Robert Greene’s ‘Procession’ Puts a New Spin on Healing From Sexual Abuse

Bless me father, for I have sinned. I could have done good, but I was just a young sheep and was led astray by a bad man in a turned around collar. Robert Greene’s documentary “Procession,” takes on the Catholic Church in Kansas City, and how it allowed sexual abuse to flourish and go unpunished, allowing the victims to bear the brunt of both the trauma of the original molestation, and the ostracism they felt when they brought it to the surface of a deeply religious community. 

“Procession” follows six different Midwestern men who have nothing in common but the abuse they suffered at the appendages of the men of god they trusted. It is a hybrid kind of documentary which breaks traditional form. It includes interviews, and reenactments, but they turn out to be role-players in a therapeutic safe space, as Greene uses filmmaking as a healing tool. The film opens with a 2018 TV press conference held by Attorney Rebecca Randles, who has investigated nearly 400 abuse allegations involving Catholic priests in Kansas City. She represents the victims of the pedophilic priests who had been preying on young altar boys for years. The conference included three of the documentary subjects. 

In the film, which was shot over the course of three years, Michael Sandridge, Tom Viviano, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, and Joe Eldred collaborate with the director and drama therapist Monica Phinney. Each of six victims of Catholic sexual abuse featured in the documentary directs their own vignette, based on the incidents they lived through, and each gets directing credit in the documentary. Laurine is the only profiled victim with true filmmaking credits, having worked as a location scout and production manager for movies. Much of the filming was done in the Kansas City area and his expertise helped him find some of the actual settings where some of the men’s assaults occurred. Greene also got permission from the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese to film inside some of the churches.

Each of the subjects write their scripts, choose the settings, and cast the stories. Some of the characters are played by actors, others by the victims themselves. Some of the subjects, like Tom Viviano, who cannot tell their own stories, because of pending or ongoing legal action, play parts in the others’ stories, sometimes cast as the pedophile priests themselves in the short film anthology. Viviano and Sandridge, a Kansas City interior designer, both clerical robes in the vignettes. In doing so, they become their abusers. The younger versions of themselves are all played by the actor Terrick Trobough, who wins the part because of his tough demeanor.

The filmmakers revisit their ugliest moments in real life and through the scripted vignettes. Their stories are similar, but the men are not. The films cover a wide range of styles and tones. The first short film is a dramatization of a baptism gone horribly wrong, and possibly evil. The only real mishap is the altar boy drops a thurible during the ceremony, but it leads to a standoff with what looks like an agent of Satan itself. The priest has the green glowing eyes of an otherworldly being. 

Most of the priests who are named as abusers served in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. One was with the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. They settled lawsuits with other victims of their priest, but deemed Mike Foreman’s allegations not credible. He filed a lawsuit, but lost because time ran out. “The statute of limitations is the crown jewel of the Catholic Church,” he says. The Church runs out the clock in a coordinated effort to evade, by moving pedophiles around from one church to another.

Foreman’s perpetual anger is his coping mechanism. He has alienated himself and relies on everyday ritual to keep him moving forward. He is pissed off that people don’t believe him. He curses the Catholic church for letting the abuse happen, and protecting the offenders. He doesn’t just use the lord’s name in vain, though, he names names, points to identifiable photos and refers to archbishops and cardinals as “motherfuckers.” 

He is less angry at the priest who molested him when he was an 11-year-old than he is with the Catholic priest presiding at the independent review board who finds legal loopholes for the priests. And he’s just as angry at the parents who ignored these children’s pain, and excused the abuses because of their religious devotion. His own mother took him back to the priest’s house for another counseling session after the incidents, she even baked the priest a chocolate cake.

Earlier this year, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cleared Bishop Joseph Hart of Cheyenne, Wyoming of multiple allegations that he sexually abused minors. This included teenaged Ed Gavagan, who returns to Cheyenne, to ring a bell in a church he hasn’t been inside in over 30 years. Gavagan’s vignette recreates the bedroom at the Cheyenne rectory where he was abused. He spray-paints the entire set white, including a white crucifix on a white wall. A man in clerical garb sits on the corner of a bed, his pans are down and his legs are open. Gavagan then demolishes the set with a sledgehammer. Earlier in the documentary, Ed compared the group of survivors to the Avengers, and was just waiting for the chance to wield Thor’s hammer.

The film is not without its miracles. Priests brought Eldred to a house on Lake Viking near Cameron, Missouri, where he and other boys were abused. He gets almost immediate closure after visiting the spot he was molested. He’d been having nightmares since he was a teenager, and the visit stops these overnight. Eldred and Laurine realize their tales were almost identical. They just happened at different churches and on a different lake.

Moving at a deliberate and steady pace, the documentary chronicles every stage of the survivors’ process.  They find power in staging things, power in role play, power in transforming or destroying spaces. The work moves between process and the final short films, but always comes back to the ongoing reality. Four of the six men in the film received settlements from civil lawsuits, but none of the accused priests were criminally charged. Even in triumph, these men had had their voices taken from them. What’s worse than not being listened to? The pain is authentic. Each of them are routinely moved and brought to tears as the healing comes through confrontation. The documentary elicits sympathy for the victimized but also viscerally bestows empowerment.

“Procession” is, at its core, an extended group therapy session. These participants are there to reenact the most painful memories of their abuses. Survivors of any form of abuse are forced to come to terms with the past, but a single incident can trigger PTSD. Some of the subjects have a hard time just being inside a church. The smell of incense, color of stained glass, or the feel of a pew can set off bad memories. Society is only beginning to examine the effects of trauma and the documentary is a major intervention into these subjects’ lives. There is a real danger it might backfire as the recreations risk re-traumatizing the survivors.

The Catholic Church indoctrinates believers to follow unquestioningly, and the men at the center of the documentary were abused at an inconceivable level. They will never get back what they lost. The collaborative teamwork is therapeutic and the men all had each other’s backs. The subjects form a mutual support group. In a confession booth scenario, Joe Eldred can’t say his dialogue and asks another victim to feed the actors his lines. All of the subjects are from the Midwest, where men are expected to be tough. 

Robert Green shares directing credits with all six of the men, and the filmmaking experiment is immensely effective. Greene approaches the film free of judgment, and allows “Procession” to become a platform, giving these silenced men a voice The film and the therapy are innovative. In one sense, this is the first documentary since Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Psychomagic, A Healing Art” to conduct therapy in front of the whole world. It works on a cinematic level, and appears to work as therapy.

Procession”begins streaming Nov. 19 on Netflix.