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Catholic priest abuse survivors use drama therapy techniques to heal old wounds

 Michael Sandbridge, one of the film's participants, chose to create a scene where a priest with laser eyes stares him down.
Courtesy of Netflix
Michael Sandbridge, one of the film's participants, chose to create a scene where a priest with laser eyes stares him down.

“Procession” follows six men who were sexually abused by Catholic priests from the Kansas City area. The new Netflix documentary, made by University of Missouri associate professor Robert Greene, shows the survivors reclaiming power through drama therapy techniques.

The men attempt to heal from decades of pain by creating short films about their experiences as young boys in the church. The scenes aren’t graphic but symbolic of the power priests have.

The intense location scouting — searching for the physical sites where these men were once abused — became a central theme of the film. But Greene, the film’s director and editor, told St. Louis on the Air that he never suggested the men do that.

“We would have never even had the courage to pitch that idea,” Greene said. “It had to come from the guys.”

The idea to reclaim spaces of abuse started when Ed Gavagan, one of the six men, wanted to visit his old parish to ring the same bell he did as an altar boy.

As soon as he pulled the rope and heard the clang, Gavagan lit up and turned into a boy again.

“That's the moment you realize that all that joy was taken from him. And from that point on, he didn't have that childhood anymore,” said Michael Sandbridge, another survivor in the film who witnessed the moment and also joined St. Louis on the Air.

The camera gave the men validation and the courage to explore the physical places that haunted them for decades. And the act of filming the scenes sparked catharsis for each stage of their healing.

“You're powerless as a child in those situations, and those sites and interiors just all set you up to be powerless,” Sandbridge said. “But once you walk in, you can claim them back and say that the power is not over me anymore.”

 The six participants in the film, from left to right: Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandbridge, Tom Viviano, Dan Laurine and Mike Foreman.
Courtesy of Netflix
The six participants in the film, from left to right: Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandbridge, Tom Viviano, Dan Laurine and Mike Foreman.

The film takes viewers through the three-year process, offering an intimate look at how the men used the scenes to grapple with the trauma they endured as boys.

“I want this to be like Marvel superheroes vanquishing the f—-ing forces of darkness,” Gavagan said in the film. “We’re gonna make our point.”

All of the survivors agreed that child actor Terrick Trobough would play their younger selves. And the men acted in the scenes as well.

“Just having actors come off the streets with no skin in the game wouldn’t help us raise this up to the level we’re trying to get [to],” said Dan Laurine, a survivor.

Robert Greene and Michael Sandbridge join St. Louis on the Air

In the scenes, the survivors put priest robes on, sat in pews and burned incense. Greene says the visceral experience of acting the part gets to the heart of the pain more than interviews could ever do, calling the experience “a miracle.”

“When we walked into those churches, it just felt like we were almost like vandals on some level. It felt like we were revolutionaries in some weird way, like, we were breaking through, but then it was also just so beautiful,” Greene said. “Every single time we stepped into a Catholic church, all these guys were kids again, and then watching them literally try to get out from under the thumb of that power was amazing.”

Greene is quick to emphasize “Procession” was a collaboration. The six men were co-directors and were credited as such in the film.

The unusual collaboration led to tangible breakthroughs on-screen and a powerful brotherhood bond, formed out of a shared abuse story that none of them asked for.

“They are the most likable group of people I've ever been around,” Greene said. “They laugh through the process. They find love and real support with each other. It's not about the darkness. It's about the light. And it's about the future, not the past.”

They dedicated the film to sexual abuse survivors, especially other boys who experienced abuse at the hands of clergy.

“In my mind, [our abusers are] not going to win,” Sandridge said. “And that’s how I cope with it.”

Sandbridge still has faith in God, as do many of the other men in the film.

“I believe in God, I believe in Christ, and there has to be something better,” he said. “[Following] the basic tenets of, just be nice to people, don't hurt people — that's what, to me, Christianity is all about. And the Catholic Church has really gotten away from the basic theory of it.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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