Film Review: Procession (Netflix 2021) Print E-mail

Procession film(The Truth Seeker January-April 2022)

Director Robert Greene took three years to make the Netflix documentary Procession, which premiered in late 2021. However, the lives of the six grown men the film charts, raped as adolescents by priests in the Kansas City Catholic diocese, have been shattered for decades. The violence and disregard done to them includes the agony of the abuse itself and the humiliation they endured after the scandal broke in 2011. By my count, the six were attacked and injured three times: by a priest known to their families, by the church and its coverup, and by the lack of prosecution, which, as a third crime, aids and abets the first two. Indeed, either by death or a financial settlement, a couple dozen pedophiles dodged justice; that also goes for their Catholic overlords who declined to be interviewed for the film. With epic ambition, Procession documents the psychological toll on six middle-aged men as well as adopts an experimental form to render the abuse’s stark effects. It dares to present their stories in conflictual terms: an artistic primal scream of a feature film amid the therapeutic reenactments of the men’s irreversible shame.

Greene, avoiding the journalistic exposé, asks his subjects to co-create the film with him and cinematographer Robert Kolodny. A maverick of the collaborative documentary, Greene’s resume includes the haunting Bisbee ’17. That movie told the story of the 1917 antiunion, head-busting deportation of immigrant laborers in Bisbee, Arizona. The director induced many townsfolk, some descendants of the displaced, to reenact the never-prosecuted crime in situ.

With Procession, Greene hires a certified drama therapist as guide, in hopes some insight or healing for the men may occur. To disinter their blighted pasts, the six write scripts or personal narratives, individually and as a group, they re-traumatize themselves in the process, and they come apart at the seams. What saves them from total dysfunction is having been abused by the Kansas City cohort. This, in turn, creates a palpable bond. As the journey moves forward, the men often choke on the body aches roiling to the surface but their mutual support pulls them through. “I’ve got your back, brother.” Greene’s mix of theater and reality, filmed as if the two are distinct, ends up convincing the men and, I presume, most viewers that there’s no real distinction.

I understand the principle of drama therapy. It’s a psychotherapeutic vehicle that employs scene-writing, set-building, and role-playing around a common theme. It took me a while to see that the therapy erupts spontaneously, more in the planning and the rehearsals and less in the finished production. It erupts during fraught discussions of how to portray each man’s torment, how to nudge open, with revengeful violence lurking, the recollection of the crimes. What’s the point? Not the fully reenacted scenes, as surreal as they often are. The point is to let the dramatic process both burden and release buried emotions.

The film shows us that for the men, with the aid of their lawyer, Rebecca Randles, a heroically pugnacious attorney, the only path to retrieve some of the horror is to work together in the unsafe space of their shared vulnerabilities now. In this sense, the film is a poststructural marvel, falling far from the tree of what we expect the documentary should be. Procession records the chaos unmitigated pain deserves. The resulting mayhem is quite unusual: The movie revisits the “past” trauma so a rawer, updated, and intentional trauma becomes the content of the work itself.

One more thing about chaos. The men’s cases remain unresolved, criminally and emotionally: one pedophile is on the run; during the film, a bishop is exonerated by a Cheyenne, Wyoming, prosecutor and by the Vatican; another case has been dismissed as “not credible” and an accompanying lawsuit thrown out since it’s “beyond the statute of limitations,” itself a criminal law; and one case is still in the courts. These collared bastards—Jeffrey-Epstein wannabes—need to be I.D.-ed, which I’ll do at the end.

So disjointed is the film’s play with documentary form that the opening scene feels awkward and amateurish. It’s a cheesy restaging of a mass where a young actor, Terrick Trobough, who plays and represents the men’s boyhood selves, drops an incense burner. He is belittled and scorned by a bishop, played by Tom Viviano, a victim/survivor. The scene announces a cringeworthy craft we assume will be the film’s fare. But, rather willfully, it demonstrates the very unprofessionalism of the subject, resurrecting the pain of child abuse. The film rights itself by presenting and documenting its genesis. Quickly, the real story emerges: the six men negotiate what the project will entail and why most want to do it. Some are enthusiastic, even grateful to exorcise a demon or two; others are reluctant; one is all-in, pressing his case with explosive claims. Contrarily, the men express a dread of continuing, which becomes the thing that pushes them to continue. The documentary unfolds like nothing we expect.

Here’s a précis of six extraordinary men.

Tom Viviano’s case is still under court review, so he can’t comment on it; he supports his pals by acting as a priest holding mass in one scene and holding confession in another. In both, he terrorizes Terrick, who is unfazed by the (feigned) attacks he receives. Michael Sandridge is even-tempered as he willingly acts in others’ dramas; he mentions how much he’d like to kill the pedophile in his past. With his brother, Dan Laurine searches for the site of his rape, twice, the memory not easily accessible. Beside a lake, decades earlier, he broke a priest’s fishing rod and had to “pay the price.” Ed Gavagan, a New York City contractor, says he can “chew the balls off a union boss” but he can barely speak of the assault he endured at thirteen. His case involved a priest who he knew in Kansas City, was relocated to Wyoming, and there, one summer, raped him.

Joe Eldred appears the most damaged. He was hit on by several priests, first in his Catholic elementary school, later at a lake house. Visiting these sites awakens a sleeping giant of dread: He shakes, he freezes, he cries and hugs his companions, though he keeps telling himself, “It’s time, it’s time.” At the lake, he can’t enter the lair where he was held and passed around; instead, he calls a friend, offering the film’s darkest line. Time has stopped, he says, because “I’m standing on the porch of my nightmares.” As he speaks, a beaten-dog whimpering engulfs his eyes; he reveals how trapped he is in both times.

Eldred is the lone man in Procession whose arduous journey feels like a breakthrough. Not so for the sixth man, Mike Freeman. Until 2011 when the abuse scandal broke, he says he existed in a “dissociative state.” His rage has never lessened. It worsened once his claim went before an independent review board—and was denied. Rarely has anyone’s profanity, wholly appropriate, ignited the screen. (The exception may be HBO’s Succession. But there the cussing is so theatrically stylized in everyone that it ends up defining no one.) Freeman’s scene features him declaring what he should have said to the review board. If nothing else in this film about the lasting brutality of sexual assault on a grown man can convince you, Freeman’s meltdown will.

The movie tries to say something it can’t quite articulate but it persists in the belief that it can. It took me a few viewings and a long walk to understand that its unsaid conclusion is obvious: the rift in the core of these men’s being is unhealable.

The title, Procession, refers to the Catholic sacrament that enacts Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection as well as the journey the six men take in the film. The duality reminds me of a postmodern tenet of Jean-Francois Lyotard: contemporary artworks often question the grand metanarratives our pasts. Here that metanarrative is the grandeur of the Catholic confessional, that its privilege is sacrosanct, a direct line to God. The church appoints rights to itself under “canon law” and creates phantasmagorial rituals that allow all sorts of deviants in via the privacy of confession. Not all priests are sexual deviants, of course. But enough are, and they groom children and their parents with the slickest of clerical lies. Members of the priestly club tell mom and dad they need not worry; their boys can spend a week at the lake with the pious padre, no problem.

Greene’s movie is not the first (or last) work of confrontational art to unmask such pastor-parent-child deception. Aiding this movement is a tsunami of court cases and bankruptcies, which have decimated the church in the last twenty-five years. The two driving forces have been first, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, who offer safe places for victims to come forward. And second, the work of A. Richard Sipe, the former priest, turned psychotherapist, who documented the culture of pedophiliac corruption in his Sex, Priests and Power (1995). The film Spotlight, which was based on the book, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015.

Sipe’s research showed that half of priests violate their vows of chastity. Ten to fifteen percent of priests have assaulted kids. Most of them, bad apples in the human family, sought the priesthood knowing the church would issue them carte-blanche access to children. If they got caught, they hid within the loyalty of their brethren. (Sipe counseled thousands, prone as they were to act on their fantasies.) Only in high-profile cases did clerical superiors curb bad behavior by moving priests to “treatment” facilities like the notoriously reclusive one in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, run by the Paracletes. Sick men there were helped and not helped, the latter reassigned in the state anyway. This led to more rapes and eventually a bankruptcy settlement with the Santa Fe Archdiocese in 2018. Many of the 385 claims for an estimated $150 million remain unpaid.

And, recalling the metanarrative of confession, perhaps the worst exploitation continues: The church appoints priests as the principal intermediaries between parishioner and God (like attorney-client privilege) where secrets, once revealed in confession, are forgiven and often used as blackmail.

Several of the men talk of their confessors whose authority was all-encompassing, intimidating, and self-justifying. “If you tell anyone, you and your parents are going to hell,” Sandridge was instructed; he never told. Gavagan says he cowered even though “I knew what he was doing was not right” because the priest “was the definition of what’s right.” And Laurine recalls hearing one Reverend Father who joined in his rape comment afterward to Laurine and a fellow priest “how much fun it was.” In a heart-wrenching encounter at the kitchen table, Laurine’s mother tells him that when she found out about the crimes in 2011, she says, “I was going to kill myself.”

Despite the tens of thousands of abuse cases, the church still operates lawlessly. There is little or no accountability. Perhaps the saddest fact of Procession is that like corporate fraudsters, white-collar tax cheats, and White-House insurrectionists, the Kansas City diocese has dodged justice merely by writing a check, which it did in 2015, settling with thirty-two plaintiffs for $10 million. A paltry sum, it did not, unlike in Santa Fe, bankrupt the diocese. Six years on, a bit late, the church fessed up and named twenty-eight “clergy with substantiated abuse allegations,” most with more than one credible accusation.

As promised, here’s a list of the Kansas City pedophiles mentioned in the film and their status. The men name them outright in several contexts. Only one, Shawn Ratigan, is in federal prison but not for sexual assault; he was sent up on a child pornography charge. (Bishop Robert Finn was paddled by the church for failing to report Ratigan’s porn stash.) The hall of shame includes Hugh Monahan, laicized (to make lay or secularize); Thomas O’Brien, deceased; Thomas Reardon, laicized; Michael Tierney, laicized, now deceased; Thomas Ward, deceased; Mark Honhart, permanently removed from ministry, Bishop Joseph V. Sullivan, deceased; and Bishop Joseph Hart, prohibited from public ministry, who did rape Ed Gavagan and to whom he, Gavagan, appealed the exoneration to Pope Francis who, in turn, sent a two-thousand-word letter, apologizing. Francis asked Gavagan to forgive him and to pray for him; he said he hoped his case “would be addressed,” that is, adjudicated by someone. Gavagan comments: “I just don’t think the Pope had the kind of clout that he thought that he had.”

Four of the six men’s legal cases are over; Tom Viviano’s awaits a court date and Mike Freeman’s has been reopened. Michael Sandridge’s rapist, after being kicked out of the church, died in 2020. Gavagan wants to use the film to tell his daughter what he’s been through. And no one knows where Dan Laurine’s abuser is.

The worst dilemma belongs to Eldred. He writes “A Letter to Joe,” his younger self who was raped often between ages eight and thirteen. He reads it aloud to Terrick in the Catholic church where he was first abused. Joe’s voice-over reading ends the film and exemplifies the time-traveling theme of Procession. That the six men are adults who will never forget their assaults. That they are the children who lived through those assaults. And that they are the children they were before they were raped. Each man struggles to reinhabit the innocent boy he once was. This paradox, a Catch-22, Joe articulates in his letter to himself, and it is worth the hefty quotation:

I know what has happened, and what is about to happen to you. In this regard, you actually know more than me. There are still things I know that you do, memories I’ve not yet remembered and yet still weigh upon my mind. You will lock away those memories in the days to come. You’ll be trapped, pushed down, and silenced. But you do it as the only way you [can] to survive. I know time moves forward but I am still anchored in the past—by you, to you, and with you. . . . How awful it is to be locked inside, to be both prisoner and jailer. How awful it is to not just be silenced in the present but to be the originator of that silence in the past.

After viewing the film twice, I am again repulsed by the Catholic totalitarian order. The historical crimes of the church would fill a dozen bibles, but the most vexing crime is that the church hierarchy shields their own against defenseless children and the adult survivors who want justice for their younger selves. That shield preserves the secular state’s hands-off inquiry of the priestly class, particularly in America, where the church-state divide often ensures the government has little investigatory power over the church, especially when cases go back decades. It’s maddening that the church is not held to account because their right to self-determination obscures the collective right of the society in which they receive social, health, and safety benefits, which the taxed citizens pay for. No crime that religious institutions in the twentieth century have perpetrated is greater than this—to disregard and escape the statutory rights and bodily protection we grant the most vulnerable among us.