Why ‘Procession’ Is Unlike Any Other Film Tackling Sexual Abuse

This powerful look at the Catholic Church's scandal empowers the victims

“Procession” allows Catholics and non-Catholics alike to understand the dynamics of the U.S. clergy sex abuse scandal.

The “smoke of Satan in the Sanctuary” hates the purifying light of day.

The Netflix documentary combines press conferences from when the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals first came to light, interviews with victims and therapeutic professionals alike and fictional depictions of the trauma suffered by the six victims featured.

Taken together, it offers a powerful new approach to exposing the darkest recent episode in American Catholic Church history.

Procession | Official Trailer | Netflix

Incidents of clergy abuse were not “isolated” cases, as the United Conference of Catholic Bishops attempted to advertise through a study by John Jay University when the scandal first exploded in Boston and Baton Rouge in the 1980s.

There was a systematic attempt in the upper echelons of the Church not merely to suppress knowledge of the extent of the abuse but to foment it. The very abusers who groomed other abusers were the “authorities” put in charge of adjudicating the cases of those priests and Bishops (and now a Cardinal) implicated in the crimes committed.

Though the relocation and even promotion of abusers never (so far as we know) became policy in the United States’ Catholic Church, it’s clear now it was a widespread practice.

The victims presented in “Procession” deserve to be lauded for their bravery and candor in participating in this project. They are Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Lourine, Michael Sandridge and Tom Viviano. None knew each other before director Robert Greene set about to make the film, but it becomes evident the men formed deep bonds during the film’s production.

The abuse detailed happened in and around the Diocese of Kansas City and stretches back as far as 40 years.

What makes the documentary so different — beyond its blending of artful re-enactments of the abuse in question — is its attention to the former victims’ participation in making the film.

Each participant guides the filmmakers in the crafting of his story. This, in itself, is powerful and moving.

Hence, while the making of the documentary is clearly therapeutic for the participants, it offers a similar service for the viewer as well. For faithful Catholics (of which I am one; imperfectly observant and practicing) and non-Catholics (and sufferers of all manner of abuse), shedding light on the mechanism of evil is an important step in the complicated healing process.

So, even for those who have not endured any such abuse, the film offers an important lesson in the suffering lives of others and offers us insight in the ways we might help them travel their journeys of recovery.

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What shines through is the deep respect the filmmakers have for their subjects and their tragic histories. These men have clearly been marked deeply by their experiences. But their strength and resilience—along with their fragility as fellow travelers in this veil of tears—is inspiring.

Viewers not only sympathize with their anger, pain and confusion—especially when they detail the torturous experience of being “good Catholic boys” attempting to negotiate the trauma of their abuse while struggling to assert their own dignified personhoods—but learn valuable lessons in the exercise of the courage it took to survive that torture but to tell their stories.

Such torture entails their experiences as altar boys and the strange experience of confessing “their sins” to their own abusers. Their torture entails their heroic attempts to shield their own good parents and families, whom they do not blame from the horrors they suffered.

Their torture entails suffering that took place in the second most safe place (only to their own homes) according to their Catholic upbringing—in the House of the Lord Himself.

The fictional elements in “Procession” do not detract from the core truths the film seeks to express. Rather, the film’s mixture of the fictional with the documentary underscores the relationship between real fiction and truth-telling.

Life itself does not offer a narrative frame capable of offering sufficient boundaries for the communication of real meaning. The film’s storytelling blend weaves a tapestry with the right mix of fact and storytelling.

In the end, “Procession” is the depiction of six suffering individuals as they impose their individual wills upon a reality that thieves and ruiners attempted to steal from them. And it illustrates beautifully the ways in which they successfully wrest back from malign forces their own stories and, thereby, their own identities.

They are better for the crafting and telling of their truly harrowing stories. And so are we. God Bless them.

Full Disclosure: I was the Principal of a private Catholic School in Baton Rouge during the 1990s that was founded and operated by a group of lay-Catholics dedicated to Regnum Christi. That Catholic Lay group supported the Legionaries of Christ, an order of Catholic Priests of Pontifical Rite founded by one of the most vile frauds in the history of the Catholic Church, Marciel Maciel.

While I ran their school, I resisted admonitions to join the Legionaries of Christ. For good reason, as it turned out.

Gregory Borse teaches film appreciation, history & development, philosophy, literary theory and a variety of literatures on a small campus in a large university system in the South. His short story “Joyellen” was selected as an online exclusive for West Trade Review’s Summer 2021 issue. He has published or presented in the past on Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Stephen Frear’s “The Grifters” and seminal horror films ranging from “Nosferatu” to “Halloween,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Strangers,” among others.

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