BALTIMORE (AP) — Jean Hargadon Wehner keeps her guard up when she leaves her home.
As a rape survivor, “I have a certain way that I move in public, kind of a protected” way, Wehner says.
So it’s been somewhat unnerving — but at the same time encouraging — that strangers have approached the Howard County woman over the past month in places like the grocery store.
They recognize her from the Netflix documentary “The Keepers,” which focuses on sexual abuse at her alma mater, Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, and the unsolved 1969 homicide of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik, who taught there.
“I wanted people to know that they’re not alone, and what it’s done is it’s made me feel like I’m not alone,” Wehner, 63, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun, her first comments to Baltimore media since the series debuted.
Wehner, who graduated from Keough in 1971, has a central role in the seven-part series. She first came forward in 1992 with allegations that the school’s former counselor and chaplain, A. Joseph Maskell, had repeatedly raped her when she was a student. In the series, she describes how she confided in Cesnik that she was abused — and says Maskell took her to see the nun’s body.
Wehner says some people had tears in their eyes when they have met her since “The Keepers” was released. At one restaurant, someone paid her bill, writing on the receipt that she was an inspiration.
But in the weeks before “The Keepers” became public, Wehner was filled with anxiety about what people would think of her. She left the state when the series came out last month, going to stay with her sister in North Carolina.
She didn’t want to be around when others in Baltimore saw her tell her story.
“It’s an old fear. It’s a conditioned fear,” Wehner says. “It’s a fear that someone’s going to say you’re lying.”
Wehner was cautious when the Los Angeles-based filmmaker Ryan White first contacted her through email a few years ago. White, who directed “The Keepers,” grew up in Atlanta but has family from Baltimore. His aunt attended Keough with Wehner.
It took a while for Wehner to agree to the project. She wanted to make sure White wouldn’t sensationalize the story, she says.
A trusting relationship between filmmaker and subject is “probably the most essential ingredient of a documentary,” says White, 35.
He eased Wehner into being filmed. In the beginning, Wehner often had her daughter or brother with her during interviews that were not taped. When Wehner was ready for the camera, she was filmed in quiet spaces, like her home or in Centennial Park in Ellicott City.
“The camera became my witness,” Wehner says.
Wehner says some parts of “The Keepers” are too difficult to watch — descriptions of abuse and scenes about her husband, Mike, who died in 2007 of cancer.
“I was so afraid to let him love me,” says Wehner, who got married when she was 21. “Out of what had happened in my life, I was so afraid to really … be loved or to love, because that was such a risky thing to do. And when he died I thought, ‘What a waste.'”
Wehner says she has avoided social media and news coverage of the case since “The Keepers” came out, though White and others have shared some of the positive responses with her.
She says that as an adult, she dealt with the sexual abuse by appearing to be a person who’s “in control of the situation.”
“So I do it well,” she says. “And then I go home, and then I shake and I cry, and I wonder — ‘Did I say the right things? Did I say too much? Will people understand it?'”
On social media, fans have praised Wehner as “brave,” ”eloquent,” ”a hero.”
“I want other survivors to know that I am just as broken, and I do have the wounds — and we all show it differently,” she says.
That was an important lesson for White, who says he took Wehner’s lead while directing “The Keepers.”
“I had never worked on a subject like this that dealt with trauma victims,” White says. “The one sentence that Jean always says, which I have really come to appreciate, is that everybody survives differently.”
Over the past six years, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has paid $472,000 in out-of-court settlements to 16 people who accused Maskell of abuse, including Wehner. The priest denied the allegations before his death in 2001, and he was never criminally charged.
In 1994, Wehner and Teresa Lancaster, another former Keough student, filed a high-profile, $40 million lawsuit accusing Maskell of abuse. Wehner was known as “Jane Doe,” Lancaster as “Jane Roe.”
The case never went to trial because the women filed it after the statute of limitations had expired. While they argued it should be allowed to go forward because they had recently recovered memories of abuse, the Maryland Court of Appeals ultimately rejected their position.
“By the time the decision of the courts was made, my faith was shattered,” Wehner says.
She was once a devout Catholic, raised in a family of 10 siblings. As an adult, she was an active member of St. William of York in Baltimore, where she served as a Eucharistic minister. She became a certified Catholic spiritual director.
Her faith began to unravel in 1992, when she was in her late thirties. She says that is when she began to recover memories of rape by Maskell and others at Keough. She reported what she remembered to church officials.
While Maskell was removed from his position as pastor of Holy Cross Church in South Baltimore, the archdiocese allowed him to return to the ministry the following year. He was then named pastor of St. Augustine’s in Elkridge.
“Archdiocesan staff and its investigator spent hundreds of hours and talked with dozens of witnesses, including school officials and former students,” church officials say in a statement posted on the archdiocese website. “No corroborating accusations were found.”
But in “The Keepers,” Wehner’s family describes how they were able to find others who alleged abuse by sending out a letter to Keough alumnae, seeking information.
The priest was ultimately removed from ministry in 1994, after others came forward with allegations.
Wehner says she’s grateful to Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, her fellow Keough alumnae who conducted their own investigation into Cesnik’s death. They are also featured in the documentary.
“They did what my belief in my church should have done 20-some years ago,” Wehner says.
Wehner now works as a life coach, reflexologist and practitioner of Reiki, a Japanese stress reduction technique. She chose the career path in the aftermath of the 1994 lawsuit.
For years after losing her Catholic faith, Wehner wrestled with what she believed.
“Through the course of years and a lot of struggle, I’ve come to one basic belief,” she says now. “I believe that love is really the bottom line. I believe that it’s not just loving others, but first it’s loving yourself so you can truly love others.”
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