

  2. Mark, good luck with the book, thanks for the article. Its disheartening to think that journalist , who I thought were supposed to be impartial, have their own agenda when it comes to certain segments of the population like politicians, union leaders and the clergy, any derogatory remark is acceptable as long as it's aimed at them.

    The mainstream media who think they are open minded, never change their minds even when presented with new evidence. Lucky for the prosecution that the media does not stay current on such topics or has the energy or inclination to be concerned about the possibility of someones innocence.

  3. The disturbing issue is that the general public has no capacity for critical thinking or analysis. Many stories have more gaping holes than the surface of Yucca Flats, yet these anomalies are totally ignored. Look at the members of several religious sects who believe things no rational person would believe (cognitive dissonance), yet attacking these beliefs as the frauds they are is politically incorrect. A lot of people have been brain washed, and we have to accept that.

    A lie that is repeated multiple times becomes truth if it is not debunked immediately. Even if overwhelming evidence is later presented that exposes the lie, people will still believe in the lie, especially if people who are invested in the lie keep promoting it (confirmation bias).

    The only way to destroy a hoax is to immediately and vigorously attack both the hoax and the people responsible for it. You cannot play nice, you cannot play politically correct. You take the fight to the enemy and you destroy them, because if you do not do that, they will surely destroy you.

  4. Science falls solidly on the side of the existence and accuracy of repressed memories.

    Google: 101 corroborated cases of recovered memory
    Google: Memory disturbances and dissociative amnesia in Holocaust survivors
    The articles provide compelling scientific evidence in support of the phenomena of dissociation and recovered memory in Holocaust survivors.

    Mark Pendergrast himself has been accused of abuse by one of his two estranged daughters.

    The phenomenon of dissociative amnesia is well documented in the scientific literature for a wide variety of life events. It is pseudoscience to deny its existence.

    1. Dear person with no name;
      I challenge you to present your proof of repressed memories to authentic memory scientists. They will laugh you out of their office. There is no evidence for the existence of repression. You obviously have something invested in seeing that this myth remains alive. Are you part of the survivor industry? An attorney making money out of settlements? A counselor helping to create false accusations? Name yourself spreader of falsehoods or remain silent.

    2. You say that one of Mark's daughters accused him of abuse, yet offer no evidence of this. In what context was the accusation made, and what is the case history?
      The references you list would be more palatable if published in a refereed journal. I have trouble believing anything without actual physical evidence, which seems to be totally lacking in these cases. Do psychologists care about hard data anymore? Maybe some even adhere to the tenets of Dyanetics and Scientology. Scary!

      The real damage done to innocent people by this quackery is beyond the pale. The prevailing sentiment seems to be summed-up nicely at:

    3. The two commenters above need to read the sources cited in my comment before commenting.

      What is an "authentic memory scientist?" The websites at cite a variety of scientific
      articles clearly showing memories being repressed and corroborated. Ad hominem attacks do not prove your points. Focusing on the facts shows that repression does exist and these memories are often accurate.

      Evidence is given above that Mark's daughters accused him of abuse. He discusses this in his book "Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives."

      See the Publishers Weekly editorial review, google: amazon Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives. "Pendergrast....abandons any pretext of objectivity in an emotionally charged diatribe against the recovered memory movement."

      The real damage being done is to the children that are abused and not believed due to the pseudoscience present by Pendergrast and others that dissociative amnesia does not exist.

    4. I perused your references and found nothing substantive. Ad hominem attack?? Where, oh where, is that? I'm asking for nothing more than what a referee would ask about an article submitted for publication in a professional journal: where is the data supporting your conclusions, and what references can you cite where peers have validated your conclusions? Evidently, the faculty at Brown University publishes in the Journal of Un-reproducable Results!

    5. This article is garbage and is another attempt to discredit victims.

    6. Article is true CRAZY psychotherapists have blood on their hands - My cousin had a similar story which was proven not true = A crazy woman psychotherapist turned her against her saint of a father!!!!!!!!! SCARY!!! I don't believe her for a second she is the victim yes or psychotherapists

    7. Amen to that. I think too many enter the field to fix themselves. The arrogance is astonishing. The more sure they are, the further they are from the truth.

  5. The fact that these "recovered" memories were tossed out of court because they were deemed unreliable is something that needs to be reported.

    To pass on hallucinations and dreams as reality is downright irresponsible. It could only be pulled off in the case of Roman Catholic priests, where no proof is needed to convince the public that every guy in a collar is a depraved pedophile.

    We had a similar case in Philadelphia where a sex abuse victim claimed she had been raped at Black Masses presided over by the late cardinal and some bishops. The prosecutors decided she was so unreliable they couldn't put her on the witness stand. She is identified as "Ruth" in the 2005 grand jury report.

    1. Good Book Anti-Catholicism in America:The Last Acceptable Prejudice

  6. This repressed memory theory is pseudoscience. It is closely related to the other now-debunked pseudoscience of facilitated writing. Facilitated writing was another attempt to "help" those that couldn't articulate what "trauma" they may or may not have experienced. It was used mostly on children and some illiterate and/or retarded adults. It was eventually proven conclusively within the scientific community to be highly inaccurate due to the suggestibility of the supposed victims.

    With repressed memory therapy, as with facilitated writing, there is a "coach" (the therapist) that is needed to "facilitate" the supposed memories. And therein lies the very dangerous flaw in these two quack-like practices. The doctor or therapist may be well-meaning in "facilitating". However, their use of inducing a mild hypnosis or a relaxed state in the patient makes them highly suggestible. Even if the suggestions are not direct, they are still strong enough to eventually steer the patient towards the subconsciously desired result of the therapist. What therapist doesn't want to "help" uncover abuse?

    But most of the time, if a child has been abused, they just don't want to talk about it because it's embarrassing or painful. This may seem to the observer with an agenda to be evidence of a repressed traumatic memory. When actually it's either an indication that something did happen, and the child remembers quite well, but doesn't want to share the memory with others, or nothing happened at all. So it is dangerous to try and "coax" things out of children, because these things may have never even happened. And in the case of "coaxing" things out of adults, there's even more of a chance that false memories may be induced due to the passage of many decades.

    Finally, there is also the possibility that not all psychologists and psychiatrists are ethical people. They may have a larger political, religious, financial, and even racial agenda in getting others to say things happened to them that didn't happen. Sometimes events in history that are greatly exaggerated and/or false require the use of controversial pseudo-science methods to induce a "witness" experience that props up the agenda.

    1. There's a lot of pseudoscience, often used to convict innocents and re-victimize victims. To say this is to say the earth could be flat. Nothing more dangerous than knowing the unknowable.

  7. Do you even research what he's commenting on before you post it?

    "As part of her prayerful memory process, Wehner visualized how Father Maskell had taken her to see Cathy Cesnik’s body, and that her face had been crawling with maggots. Maskell must have known that she would immediately repress the memory, just as she allegedly forgot her rapes every time the door clicked shut as she was leaving his office."

    In the context of the story Maskell took her to see the body as warning of what happens to girls that tell people about bad things.

    Whether the story is true or not Pendergast doesn't even attempt to present it accurately in an article that's supposed to focus on a misleading narrative.

    This should be a wake up call about what his real intentions are.

  8. Anonymous, have you ever heard of the concept of irony?

  9. This is absolutely disgraceful. There was at least 30 something victims who came forward to say that Joseph Maskell abused them, do you really think that they all suffer from distorted repressed memories. I know one of the girls that he abused when he came to Ireland and there's not a doubt in my mind that her memories are clear

    1. This article does not deny allegations of abuse by Maskell. No one does. Not even the Church. It's highly likely that dozens of girls were the victims of abuse, but what is doubtful is the extent to which that abuse occurred. Among all the victims, the only ones who allege outlandishly depraved actions do so as a result of repressed memory recovery. Considering the scientific consensus, these claims should be met with skepticism. And, once you do that, it becomes harder to demonize the Catholic Church and criticize its response to the allegations. Sadly, it seems as if The Keepers takes advantage of interest in fascinating Cold Case to advance an anti-Catholic narrative. That is evident in not only the way context is omitted, but also in the comments of some interview subjects, not to mention interview remarks by the filmmaker.

      The bottom line is, yes, girls were abused. Yes, the Church bears responsibility for that. But, the suggestion that the Church was and has been abetting abusers is absurd, and advancing that narrative ultimately is the only reason this documentary was made.

    2. So you do not think the church had been abetting child molestation? Are you serious? You agree that abuse occurred but not as severe as the victims portrayed it in The Keepers. You do not believe in repressed memory when it is recognized and treated by the psychiatric community sans a few like the doc in the film who was glib and flippant. Do you think all the women who responded to the letter had repressed their memories, or do you think they only came forward when the knew they were not alone? Do you think women would make up having been given douches in Maskell’s office? What “extent of abuse” do you call that? Is that better or worse than swallowing cum that you’ve been told is the Holy Spirit of Christ? And you think that moving priests from Parrish to Parrish or state to state is not abetting abuse?!? Where have you been for the last decade? The Catholic Church is to blame. They are worse than the actual pedophiles. They KNEW. They HID it. They COVERED it up. They SWEPT IT UNDER THE RUG. If this is not clear to you, than you are the one with issues. You are also being brainwashed and twisted by the Catholic Church. I actually pity you. Ask yourself, whom is to blame? It is not the plethora of victims. Which institution is always at the helm of this molestation from coast to coast? Answer - The Church. The knew it was happening. They covered it up. They allowed it to continue. If our God is just, many priests (i.e. Smyth- Rhode Island), Bishops( Gelinaue), Cardinals, (Law), nuns, and lawyers will rot in hell. The Church didn’t abett these men, my ass!!!

    3. The fat lady has sung! The Church hid, covered, swept, paid off people and the list goes on. Read the PA Grand Jury report.

  10. Way too much emphasis on repressed memory in the article and in these comments. What enough the women who never lost the memory but cane forward with very similar tales re the abusers and the abuse that was allegedly going on. And that the killers of this nun were never found suggests a huge cover-up. This in my view was a huge pedophile ring and the devout Catholics find tgat hard to deal with, but really shouldn't surprise them considering everything that has come to light in the past 20 years.

  11. Thank you for this. I watched the series and was disturbed by how credulously these memories were treated by filmmakers. And in follow-up found media reviewers also equally accepting of the filmmaker's bias. This is personal as a family member became caught up in the repressed memory fad of the 1980s and resulting false accusations were devastating. FWIW, charges were dismissed when the court-appointed psychiatrist determined (correctly) that the accuser was not credible.

    Anyway, watching The Keepers red flags on False Memory Syndrome were everywhere. In particular, the ever-expanding circles of conspiracy—uncles, cops, politicians, virtually the whole town!—being in on this abusive network that was hiding in plain sight. It was very reminiscent of some of the worst cases of the 1990s. I just couldn't buy that this abuse was so widespread, so pervasive, but unseen for 20 years? And in the end only 2 people corroborated it? Out of the supposed hundreds of responses the postcard canvassing provoked?

  12. This piece is EXHAUSTING in it's triviality. It seems aggressively determined to COMPLETELY miss the main points. It's like trying to have a conversation with my mother who will see a report about a terrible outbreak of some disease in her area and tell me about it by complaining about the newscaster's outfit the entire time.

    I also love how the official court ruling is cited. As if that has any bearing whatsoever on Truth with a capital T. Legal decisions are about stupid bureaucratic minutiae and anyone past the age of 25 knows that. Memory is not a physical object. It cannot be studied like a piece of volcanic rock. What ever the peer reviewed journals say can only EVER be suggestive since we do not have access to anyone else's first person experience.

    ON THE OTHER HAND, there is plenty of evidence that Maskell was a disturbed abuser. Even before he landed at Keough, "Maskell was first accused of abusing Charles Franz, an altar boy at St. Clement Church. Franz and his mother came forward in 1967, Franz claimed Maskell forced him to drink wine and sexually abused him. The next year, instead of charging or removing Maskell from the ministry, the Archdiocese removed him from only St. Clement Church and allowed him to continue his duties at Archbishop Keough High School."

    The number and range of people who have accused Maskell of abuse is quite large and you ought to be completely ashamed of yourself for heaping more abuse on a group of people who have seen more than their share in one lifetime and have to continue to put up with abuse from people like you. SHAME.

  13. Fuck you. You are satan in the flesh if you could believe that this did not happen.

  14. I watched two episodes of the Keepers and I have to say I found some of the women's stories not credible. One thing that was stated by one of the policemen who was first called to view the body was that the nun's body had not undergone decay and that there were no maggots or anything on her. The exact opposite of what was recalled by the woman who regained her memory after 30 years who said the nun's face had maggots on it. Plus I am roughly the same age as those women. I remember back to when I was the age that they claim to have been when abused. In my opinion those girls were all old enough to know if such abuse was happening it wasn't right. I won't be watching anymore of the Keepers as I don't find these women's stories credible.

    1. Maybe you should finish watching it, they show the original file from the autopsy where it clearly says there were maggots in the body.

      I know someone who had suffered a neglected childhood who told me he cannot remember anything before he was 12, it happens to some people, maybe not to you, but there are millions of people in the world, and we are all different.

      You have the right of being an ignorant, but please do not show it off.

  15. I am entirely too lazy to refute the giant pile of bullshit this author relies on to make the point that child molesters are unfairly maligned.

    I personally experienced repressed memories. The memories that my 12-year-old mind couldn't handle finally surfaced in my late teens. But instead of a high-profile court case, with large cash settlement and talk show tours, I settled into a difficult, lonely existence and an addiction to drugs and alcohol that almost took my life. This persisted into my mid-thirties and was only resolved through extensive therapy. I was lucky.

  16. Wow. That was one of the most disgusting and disturbing articles (and comments) I have ever read. Shame on you for blaming the victims, for minimising their experiences and for avoiding the real issues here:

    A priest sexually abusing children. People trying to cover it up. Perpetrators being protected by society. Victims having to go through the worst moments of their lives over and over again, having to "prove" themselves to everyone. Perpetrators never facing justice.

  17. If it was just one woman speaking out, I would buy this thing of "repressed memories are fake" but being more than 30 women the ones who described the abuses of this "man" (better described as an "homo-erectus"... I doubt they all have fake memories.

    Yes, sometimes adults, specially men, abuse others in horrific ways. Let's stop blaming the victims for once.

    Maybe not all of her memories are accurate but that doesn't mean the abuse didn't exist. The only thing we know for sure is that two innocent young women died. You focus your thesis on Wehner, but forget all the people who came forward to speak up, and not to a documentary, but to the police.

    It is not he against she, it is he agains she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she, she and she.

  18. You're an asshat. As a reporter, you have an OBLIGATION to the truth. It's beyond the pale that you have the audacity to report that repressed memories are not valid and, thus, attempt to completely invalidate all the victims that were savagely taken advantage of. It's shameful on your part to perpetuate victim blaming - and children no less. I'm aghast. Men with your mindset perpetuate sexual crimes against children because you won't take a stand for what is right. You have abused your power as a reporter. Had this been your daughter, your wife, your son, I have no doubt your truth would be quite different. Shameful.

    1. You have swallowed whole all the popular propaganda and I would advise you to take notice of memory experts and people who are more qualified to understand in this field. Children are also damaged when their fathers are wrongly accused of beihg Child abusers so you do need to see the wider picture. "The myth of repressed memory" by Elizabeth Loftus would be good reading for you because it details tragic case after tragic case and gives you an understanding that the victims in all this are not one defined group.

  19. I have watched the series fully twice now and found it both extremely compelling and problematic. I do not have the extremes of total refutation or certainty as to repressed memories. We cannot know all human brains; but total repression as Jean claims seems to be very rare, while partial repression is probably very common. For total repression to occur, there is usually a departure from the self that does not allow one to lead an otherwise completely normal life as portrayed of Jean. Whether repressed or remembered, severe trauma defies normalcy, and the symptoms usually appear in early adulthood, first via panic attacks. For women, a first childbirth usually sets off the delayed PTSD. My issue with Jean is that she was asymptomatic for much longer than usual; and then things flipped into the extreme. Repressed memories generally emerge and progress slowly as one works through therapy, at a grinding pace. I do not discount all she says, but it muddles the narrative. I do feel that the Cesnik and Malecki cases are related and that there are two different stories that have created distractions that assure no resolution of either murder. Too many people add nothing more than confusion.

    I thought Koob was out of his mind when he talked about the police bringing to him Cathy's private parts, which would not be removed in any autopsy. The other thing I thought "off" was having mass at her apartment when Cathy had been missing only briefly -- why the extreme reaction to her lateness? Most people would think you had gotten delayed or distracted and wouldn't be performing a ritual when you had only been gone a few hours. You wouldn't even be considered missing yet. You wouldn't be calling for people to come and holding mass unless you knew there was a crisis.

    I also believe Maskell was a monster, and Sharon Mays is as unbelievable as you can get. Politics and law do not mix, and you are useless in law if you are political. Thus, the total inefficiency of our judicial system.

    I think the only way to solve these murders is to unmarry Maskell from them. If they re-merge, so be it; but the Jean story seems a path leading away from resolution.

    1. "The Keepers" sucks you in like a vacuum at the beginning. After watching into Episode #3, you wake up the next morning and say --'wait a minute' This show started as a murder mystery and evolved quickly in a circus. Preposterous really. Ridiculous. A low-level priest orchestrating an in-school sex-ring, involving sexual misconduct, rape, fondling, threats? Outsiders are brought in like other policemen, clergy, politicians, businessmen to commit horrific acts on young girls?. Dozens of rapes under the nose of the school staff over 3-4 years ?... Pure fiction---really. unbelievable. sister Cathy didn't report to her superiors? Not one girl transferred, reported, or got pregnant, had a baby, or an illegal abortion? NO parents and 99% of the school enrollment didn't know anything? NO mental problems, not current police interviewed for this show, no former boyfriends of these girls interviewed? All the parents conveniently deceased? Yes--probably some spurious behavior by the priests----but this show is a made-up hit piece against the Catholic Church. Pure rubbish. And Sister Cathy was murdered by a serial killer while she was in layman's clothing teaching At a public school. They failed to mention the Priest's body was exhumed 15 yrs ago for DNA collection--and it didn't match any crime scene

    2. The body was exhumed for DNA because of the release of the documentary.

  20. And how is calling someone an asshat not abusive; or how does it add to the point or narrative? How do other bloggers see their opinions valued when others just resort to name-calling?

  21. This article is bullshit.

  22. Excellent article. I was quite engaged in this series until about the third episode when it the claims became not only quite extreme, but also apparent that the entire of this story is based upon "repressed memory" accounts. Earlier, I had already started to wonder about the contemptuous tone towards the value of "corroborating evidence." There's a extremely good reason why our due process rights require evidence from our accusers, not just their story, especially when it emerges decades after the fact.
    I do believe it's likely something was going on at the school, but the extent of it is very difficult to say based on this series. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof (and these claims are indeed extraordinary). It is just as -if not more- important to exercise reasonable skepticism about accusations as it is not to immediately dismiss them, despite how one may personally feel (either towards the Catholic Church or child abusers).

  23. I'm also glad you commented on the critical reception aspect. It is indeed astounding that the acceptance of this story as completely factual is near universal. Many commentators are no-holds-barred when it comes to their contempt not just for the Catholic Church, but Christians in general. Anything less than whole-hearted embrace of these accusations is met with full-throated fervor; these type of accusations, we're now told, don't require proof and damn anyone who dares question that. Yours is one of the few articles I've found that was willing to objectively look at and evaluate the basis of evidence the series actually offers. It should go without saying that evaluating the credibility of an accusation is not "blaming the victim", nor particular judgement of them as people (it is entirely possible that they believe fully in what they are saying). But we no longer live in such a society; we've become tribal, largely swayed/driven to one side by emotion (I happen to believe one side is way more guilty of this than the other, but I digress).

  24. There is a well-known element of coached children, but that is decades past. Present studies and stats, please.

  25. It's been a bit since I've visited this page/question, but what alarms me is seeing commentary from those who claim to be in the profession but are wildly capable of incompetence. The human brain has unlimited capacity for just about anything. Nothing is set in concrete, and unless you understand that, you are unqualified to be in the field of psychology.

  26. It's been a bit since I've visited this page/question, but what alarms me is seeing commentary from those who claim to be in the profession but are wildly capable of incompetence. The human brain has unlimited capacity for just about anything. Nothing is set in concrete, and unless you understand that, you are grossly unqualified to be in the field of psychology.

  27. Finally and most of all to the writer of this article: what do you know about the human brain? Even psych professionals seem to be way off the mark. I am slightly younger than the featured women, but there was a huge emphasis on marriage and chastity. I was already being molested by the age of six in my foster home, so my self-view was an unwantable and devalued human being. If people suppress memories, it's probably because they're doing something to avoid jumping off a bridge. When this country stops blaming women for sex, perhaps the hymen will stop defining our values.

  28. Some of the praise for The Keepers comes from the fact that Ms Wehner's story is left largely unchecked and unchallenged. This is viewed by some as a subversion of the 'true crime' format, or as lazy people might say, it's 'genre busting'.

    Be they features, shorts or series, the majority of documentaries have a definite point of view. And that's fine. The notion that docs should be impartial usually comes from people who disagree with that point of view.

    My problem with this series -- and many other long form documentaries -- is the disingenuous way the filmmakers manipulate the narrative in order to reinforce their point of view. Episode 2 is given over to Ms Wehner's clear, straightforward, stomach-turning and heartbreaking account of abuse at the hands of several perpetrators over an extended period. Only the hardest of hearts could come away from her story in blithe spirits.

    But in the final few minutes of Ep 2, Ms Wehner recounts the events in the immediate aftermath of Sr Catherine Cesnik's disappearance. In a "frantic" state, alleged abuser Maskell tells Ms Wehner that Sr Catherine is missing but he knows where she is. Maskell takes Ms Wehner to Catherine's body, Ms Wehner paws at Catherine's maggot-covered face crying, "Please help me!" repeatedly. Maskell threatens Ms Wehner with the same fate.

    It's a very unusual, confusing story, but it does serve the filmmakers with a hell of a dramatic cliffhanger, fiction-style.

    In the following episode, the confusion gives way to near anger when it becomes apparent that all of Episode 2 is essentially a lie. Not from Ms Wehner, I don't doubt her sincerity, but the filmmakers. As bad as cliffhangers are in non-fiction demanding honesty and sensitivity, pulling a bait and switch is far worse.

  29. From personal experience I can say that I was raped by a friend of my family at 10 years old in 1966. I did not have the words to say what had happened and disassociated - I did not remember it again until 2002 when I was an adult and something had happened that brought that memory to the fore, as an adult I was strong enough to deal with it. From my training and qualifications in psychology. Memory and cognition this delay in memory can certainly be explained by the effect of trauma. And the naysayers have their own agenda - usually to protect the powerful.

    1. I think you have developed a false memory, probably from your psychology training. The scientific reality is that trauma is more greatly remembered and repressed memory of this sort is a myth. Powerful does not equate to bad, however keenly some would like to think so. It is not about anything but examining what is really true and what isn't.

    2. We cannot define or label the human brain so easily or quickly. My sister, two years older, barely remembers anything of our shared trauma, while my memory of it very clear. Same experience, yet two very different reactions. There's nothing mythical about her repression.


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