‘It’s an unusual type of therapy’

12 January 2022

Procession is a three-year collaborative documentary project between filmmaker Robert Greene and six men who were victims of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Missouri, United States. Now, in their 50s and 60s, the film bears witness to Eddie, Michael, Mike, Tom, Joe and Dan in coming to terms with their abuse. 

Procession has been lauded as a structurally ambitious and morally exacting work of art. The documentary process is an alternate form of therapeutic practice, whereby the men work as a group with a drama therapist to recreate scenes related to their abuse in short dramatised segments. There’s a shared artistic lineage with the drama-therapy documentary The Act of Killing, which recreated scenes from the anti-communist genocide in Indonesia, employing ex-soldiers as actors. In Procession, however, it is the victims who are centre stage and dictate the narrative, even as they struggle to exert control over their emotions and memories of the past. 

As a psychologist and a psychotherapist working in the field of trauma, we are interested in what draws people to step into such a dark and disturbing corner of human experience. When we spoke with Robert Greene, the energetic and loquacious Director, the first question we asked was, why did you immerse yourself in these men’s lives and their abuse histories, when for so long society and the Church has turned away from them? He replied that the horror of child sexual abuse and the scale of the cover up made this ‘the one story that I couldn’t take in… I would literally go and turn off the radio’. This aversion forced him into a reflective and creative process where he reached out to ‘help’ the men who would go on to become filmmakers, to frame the work within a drama-therapy model and to use the film as a medium to explore what he described as ‘the unacknowledged scripts of society’. Greene said the unspoken scripts here concern the ‘indoctrination [of Catholicism as] crucial to the way the abuse is framed in the survivors mind and body… the way power is inscripted in all these rituals and then that is turned against children’. He said the filmmaking process was like ‘throwing a spiritual Molotov cocktail in the middle of the Church’. 

To take a group of six men who are bound together by shared experiences of sexual abuse committed by priests, invite them to re-enter the church as adults, and immerse themselves in the iconography of Catholicism – from the gleaming tabernacle, to the menacing organ music, to the priest’s green vestigial gowns – is certainly, as Michael said, ‘an unusual type of therapy’. The men, while sharing the legacy of abuse, are also very different from one another and this is reflected in their approach to filming their respective staged scenes; for some the tone is angry and confrontational, while others presented more of a childhood imaginative viewpoint. The themes in the scenes concern secrecy, lies, silencing and shame.

Power is ominous and ever-present, embodied in the form of priests, and the control the Church exerts over the individual psyche. A tapestry of scenes reflect the varied narratives of each filmmaker, acted out by the other survivors with a child actor representing the abused child. The documentary intersperses these scenes with interviews with the six filmmakers, footage of set building, scripting and the filming process. We also see the in-between times, conversations between takes and journeys to and from remembered places. The shared wish to contribute to a therapeutic process for one another is striking and it’s a privilege to see the relationships between the six men develop as they confront their individual traumas through the collective act of filmmaking.

As you might imagine, Procession makes for uncomfortable viewing. The sight of adult survivors of sexual abuse dressing up in the garments of the men who abused them, reenacting scenes related to their abuse, with a child actor actively involved playing an abuse victim, raised some ethical concerns about the potential harm to the young person who embodied this victim role, as well as the potentially retraumatising nature of the process. When we asked Greene if he worried about the damage the process caused, he said felt it was ‘way too risky’ at points but that it wasn’t up to him, it was the men who decided what direction they took. The drama therapist told him early on in the project, ‘Their trauma, comes from the fact that their power has been taken away at every turn, what you have to do is never do that, never repeat that dynamic’. The potency of the staged scenes and their overwhelming emotions in response, is evidence that Greene succeeded in ceding control. 

The role of the child actor, Terrick, although accompanied by his parents throughout, raises questions for us about what it means to produce a film about child abuse that casts a child playing the role of victim. Overall, Terrick comes across as an experienced child actor who made his own decision to take the part. He watches as his mum recounts him saying ‘I wanna do it. This really happened? It’s not my reality, Mom, it’s acting’. The viewer can see he is practiced in using the role to distance himself from the material; however, there are moments where we were left curious about the contracting of therapeutic boundaries, for example when Terrick is given stage direction using his true name rather than being in role, or when his own mother is cast as the mother of his character as she drives him to the place where a second sexual assault takes place. However, the interactions between the participants and their actor are consistently considerate and empathic and we see Mike come out of role to reassure Terrick before an expletive-laced rant, ‘Don’t take this too seriously, ok?’ 

It seems to us that ethical questions like this are bound to come up when the subject matter is so inherently traumatic and laden with social taboos. How can child sexual abuse be represented in art without it causing harm itself for both viewers and the artists themselves? And, more psychologically, is it inevitable that when artists represent the world of abuse that the art will take on some of the characteristics of the abusive act, leaving viewers feeling disturbed by what they see? It seems to us that when the words ‘powerful’ or ‘brave’ get attached to this form of art, as they have done with Procession, that it is often a positive way for the reviewer to say it was overwhelming to witness. 

So, given the disturbing subject matter of the film, why should you watch it when there are gentler forms of entertainment available? It is a pleasure, albeit a complex one, to watch these men create something out of their pain and to watch them support one another is affirming of the need for collective solutions to individual traumas. There are moments of great humanity and humour expressed between them, and this solidarity is inspiring and filled with hope for the healing potential of art. The traumatic aftermath of abuse is so destructive of the human mind and spirit that it can lead to people finding themselves unable to speak, represent or symbolise their experiences. This locks people in shame and isolation, leading to struggles to make and maintain the human connections we all need to flourish. Creative acts contain within them a different form of creative destructiveness, one that enables new connections and language to describe unspeakable acts.  In this sense, Procession, in its juxtaposition of darkness and light, is a triumph. 

-       Procession is now available to watch on Netflix

Danny Taggart is a Clinical Psychologist who works at the University of Essex and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. His current research is focused on the impacts of child abuse on adult health and social functioning.

Jess Chown is an Integrative Child Psychotherapist at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust and in private practice. She works with children and adults with complex trauma.