Netflix’s ‘Procession’ seeks to treat the trauma of sexual abuse with art

It is barely more than a gesture, but one of the more striking moments in “Procession,” the director Robert Greene’s disquieting “making of” movie, occurs when Kansas City lawyer Rebecca Randles opens her garage door and all one can see inside are file boxes, dozens upon dozens, all relating to the approximately 400 cases she has handled since 1992. All of them concern child sex abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests.

Sometimes pictures are more effective than words. “Procession” puts that to the test.

This film is not about crime or punishment. It’s about damage and recovery.

An experimental film about an experiment, “Procession” could also be called “Six Angry Men”—the half-dozen alleged victims of priestly abuse who, in collaboration with director Greene and drama therapist Monica Phinney, use theater and role-playing to come to terms with their suffering. Randles and her clients were approached by Greene and his producers, Susan Bedusa Bennett Elliott and Douglas Tirola, after a 2018 press conference. This was in response to the eye-opening grand jur investigation into Pennsylvania clergy sexual abuse. It would explore the use of art to treat trauma and possibly turning trauma into art.

The men involved—Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge and Tom Viviano—have very similar stories of having been groomed and abused by pedophile priests who were then protected, transferred or simply allowed to perpetrate additional crimes after allegations were made. That the men, some now in their 60s, would choose to cooperate with such a project—one that required them to translate their own stories into mini-screenplays and sometimes relied on them to play the abusing priests themselves—is a testimony to the degree of anger that continues to burn within them. It’s not easy to watch. It isn’t meant to be.

“Procession” is a film that makes you think. It certainly doesn’t make you comfortable.

Greene, from a journalistic perspective, defies a fundamental rule: None of the priests depicted (at least one is a fugitive while others have died), has been convicted by a court. Yet, they are still referred to as guilty men throughout. That this seems improper is not to question their guilt—or, heaven forbid, question the credibility of victims whose stories have been dismissed since they were children. The ethics of documentary filmmaking requires that there be a presumption, at the very least, of innocence. Of course, the fact that the accused have largely evaded prosecution over the years—abetted by the church itself, the victims would be quick to point out—makes such a standard elusive. The movie is not about crime and punishment. It’s about damage and recovery.

To that end, what we get to see are reenactments of pivotal points in each man’s life brought to the “stage”—which may be an altar, a sacristy, a bedroom or a lakefront cottage. Mike Foreman is the most outspoken of the six victims. His unceasing vulgarity renders his speech inarticulate. But at least he’s honest. He imagines his six-year-old meeting with an independent review board. This session dissolves into recriminations, and profanity. It’s not clear if the meeting ended in this manner or if Foreman intended it. It is still cathartic for Foreman.

Both the six men and viewers are uneasy or uncomfortable at the idea of Terrick Trobough being cast as each victim’s boy character. Terrick Trobough is young actor who will play the role of each victim. He is a mature, well-informed child who is far more familiar with the subject matter than his playwrights expected him to be. But what troubles them probably isn’t just his youth, but the way he inhabits their historical space. In recreating their stories, the men accomplish things that are breathtaking in their frankness and, in collaboration with Greene’s direction, in the artistic vision they display in translating grief (for their childhoods, for their church) into something eloquent, even transcendent. “Procession” is a film that makes you think. It certainly doesn’t make you comfortable.