There’s a scene in “Procession” in which Ed Gavagan watches a reenactment of the moments leading up to the first time he was sexually abused.
Ed stands in the corner of the set, made up to look like a bedroom. He’s giving direction to Terrick Trobough, the young actor playing 13-year-old Ed, and Michael Sandridge, playing the man Ed says abused him 43 years ago: now-retired Wyoming bishop Joseph Hart. He’s telling them what to say, what to do.
The set is a re-creation of Hart’s bedroom in Cheyenne, Ed’s hometown. Hart lived here from 1978 to 2001. Back then, Ed — an altar boy whose family was dependent on the church — worked around Hart’s house, mowing lawns and drinking soda. In the scene, Terrick-as-Ed is helping pack the bishop’s suitcase.
Before the scene, Ed tells Terrick — who’s dressed in a baseball T-shirt and jean shorts — to pull his tube socks up, all the way up. He tells Michael to take off his belt, and he has him repeat the things he says Hart told him, and Terrick the confused words he spoke back.
I know this moment, and I know Ed. He’s told it to me several times over the past three years, and I’ve read it described in the flat sterility of police reports. Before I moved to Denver, I was a reporter in Wyoming. I covered Ed’s story and the subsequent police and Vatican investigations into Hart, who, at 90, has consistently denied all allegations and has never been charged with a crime.
Watching Ed watch that scene has stayed with me more than anything else in ”Procession,” a Robert Greene documentary released Friday on Netflix. The film is deeply powerful, at times harrowing and inspiring. It follows Ed, Michael and four other victims of priest sexual abuse as they write and act in scenes — some re-enactments, some dramatic representations — used to describe and process their trauma. “Procession” follows not only this creative process but the enduring community the men form among themselves.
“I love those guys,” Ed told me when we spoke about the film earlier this. “I love what we did. I love what we became for each other.”
Ed’s scene has stuck with me not only because I know him and his story, but because of what the scene so deftly accomplishes. In the strict sense, Ed is directing actors in this dramatic moment, but more than that, he’s taking control of this experience, in a way that was impossible for the 13-year-old who stood in that room 40 years ago. His eyes are simultaneously watching and unfocused, there and elsewhere, here in the 21st century and back in that room. He’s guiding himself, protecting himself, now and then. There is something in his face that drew an audible and physical reaction from me.
“Turning that room where everything was different after that — nothing was the same,” Ed said. “My relationship with God, to authority, to protector figures, to sexuality, to guilt, to shame — nothing was ever the same.”
With the exception of Ed, who was abused in Wyoming, the other five men — Michael, Tom Viviano, Joe Eldred, Dan Laurine and Mike Foreman — were all abused in Kansas City, Missouri. It’s Hart’s hometown, and his first posting. It’s my hometown, too.
The film focuses on the men engaging, through these scenes, in drama therapy. Mike recreates the church review board that rejected his allegations, ending that meeting now as he wished he had then. Joe and Dan visit the lake houses in which they were abused. Visibly shaken, Joe writes dialogue for a scene in a confessional — a confessional with a lock on its door.
The film, pitched by Green after he saw some of the men speak at a 2018 press conference, gives them the freedom to talk to themselves, to forgive parents, to scream at the church. Perhaps just as importantly — at least for Ed — it bonds them together. Their experiences are distinct but shared — abuse, coverups, shame, rejection, enduring trauma, resilience.
“Procession” is unlike any film I’ve ever seen, unlike any piece of media documenting or covering sexual abuse I’ve ever encountered. The approach to the men’s trauma is so careful, so sincere and directed; it is not covered for its own sake. In the true crime age, viewers are accustomed to — even enticed by — the graphic description of murder, of abuse, of terror, of the worst day of someone’s life.
But in Greene’s film, you will not get those lurid details. Nor should you.
What you will see is what is often minimized or ignored entirely: the aftershocks left behind. You will see these men cry and rage and hold each other as they write and act out scripts to explain what happened to them. In every one, Terrick plays a young version of the me, a subtle but meaningful symbol.
There are several reasons why this film has resonated with me. But the one that surprised me is my most subtle ties to it. I’m a kid from Kansas City, where much of the film — and much of the abuse — took place. I grew up in a big Catholic family, and the churches and environments in “Procession” are jarringly familiar.
Take St. Elizabeth’s, for example, a church with an attached grade school. Michael returns to that church, a place he “swore I’d never come back in.” I had friends who went to St. Elizabeth’s, the school and the church. I’m sure my family attended some services there; when we couldn’t make mass at our own parish, my parents would find another, with a later service. Two of the most notorious abusers in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph worked there.
My mom also grew up Catholic in Kansas City and also had friends who went to St. E’s, as we called it. She knows its history, knows the names of those two priests. I texted her about the film after I saw it this week; we’re going to watch it together when I’m home for Thanksgiving.
To see these familiar places in this light — it’s like learning about the pain suffered by ancestors. It’s the reinforcement of the knowledge that the city I love, the churches I attended and neighborhoods I know, are all tied to such horror suffered by so many. Even after years of reporting on it, watching it is like someone flicked a different lens over my glasses.
Ed and other victims I’ve interviewed over the years have talked often about how the abuse they suffered was not just physical, not just psychological. It was spiritual. There’s a haunting quote in a police report detailing Ed’s allegations, in which he says he went to pray before a statue of Jesus. He needed to check in, he said: Was it OK, what he was being subjected to?
In the report, Ed told police that Jesus never answered.
Catholic communities in places like Kansas City are worlds unto themselves, “pocket universes,” as Greene described them to me. In Kansas City, if you live on the Missouri side of the border and you’re Catholic — even nominally — you send your kids to Catholic grade school, attached to your Catholic parish, and then, with the same cohort of kids, off they often go to one of the city’s three single-sex Catholic high schools.
After they came forward, victims have said they were ostracized by neighbors, friends, even some family members. The priests they accuse — often they were extensions of their own families, the absolute authority, God’s representative at your dinner table. When they suffer this abuse, not only do victims often lose their religion, if not their relationship with God entirely, they can lose this tight-knit community in which they grew up. And that community is often used against them.
Joe wrote dialogue for one of the scenes in which the priest tells Terrick-as-victim that, if he says anything, his parents will disown him and he will go straight to hell. After his father walked out, Ed and his family were reliant on the church for food, money, support. That was leverage, Ed says, that Hart used to force compliance and silence (again, Hart has denied all of these allegations).
Ed described that moment to me repeatedly during our interviews. Nearly the entirety of film’s timeline runs parallel to my reporting on Hart. From summer 2018 until June 2020, authorities in Wyoming investigated him, after first Ed — for the second time — and others came forward. After a 16-month investigation, Cheyenne Police recommended Hart be charged. They turned it over to a special prosecutor, and, for 10 months, very little happened.
In the film, the lengthy investigation is a subplot. They all fully expected Hart, with 100% certainty, to be arrested, Greene told me this week. They were just waiting for the moment when they could capture the handcuffs clicking on camera. That would be the climax. The other five men in the film — none of their abusers had been arrested. Some were dead. One was quietly removed from the priesthood just before he died. One remained at large. Tom’s case is tied up in court.
Of the six of them, they were 0 for 5 in pursuing any type of accountability. The investigation into Hart represented vindication not just for Ed but for all of them. At the same time, the Vatican was investigating Hart to consider defrocking him. Pope Francis even wrote Ed a personal letter, expressing his pain at what Ed had endured and assuring him the situation would be addressed.
In June 2020, Ed called me on a Friday night. He had just gotten word: Prosecutors would not charge Hart. In a letter, they wrote that they believed Ed was a victim of the retired bishop and that their decision did not vindicate the cleric. To Ed, that made it worse: They believed him, but that wasn’t enough?
Relying on internal reports, I reported in March that, before they made their decision, prosecutors apparently didn’t read the full, 89-page police report (complete with an 11-page supplemental report). They reportedly weren’t aware that Ed was one of more than a half-dozen men who told police Hart abused them (many have come forward in Kansas City over the past 30 years).
In January, the Vatican announced it had exonerated Hart on several charges and essentially declared a mistrial on several more, despite the pope’s reassurance and two American diocese substantiating a number of the same allegations.
“It never f------ happened for any of us,” Ed said. “That’s what was so devastating. ... It was just like — we were 0 for 6.”
Twenty years after the Boston Globe won its Pulitzer for exposing the river of sexual abuse that ran through the core of the Catholic Church, it can feel as if it’s over. Lawsuits have been filed, some clergymen have been defrocked, feature films and documentaries have been made, the church has spoken extensively about proper abuse reporting and taking a no-tolerance stand against sexual misconduct.
Ed, Tom, Michael, Mike, Dan, Joe — it is not over for them. They are 0 for 6. Greene said he hopes the film sparks renewed interest in the Wyoming investigation into Hart. Wyoming has no statute of limitations, unlike Missouri. Ed wants that, too, of course. It’s one of two things he hopes viewers take away from the film.
The other is about inherent trust, blind faith in people and institutions, the tendency toward refusal to accept an uncomfortable, even if horrifying, truth.
“The one takeaway I might be in control of is to have people understand that your pillar of the community can also be a monster,” Ed said. “The good works are there as a construct and an artifice to enable the monster to proliferate and continue.”
However people take it, Ed is proud of the film and glad he made it, especially given his and his wife’s initial hesitation. He figured “Procession” might “slip beneath the waves,” that no one would see it.
Then it got picked up by Netflix, who’s preparing it for an Oscar run, and reviews have run in the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, Vox and more. As of this writing, it has a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film’s success is invigorating. But its contents — and the men he met making it — matter more. The shame Ed’s felt unceasingly for 40 years is gone. He can get up in front of a crowded theater, his name and face on the screen behind him, and tell his story.