There have been many movies about victims telling their stories for the first time, but “Procession” is one of the few to put survivors in control of the narrative itself. Filmmaker Robert Greene’s boundary-pushing documentary explores the experiences of six adult men who suffered sexual abuse from Catholic priests and clergy, but rather than simply asking them to recall their harrowing experiences, the movie finds them collaborating on reenactments as a form of drama therapy.
This risky gamble tracks with Greene’s other experimental approaches to teasing out the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction (“Kate Plays Christine,” “Bisbee ’17”), but it also introduces a more holistic qualify to the approach. The six victims at the center of “Procession” — Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano — work together throughout the movie to develop scenes that capture the power dynamic behind the abuse they suffered. They also revisit locations where they were abused and engage in fervent debate about the nature of their project.
The resulting experience (which is officially “made in consultation with” all six men) is equal parts investigative journalism, cinematic catharsis, and an unexpectedly affecting buddy movie. That’s because Greene’s subjects develop such a complex and layered chemistry over the course of their scenes together that “Procession” manages to transcend the seeming limitations of their trauma to allow their humanity to take charge.
And it continues in the aftermath of the movie’s success. When “Procession” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, five of the six subjects joined Greene to engage with audiences about their experience for the first time. A few weeks later, Netflix would acquire the movie for a fall release, where it has emerged at the center of a competitive Oscar race for Best Documentary.
At Telluride, Greene sat down with IndieWire alongside the bulk of his subjects and drama therapist Monica Phinney to discuss the evolution of the ambitious project, how it has impacted their lives, and what they think should happen to prevent further instances of abuse.
ROBERT GREENE, DIRECTOR: I saw this press conference with Mike, Tom, and Michael. They were joined by Rebecca Randles, the lawyer who’s worked with all of these guys in various capacities. I reached out to her and said, “We have an idea to work with survivors in this way.” She immediately got her partner on the phone and they asked us tough questions we weren’t ready to answer. But it started a dialogue. Ultimately, she cast the film. The reason it’s these six guys in the film is because Rebecca thought they would work best.
MICHAEL SANDRIDGE: Rebecca is not only our attorney but also our friend. When she told me about this, I burst out laughing. Who would even watch this? What? Honestly, it’s depressing! I really didn’t think anything further about it until we all got together to hear what it was going to be like.
GREENE: Coincidentally, the drama therapy conference was in Kansas City a couple of weeks later and I just decided to go. I had a roomful of drama therapists and said, “This is what we’d like to do.” And they said, “No. You shouldn’t do that.” I was getting pushback from the beginning, but we knew that we had to figure out how to do it safely. That ultimately led us to finding Monica.
MONICA PHINNEY, DRAMA THERAPIST: I was the chair of that drama therapy conference, and was very busy, which was why I wasn’t in the room. There were a lot of people there who were rightfully concerned. In drama therapy, we’re there for the goal of a therapeutic experience, not the art that happens along the way. Coming at it from the opposite way — where we’d have to create this finished product — well, I understood the hesitancy. But it resonated for me when I heard about it because I realized no one needed their hands held. They had the strength in themselves to do this. I knew it would be therapeutic because I believe in the therapeutic power of art.
TOM VIVIANO: I thought this could be a way to get my story out there. I never met any of these guys until we were coming together for interviews and so forth. As we got together, it was a relief, because I’d never been around so many people that’d been in the same situation that I had been in. I enjoyed our camaraderie. It didn’t matter if we liked or our loved each other; we had something in common. Nobody can take away what happened to us. The Catholic Church has tried to shut us down, to put a muzzle on us, but this film is letting it out.
MIKE FOREMAN: I was all in from day one because I felt like I had absolutely nothing to lose. I had lost my lawsuit and my appeal. It was just me with a sign standing in front of a church.
DAN LAURINE: I remember vividly that I was sitting in my truck when I got the call from Robert. He couldn’t exactly tell me what the film would be. I remember stopping the conversation and saying, “You guys have to realize what you’re dealing with. Our bullshit meters are piqued every day of our lives. We don’t trust anybody after what the church has done to us.” I had a big conversation about how there are so many things that can trigger us, which is amplified when there are more than one of us in the room.
JOE ELDRED: I almost missed out on this awesome experience. I had recently lost my leg and life sucked. I’d changed my phone number and email. I was not communicating with anybody. Then one day, I just decided to check my old email for the first time in six months and Rebecca had been trying to get ahold of me. It was two days before this all started. This has given me new purpose. It’s very lonely being on this road when you don’t know anybody who can understand it. I don’t mean to belittle anybody who’s been through any other kind of sexual abuse, but there’s something different when it’s a priest. It’s someone that you look up to. Someone who you’re taught as a kid is next to God. And then you’re told you’ll go to Hell if you ever talk about it.
I remember challenging Robert about who would ever want to see this movie. I wouldn’t. I was skeptical through a big chunk of it. But every time we met and talked, he gave me an opportunity to say no. He never pushed me beyond what I was willing to do. Being with this awesome group of guys was a brotherhood like no other. This has pulled me out of my pity party.
VIVIANO: The church has been known to spend literally millions of dollars fighting against us. When you look at the laws in Missouri, they’re against the victim. They’re all for the Catholic Church. The other thing that we’ve found as an obstacle is that you’ve got Catholic lawyers. When you grow up in this Catholic religion, it’s very ceremonial, and it’s hard to separate that from being a lawyer. They don’t do it. The attorney general in Missouri investigated the Catholic Church and he is a Catholic man. At the end of the day, he writes about how horrible they are and then he says, “Well, we need to give the church a little more leeway so they can fix themselves.”
FOREMAN: He actually said that we need to give the church more responsibility, which means we would have to trust the church more. Then he said that his heart breaks for the victims. But he added something outrageous: He said that even though the Catholic Church instituted meaningful reform in 2002, that does not wipe away the damage already done. He’s implying that the church wants to do the right thing when clearly they don’t buy their own actions. Since 2002, the church has done horrible shit. They’ve lied, they’ve covered up. I have a letter from the archbishop from 2013 where he covered me up in writing and lied about his own prayer. This attorney general in Missouri gave the Catholic Church a glowing endorsement, which makes people think, by golly, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. I wanted to ask him: “During your year-long investigation, how much money did you donate to the Catholic Church you were investigating? How many times were you on your knees in a Catholic Church during a yearlong investigation?” If that’s not a conflict of interest, then what the hell is?
SANDRIDGE: But there’s also hope. Bishop Steve in Wyoming actually went out of his way to be very kind to us. He has called and checked in to offer any help he can get. There are people trying to help. If we had the same impact as Black Lives Matter, the parish just would’ve been empty. People unknowingly contributed money to this. I never knew you could buy insurance for abuse.
GREENE: The goal of the film is to make these things clearer. The church does these things called “Healing Services,” which is just a spectacle that created the space for the abuse in the first place being repeated to absolve the church. Individuals like the bishop in Wyoming recognize the limitations of the structure. This film has given Catholics the space to process this because the church has actively tried to stop that.
SANDRIDGE: I’d like to see Ed Gavagan have some closure. His abuser, Joseph Hart, should be arrested. Hopefully, this will put some pressure there.
ELDRED: Back in the lawsuit, I was asked to write up a list of recommendations that would help stop the abuse that happened to me. I was assaulted or raped at least 13 times. When I went back to nativity for this film, I walked through and realized that all but one of those abuses wouldn’t have happened with what they’re doing at nativity now. I can only speak to one church, the one I grew up in, but they’ve made changes. I was abused in the confessional. That’s why they had locks on the doors. But now they don’t do confessional behind closed doors. It’s private but anyone can see you. I never would have been assaulted in the confessional if there were 10 people watching from the pews. There are people making changes.
However, the statute of limitations needs to be removed nationwide.
SANDRIDGE: I think priests should be allowed to marry. If you had married priests with children, they’d be able to understand, that solves it. Someone inside would understand the abuse of a child. The church is a corporation. Any corporation would have gotten its people out. What did they have on the people above them? The Bishops, the cardinals. This would never happened in another corporation.
LAURINE: It wasn’t until we interacted with each other that we realized there was a fraternity in the church that was teaching others how to abuse. They were showing each other the process of grooming children. I was paraded around at a private church function that was just other priests with their boys. It was like a country club meeting for these guys. There was much more collusion than what we even know.
SANDRIDGE: And that was just one city.
ELDRED: But our experiences were so similar that I would swear they had a classic seminary on how to assault children. Lake houses. Additional priests. It was all similar from guy to guy. That doesn’t happen by accident. It’s something taught, learn, shared.
VIVIANO: In “Spotlight,” there’s a priest they interview at the end who really didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. He thought it was his privilege. Bullshit! You’re talking about a fucking life you’ve destroyed! That’s the problem with the Catholic Church. I love Dan and Michael. But I disagree with their philosophy. They want the church to go on. I want it to burn to hell. We’ve got to keep silent, we’ve got to keep quiet —
SANDRIDGE: No, you don’t, Tom, and I’ll tell you why —
VIVIANO: No, Mike. This is my time. Please. When I went to Rebecca in February of 2012, I didn’t know everything. This was all raw. It was still coming out. Now, I go to therapy several times a week. My therapist specializes in boys who were raped by Catholic priests. Tell me if that’s not messed up. I’ve been damaged from the time I was a little kid up until just recently. I wanted to die and never knew why. I should’ve played professional baseball or soccer. I had everything going for me, but I wanted to die? I tried to commit suicide six times. Michael said the funniest thing to me in our meeting: “Good thing you sucked at that.” [laughs]
SANDRIDGE: That was our icebreaker.
VIVIANO: I preached for over 30 years in churches. At the time, I didn’t know about my abuse. I knew something was wrong with me because I wanted to die. [tears up] But to stand up in front of hundreds of people while preaching about God…in your own mind, you question yourself. So I no longer preach. I took a step back. I believe in God. My faith is strong. But there are days that God and I have a real big fight.
ELDRED: I am a Christian. I do attend church whenever I feel strong enough. It does take preparation to do that. It’s a simple faith though. Unlike the Catholic Church, I don’t need a bunch of books. I just believe the Bible in a non-denominational way.
SANDRIDGE: I’m a “C and E” Catholic. That’s Christmas and Easter. I leave before communion. The Catholic Church is perfect but the people inside are not. The basic belief is just be nice. I still believe in that basic goodness.
LAURINE: Mainly, I don’t believe in megachurches. I think they should all burn to the ground. But I love the idea of small-group churches, people who are reading for themselves and discussing as opposed to someone training them for what they should believe. The Taliban is thousands of uneducated people listening to a few people acting like they know what they’re talking about. The megachurch is the same thing. If your church doesn’t ask you to question yourself, to hold yourself up to a higher standard — if you just sing a few rock songs on Sunday and they kick you out the door — that’s not a church.
VIVIANO: When I finally came out with remembering all this, my own siblings wanted nothing to do with me. They were mad at me. I was kicked out of their family for a while. In order for me to have peace with them, I can’t talk about this with them. Everybody’s got to answer for themselves about how they want to do this. I can’t say that every survivor needs to do this.
LAURINE: I don’t see how making another movie like this would make sense. I don’t know what the market would be.
GREENE: What about going back to spaces where abuse happened?
LAURINE: I think we proved that was beneficial. You can take that haunted space back and just diminish the nightmare from your childhood. Since going back to the house where I was abused, I fully reclaimed that place. I would not recommend anyone do this alone. You need people at your back, 100 percent. I don’t regret any of it. It was very difficult. But my life is so much better now because I reclaimed power over those places. Ultimately, I really didn’t have any problem being in this film. It is a worthwhile effort. There are a lot of kids that didn’t make it and others — grown men now — who are still out there and just don’t have a voice.
ELDRED: The statistic is that one in six guys has been sexually assaulted, but you’re not allowed to talk about that. This movie will give guys the vehicle to talk about it. You don’t have to deal with it alone. It’s awesome to be a part of something that could give people hope.
“Procession” is now in select theaters and will start streaming on Netflix on Friday, November 19.