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Television John Doyle: Netflix’s new true-crime series, The Keepers, is an unsettling stunner

It was 1969. The movie Easy Rider was in theatres and much talked about. It offered a counterculture perspective and it shocked and disturbed some people, especially people living traditional lives in traditional ways.

In the suburbs of Baltimore, at Archbishop Keough High School, things were very traditional and sedate. Many of the teachers were priests or nuns and the students lived in neighbourhoods where doors were left unlocked and trouble or trauma was rare.

One of the most popular teachers was a nun, 27-year-old Sister Cathy Cesnik. She taught English and the students, especially the Grade 11 girls, adored her. One November evening, Sister Cathy went to a shopping mall and disappeared. She was found dead two months later. She had been murdered; her killer was never found.

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The Keepers (streaming Netflix Friday) is a seven-part docuseries examination of the case. It's a true-crime epic more disturbing than Netflix's monster hit Making a Murderer but just as gripping. It begins as a close look at the Sister Cathy case and then expands subtly but dramatically to examine something troublingly deep – a possible cover-up of abuse by the Catholic Church in Baltimore. This is one bracing, compelling and sometimes horrifying binge watch.

The first suggestion that there was more to the Sister Cathy murder comes early on. Shortly after she disappeared, Joyce Malecki, age 20, also of that same Baltimore neighbourhood, was abducted while shopping, and killed. The likelihood of the crimes being connected seems high. But then something else shifts the narrative in a profoundly unsettling direction.

Viewers, still puzzled by the Sister Cathy case and wondering about Joyce Malecki, are introduced to Jean Wehner, a woman now 64, who was, for some time known as "Jane Doe" in the complex web of revelations and suspicions in the Cesnik murder.

Ms. Wehner claims that while she was a student at Archbishop Keough High School, she was abused and raped by priests there. Her most breathtaking but perilous claim is that her principal abuser at the time, one Father A. Joseph Maskell (who died in 2001), took her into the place where Cesnik's corpse was decomposing and told her: "This is what happens when you say bad things about people."

Father Maskell, we eventually learn, was once the chaplain for the Baltimore County Police Department and other Baltimore-area law enforcement agencies. And to further intrigue viewers of The Keepers, it should be known that in February of this year, police exhumed Maskell's body in search of DNA evidence.

However, what is utterly absorbing about The Keepers is that such issues as DNA, science and high-tech detective work rarely arise. This is the story of middle-aged or elderly people who have pursued the Sister Cathy case for years and years. They go to the library and search for documents. They search for people on Facebook. If they find them, they try to meet in person and they take written notes. Part of the power of The Keepers is its acknowledgement of these people.

The first we meet is Tom Nugent, a rumpled sixtysomething journalist who came across the case in the 1990s and wrote a long magazine piece about it. We meet him in the attic of his house, a room strewn with countless boxes of paper files and cuttings, as he searches for notes. "What is the past? What was it?" he says at one point on the matter of understanding everything involved in a cold case. He also says, "The story is not the story of the nun's killing. The story is the cover-up of the killing."

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Nugent is very familiar with two others involved in solving the case. They are retirees Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, who were, in their youth, taught by Sister Cathy. The past is alive to them and it's why their research into the murder developed from a hobby to an all-out investigation into it. They are extraordinary figures viewers get to know well. And they are more engaging than the super-smart cops you find in most TV series about solving crimes.

And there are cops involved in The Keepers, too. Elderly men, some cagey and rueful, others emanating fear about what might be disclosed if the full details surrounding the Sister Cathy case and the original investigation of it are exposed at last. There is no narrator, no host to jolt the viewer into connecting the dots. There are only these people, weary and hurt, heroic in their devotion to unravelling the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, decades ago.

Made by Ryan White (who also made the great documentaries Serena and The Case against 8), The Keepers is fascinating, but not exactly easy escapist viewing. It's a slow-burning examination of a community, a church and a city's gradual fall from grace.

Gripping, certainly, but if you binge watch, be prepared for the second episode, in particular, to stun you into anger, rage and tears. It's about what Sister Cathy might have known and why she was killed on a night that some who knew her remember going to see Easy Rider.

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