Jean Hargadon Wehner’s abuse began with confession. As a freshman at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland, she prayed before deciding to tell a parish priest about the sexual abuse she’d suffered as a child. She thought she needed God’s forgiveness, and in the Catholic Church, only a priest can offer the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. Forty years later, she recounts in Netflix’s The Keepers that Father Neil Magnus, the priest on the other side of the confessional booth, masturbated to her story of assault. “I’m not sure if God can forgive this,” he told her.
After her confession, he brought Jean to the office of the school counselor, Father Joseph Maskell, and they raped her. In subsequent years, Maskell would summon her to his office, rape her, compel her to swallow his cum, which he called a holy sacrament, and then send her back to class. Sometimes, he brought strangers—including other members of the clergy—to join him. Jean was not alone: Maskell regularly inflicted a litany of traumas on other girls. And for years, no one interfered—until Jean confided in Sister Cathy Cesnik, her 26-year-old English teacher at Archbishop Keough, who promised to intervene. The Keepers investigates Cesnik’s 1969 murder, which remains unsolved, even though Jean claims that Maskell brought her to the body and whispered, “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?”
After recounting the abuse in chilling detail, Jean explains that she was terrified to tell her husband about it. She thought he would leave her or tell her it was her fault, as Maskell did. To her great relief, her husband offered compassionate support and said, “I still consider myself the first person that was with you.” This line stuck out to me. Jean and her husband were “good Catholics” who saved themselves until marriage, but I wonder why, after all that Jean went through, was this concept of purity so important?
In second grade, I received my first communion in a white dress and white veil, which all the girls wore to symbolize purity, while the boys wore their best navy and black suits. The girls wore white dresses, similar to the white gown we wore before as babies when a priest poured baptismal holy water over our foreheads, and just as we would wear in the future when a priest officiated our weddings.
Before a child can first receive the Eucharist—the bread that becomes Jesus’s body and the wine that becomes Jesus’s blood—they must give their first confession. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” my second grade classmates and I were taught to say. We shared our darkest emotion or action with the priest hidden behind the screen. He told us how to atone: 100 “Hail Mary’s,” 25 rounds of rosary beads, or maybe an apology to our parents. I spent days anguishing over my confession, straining to find the awful thing I’d certainly done. Had I coveted my neighbor’s trampoline? Had I been hateful to my mother when she woke me up for school?
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