Procession details the healing process of survivors of sexual assault perpetrated by KC Catholic priests
TW: This article discusses sexual assault, abuse, and trauma.
One of the first things that strikes you about Procession is the title card. It’s superimposed in The Exorcist-style font over a shot of an altar boy standing in a choir loft, backlit by a stained glass window. The image is arresting, but what really stands out is the filmmaking credit. Rather than listing a single director, the card includes 22 names.
Columbia-based documentarian Robert Greene’s name doesn’t appear until the start of the fourth line. At the very top are the names of six men, none of whom are filmmakers by trade: Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano. These men are all survivors of sexual assault perpetrated by Catholic priests who were active in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.
It’s clear the story you’re about to see doesn’t belong to any one person. Instead, it’s an active collaboration to tell the stories of the survivors, and help them heal.
“Their voices had to guide the process,” Greene says. “That wasn’t hard, because they’re brilliant men, and once we got going they were excited to take on that challenge.”
Procession follows Eldred, Foreman, Gavagan, Laurine, Sandridge, and Viviano as they work with Greene and a drama therapist, Monica Phinney. The mens’ goal is to claim and reshape the childhood traumas that have impacted their lives for decades through acting out dramatic scenes that put the power back in their hands and allow them to respond to their experiences. Greene says the approach may be different from a typical documentary, but the intention is the same.
“It’s a lot of what documentaries are anyway,” Greene says. “You’re listening to the people who are on screen. It’s just a little more focused on a goal, and that goal is to help each other.”
Eldred says the open creative alliance between the participants and Greene created an atmosphere of trust that allowed everyone to be as vulnerable and supportive as they needed to be—not only for the success of the project, but for their own growth.
“It’s hard to trust after being abused like we all were. It’s hard to be vulnerable and put yourself out there,” Eldred says. “When Robert stepped out of being the sole director and allowed us to tell our own stories and gave us the freedom to say no or yes, it allowed me to own my story and go as far as I felt comfortable going. He never pushed me farther and harder, which allowed me to go farther and harder, and to explore as much as I could.”
“A crisis and an opportunity”
Greene says that the journey to making Procession started when his previous documentary, Bisbee ‘17, was making festival rounds. In that film, Greene worked with current-day citizens of Bisbee, Arizona to re-enact a harrowing event from 1917: the forced deportation of 1,300 striking mine workers across state lines.
“I got a question during a Q&A where someone asked if I had therapists on the project. My answer was completely inadequate,” Greene says. “Reflecting on that, my sister-in-law told me to read [Bessel van der Kolk’s book] The Body Keeps the Score, and I learned that one method for helping work through trauma is staging things theatrically and using drama therapy effectively. She told me, ‘This is what you’ve been doing your whole career.’ I realized this was both a crisis and opportunity at the same time.”
Greene says this sudden realization gave his filmmaking a new sense of purpose, one he was eager to explore further.
“I thought, ‘What’s the point of doing these movies?’ If I’ve really been doing this all along, why not actually make it therapeutic and try to help,” Greene says.
Greene explains that at the same time he was starting to engage with this subject in 2018, news was coming out about the history of abuse in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, simultaneous to the release of abuse findings in Pennsylvania following a two-year grand jury investigation. Looking into these events led Greene to find the August 2018 press conference that opens Procession, in which Viviano, Sandridge, and Foreman address their abuse alongside lawyer Rebecca Randles.
“I was completely moved by these guys,” Greene says. “It was the lightning bolt that happens at the beginning of a project, when everything I’ve been thinking about suddenly hits, and I had a desire to reach out.”
Eldred wasn’t part of the press conference Greene saw, but was invited to join the project by Randles after Greene contacted her.
“What drew me to it was the thought of meeting other guys like me,” Eldred says. “Ultimately when I began to understand the scope of the film, I saw it could help so many people, not just men who’d been abused, but anyone who had trauma in their background.”
“They get me and I get them”
Many of Greene’s previous films have involved elements of performance or reenactment. This time, however, the process was different and more intentional. Greene says that from the very beginning, it was important that trained professionals and people with connections to the men involved have active influence.
“The role of therapists in the project was essential,” Greene says. “Monica Phinney, Rebecca [Randles], and [therapist] Sasha Black are all trauma trained. Their skepticism and doubt and, ultimately, support were really important in guiding the process.”
Over the course of the film, the six men are asked not only to re-engage with traumatic moments from their past in the hope of overcoming them, but to take some big emotional risks in order to help each other.
One such risk involved Viviano, Sandridge, and Laurine willingly donning vestments to play the roles of abusive Catholic clergy in scenes staged by the other men. Seeing Sandridge, Viviano, and Laurine in the costumes of their abusers feels both shocking and moving in the strength and selflessness it displays.
“At one point you hear Michael say, ‘Why did I say yes? Because Ed [Gavagan] asked me to do it,’” Greene says. “Could Ed have ever gone through the process of what he does with anyone other than Michael? I don’t think so. Could Mike [Foreman] have unleashed his fury onto anyone other than Tom? I don’t think he could’ve. It’s a testament to the guys who took on those roles and said ‘I’m here, give it to me, do it.’”
Eldred says that willingness to share each other’s journeys created a unique and vital bond between him and his fellow survivors.
“I can’t stress how liberating that was to not be alone,” Eldred says. “In your mind, the Titanic has sunk and you’re the only one in that lifeboat out on the open ocean. Now there are other men in that boat who know me, know my face. They get me and I get them.”
Near the end of the film, Eldred returns to one of the sites of his abuse, Nativity of Mary Parish in Independence, Missouri. In the parish hall, Eldred reads a letter addressed to his 10-year-old self (his age at the time of his abuse), personified by actor Terrick Trobough, who stands in as the youthful proxy for all of the men. It’s a heartbreaking, direct, and vulnerable moment Eldred says was years in the making.
“I tried to connect with 10-year-old Joe for so long. When that opportunity came up, I took it as a personal challenge,” Eldred says. “Over the course of a few weeks, the letter came out. 10-year-old Joe finally had his voice, and Joe today reconnected with him on a real level.”
Eldred says the outcome was transformational, allowing him to finally start bridging the gap between the child he was and the adult he’s become.
“I feel the healthiest and most centered I’ve been,” he says. “Reading it in the church, Robert left it totally up to me to say, ‘No that’s too hard. But it felt right.”
“The most important experience of my life”
Before its theatrical release November 12, Procession premiered at a number of film festivals, beginning with the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last September. Eldred says the experience of seeing the film with an audience was nerve-wracking but rewarding.
“I didn’t know what to expect, and I definitely didn’t know how big it was to go to Telluride. Before then, I’d watched it with my wife in my living room,” Eldred says. “It’s a surreal experience in that you put yourself out there, but the only people who have seen it are people who care about you.”
The reception, however, has been unanimously positive and affirming.
“Each of the screenings I’ve been to ends with a standing ovation, and it’s humbling to see that people care enough to watch these strangers go through the process we did,” Eldred says.
Greene says the experience of making Procession has made him see the importance of addressing mental health in his own life.
“I’m in therapy for the first time in my life because of this film. It’s not just because making it was hard, though it was,” Greene says. “I see the possibility of therapy. I see the potential of therapy. I can address my own past, empowered by what I see these men doing. That’s the most important experience of my life.”
Eldred says he’s hopeful the film will help further conversations around mental health, sexual abuse, and trauma.
“Especially for men, it’s not currently socially acceptable to talk about being sexually assaulted,” Eldred says. “There are so many people walking around with secret traumas. I hope husbands can talk to their wives about what’s happened to them, or children can talk to their parents. I hope and pray those traumas are discussed.”
Greene agrees, adding he hopes the film helps filmmakers to better tell important, emotionally vulnerable stories in a way that respects the subjects’ experiences and needs.
“Hopefully seeing what these guys have done will help others take some of the same steps I’ve taken,” Greene says. “The agreement is we’re making something together. That’s not what documentaries used to be, but it’s what they’re becoming more and more. I think filmmakers can learn from what we pulled off here.”