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Who’s entertained by sex scandals? Netflix sells the darkest moments of people's lives

A still from Procession, a new documentary about the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal. Credit: IMDB

A still from Procession, a new documentary about the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal. Credit: IMDB


November 23, 2021   5 mins

This month, in Lincoln, Nebraska, the state attorney general made a grim announcement: the office had verified 258 victims’ claims that they’d been abused by 57 separate Catholic Church officials — in cases going back decades. It verified, also, claims that the Church knew about these accusations, and have covered them up since.

But this announcement barely made the news outside the state. What was once so shocking has become mundane. An independent commission in France released a report that 200,000 minors have been abused by clergy over the last 70 years; the New York Times piece about it showed up in my social media feeds maybe twice, before disappearing back into the vast sea of suffering that is the daily news.

What I get in my feed instead is advertisements. Ads for documentaries, limited series, and films about the church abuse scandal. For four years, Netflix has been trying to get me to watch The Keepers, a seven-part true crime series about the murder of a nun who may have been killed because she knew a priest was sexually abusing students at their high school. (Like most cold case true crime, the investigation doesn’t solve anything, and the whole thing ends with a shrug and an implied “somebody should do something about this.”) HBO will occasionally check to see if I want to watch Mea Maxima Culpa — about a priest sexually abusing students at a deaf school — or perhaps one of its many other shows about a religious institution ruining the lives of countless people who turned to it for care.

And now we have Robert Greene’s Procession, which has been making the rounds at the festivals and found itself a home on Netflix last week. Inspired by a Kansas City press conference at which men made public their accusations against clergy of the local diocese, Greene contacted the lawyer representing these survivors and asked if they’d be interested in a collaboration. The result is a two-hour hybrid film that mixes documentary footage of these men discussing their experiences with artistic renderings of their most traumatic moments, created with the help of a drama therapist.

The men, unable to confront their tormentors directly, get another perspective on the incidents that haunt them; they get to control the action and how it’s represented. But each survivor finds himself stuck on a different moment in his suffering. It’s hard for the victims to step inside a cathedral, to smell the triggering aroma of incense, to touch the garments of priests. Still, they’re willing to do it to help another man deal with his trauma. It’s genuinely moving to watch them support one another, defending one another against the occasional insensitivity of the filmmakers, enduring difficult moments.

But as I watched one break down upon arrival at the lakehouse where he was taken by priests to be abused, I found myself wondering: why exactly am I watching this? The show was beautifully shot — and structured to hit the pleasure points of emotional catharsis, outrage at injustice, heartwarming empathy. Still, it shocks me to think how frequently I am being entertained by the stories of the worst and darkest moments of a person’s life.

Especially when these people have so often been utterly failed by the public institutions that ought to protect them. Around 40% of the homicides in the United States aren’t solved by the police, and tens of thousands of people remain missing after disappearing from their lives without a trace. Of course we have a glut of cold case true crime shows. Our justice system regularly imprisons the innocent, so activists turn to filmmakers to adjudicate the injustices in the public sphere. Political actors struggle to get their issues taken seriously — from environmental catastrophe to animal abuse to the disappearance of abortion rights — so commission dramatic documentaries in the hopes of “raising awareness” and forcing action.

For the most part, these shows don’t make anything happen. People have been crediting a Netflix documentary with exonerating two men imprisoned for the assassination of Malcolm X. The hit show Blackfish helped pressure SeaWorld to end its captive breeding program for orcas. But murders remain unsolved, disappearances remain unexplained, our political class refuses to pass meaningful legislation. As I was watching Dopesick on Hulu — about the opioid epidemic and the role the Sackler family played in creating and prolonging it — I got an alert on my phone that the Sacklers had won a deal granting them immunity from lawsuits. Adnan Syed has been the subject of both the blockbuster podcast Serial and an HBO documentary series, but he is still serving a life sentence for a murder there is real doubt he committed. Meanwhile the structural problems that allow these injustices to take place have not been reformed.

The men featured in Procession don’t have many options in seeking resolution to their suffering. They’re shut out from the justice system — because of the statute of limitations — and estranged from the religious community. Perhaps the only way to get their voices heard is through the entertainment industry. If a man’s story is unique enough, if his suffering interesting enough, and he is charismatic enough, he can act as a representative for all the thousands of victims and survivors. And sometimes that will give him some relief, and maybe it will pressure the Church to push his case forward and offer him a financial settlement, but it doesn’t seem to do much for the collective.

And if you’re not interesting or charismatic or unique? If you didn’t suffer stoically and quietly, but instead self-medicated with opioids or alcohol? If you’re just angry all of the time now, or have found yourself hurting others in the same way you yourself were hurt — if, in short, you wouldn’t be a sympathetic character in a television show? We as an audience have decided you’re not really worthy of our attention, and therefore not worthy of being taken care of.

And so the show reminds me less of those occasional hard-hitting documentaries that do effect change, and more of that other hot Netflix program Queer Eye. Out of all of the people in the country suffering from loneliness, despair and confusion, a select few — who must, it goes without saying, be sympathetic — are chosen to receive aid. They get a makeover, social support, appliances. Their home is redecorated to look just like a (nice) AirBnB property. And all they have to do is tell their story — about how their lives got derailed — to the whole world.

We have confused paying attention to injustice with actually doing something about it. The stories in Procession are not being told to goad me into action: I’m not called on to lobby my representative to ask them to reform the statute of limitations. The creators may have had the best of intentions: raise awareness, change hearts and minds, make the world a better place. But the sad truth is that we, the audience, are not being edified, we are simply being entertained. Procession is just meant to be something to watch, on my couch, while I shove a cheese sandwich in my mouth, and after it’s over Netflix will suggest that I follow it up with an episode of Seinfeld or perhaps a five part series about an unsolved murder in Spain.

Neal Gabler writes in Life: The Movie (How Entertainment Conquered Reality): “Abhorring dead air, compelled to keep us stimulated lest we switch channels or switch off the set altogether, television took everything on its screen and converted it into entertainment.” If that was true about television, the switch to streaming services is like chasing a Tylenol down with Fentanyl. We are meant never to turn away, and the services know that the more horrifying, the more heartbreaking, the more outrageous the content, the more we are likely to binge on it. And what if, as one show flows into another, as we become more and more informed about an issue, we become less and less likely to do anything about it? We are confident, after all, that the story is “out there”: surely someone, somewhere will do something about it?


Jessa Crispin is the author of three books, most recently Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. 

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Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago

I wonder if Netflix are planning on producing a series on the Rochdale grooming gangs?

We know the answer to that, and why.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Exactly my thoughts. The Christian Church is a constant target but abusers of other faiths or heritages aren’t referenced at all.
You’ll get comedians doing jokes about Saville perversity but do they do jokes about the various muslim child abusers?

Peter Mateja
Peter Mateja
2 years ago

Of course there are incidents of sexual abuse outside of the christian faith (e.g. see athletic coaching). What makes this news (e.g. see the southern Baptist scandal of late) is that this is specifically a group of people whose belief structure is specifically against sexual abuse, and yet we keep seeing examples of how this is pervasive within Christian communities. It’s almost like, when a community tries really hard to moralize against extramarital sex, while also being prone to putting lots of kids and vulnerable adults within the control of “trusted” leaders, that you seem to find a preponderance of sexual dysfunction. The Freedom From Religion Foundation regularly publishes new stories about yet another pastor, priest, youth pastor, etc who has been caught in some sex scandal. Perhaps those within the religion should take a hard look at Matthew 7:5 and pull back on moralizing outside of their little enclaves…

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

I don’t know what I am supposed to make of this piece.I am confused: Is the author appalled at our indifference to injustice or is she admitting to feeling guilty for treating these tales as just entertainment?
I don’t doubt that crimes go unpunished, and no doubt we could do more in many cases and yes thousands of people go missing, some murdered, some suffering fatal accidents and some just not wanting to be found. How do we disentangle fact from fiction and truth from fantasy?
We are told “…the Keepers, a seven-part true crime series about the murder of a nun who may have been killed because she knew a priest was sexually abusing students at their high school.” Note the choice of words “true crime” and “may have” – or then again, maybe not.
And again “An independent commission in France released a report that 200,000 minors have been abused by clergy over the last 70 years” That must have been a monumental piece of research.
Let us remember Carl Beechwood, who blighted the lives of a number of men with fantastical allegations of the abuse and murder of children, and how a Metropolitan police officer described Beechwood’s account as “credible and true”. Beechwood was eventually discredited as a witness. The irony is that if the police had been just a tad sceptical, Beechwood would probably have received a suspended sentence for wasting police time, instead of the eighteen years he is currently serving.

Last edited 2 years ago by Terry Needham
Paul Hughes
Paul Hughes
2 years ago

As a retired CID officer with sad real life experiences of the murder and abuse of children, I have never found entertainment in the plethora of dramas – often highly regarded and the subject of critical acclaim – that have had such offences as central to their plot. I thought it was simply that dealing with the actual horror made it impossible to be entertained even by fictionalised events.
I recall one Sunday evening at home when the choice on the two main UK TV channels was which of the two child abuse/murder dramas to watch. It was this that really made me question whether it was entirely healthy that people were being entertained by such subjects. I can’t imagine anyone actually admitting that they like nothing better than spending a Sunday evening watching a good drama about child abuse, but it does seem to be the case for a lot of people.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paul Hughes
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

It’s just going to go on and on and on, punctuated by periodic spasms of phony outrage, until somebody faces the elephant in the room. Here’s a clue from the John Jay report — 80% of abuse is against boys. Maybe Netflix could do a show around THAT.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Yes, mainly post-adolescent boys. We’re talking about homosexual ephebophilia here, but it’s unfashionable (possibly a hate crime) to point that out. Most victims of clerical abuse are about the same age as most of St Oscar Wilde’s.

Pascal Bercker
Pascal Bercker
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

I had always wondered about all that. Several years ago, I remember reading about these alleged abuse cases in various Catholic institutions, claiming in some cases that some boys were abused for several years. How could that be? And then they cited the ages of the boys involved. They were often about 12 or 13, and the alleged abuse went on for 2 or 3 years until they were 15 or 16 years old. Child sexual abuse is a terrible thing. But these boys are not children. Pretending that they are just children serves no good purpose at all. There is certainly a moral and legal issue here, but not the one that most people seem to think. People often wonder how this could have gone on for so long given that the Catholic establishment surely knew about it. And they almost certainly did. And they tended to look the other way not because they were evil, but rather because there was – or so they thought – some kind of consent from the boys themselves. I completely acknowledge that there are all sorts of complicating factors about consent when unequal power relations exist.
I do not speak from ignorance. I am one of those boys who lived in France in a Catholic boarding school until we left for the US in 1968. The worst abuse that in fact suffered was not from the priests, but rather from my mother who tormented me, not sexually, but psychologically until I finally ran away at 16. I never consented to her monstrous treatment, but that kind of parental psychological abuse was permitted. As a young boy, the love from an older man was my only refuge from completely dysfunctional home life. It is not indeed fashionable to speak this way, but I no longer care who knows.
Regrettably, the emotional damage inflicted by my mother is at least partly responsible for my descent into drug abuse, drug addiction, and porn addiction, which in time came to addiction to underage pornography. And I went to prison for it in 2013, Sentenced to 7 years. Served 5 years and then was deported. Arrived in France with the clothes on my back and my prison release paper. It’s been a long hard slog, but I’m piecing my life back together again, and have decided to share my story on my blog at Substack. It’s time for me to speak since my police profile is readily available for all to see just by googling my name. That should not be permitted. Doing 5 years of prison means that I have paid my debt. But making my police record public is like presenting me the bill again and again as if I had not paid dearly for it.
I very much disapprove of underage porn, but I needed help and therapy, not prison, and certainly not deportation. And much of what is labeled “child porn” is not what most people think it is. But in spite of all that I remain robustly cheerful, and have yet some fond memories, not of my hateful mother, but of the Catholic church in the South of France (even though I am an atheist!).
I do not fear being “cancelled” since there’s nothing left of my life worth canceling at this point! Once your prison record is there for all to see, what else is left to reveal? Nothing much really!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

A particular report into abuse within the Catholic Church in the US does not imply that the overall societal rate of male attraction to boys is more common than to girls, if that is what you were suggesting. The opportunities for sexual or quasi-sexual abuse of boys were much greater, plus of course repressed homosexual seminarians etc may well be unconsciously drawn to positions where they are in contact with young men and boys. This is a pretty well recognised phenomenon – ‘dodgy’ Scout masters and choir leaders were almost a joke when I was growing up. But for rock bands, it was overwhelmingly girls – as it was of course for the Jimmy Savile case, and the Rochdale case.

There is a changing definitional problem in any case. Sexual contact with young people is a crime without any doubt today only if either the boys or girls concerned are below the age of 16 (rape and coercion excepting obviously). In the past the male ‘victims’ could have been up to the age of 20. So there would be more homo- than heterosexual abuse on that basis alone. It would be very difficult for obvious reasons (relying on people’s self estimation in surveys) to establish whether a greater proportion of straight men try to have sex with under age girls than gay men with boys.

There is also of course the aspect of abusing the relative power of leaders over young people under their charge within institutions, eg the Church, Scout troops, football teams, dance classes etc, even if they are well over the age of consent.

Regarding your suggestion of some kind of cultural cover up, there have indeed been TV shows and Hollywood films on exactly this topic of abuse of boys within the Church.

The fact that many adults find young post-pubescent people attractive is in my view hardly surprising. In very many traditional (including band) societies marriage at what we would consider a very young age was the norm.

peter lucey
peter lucey
2 years ago

These dramatisations by Netflix and others are simply a new-media version of those old “True Detective”-style magazines: with lurid covers of a trapped, deshabille girl, in the clutches of an overshadowed evil man. ‘”Shocking ordeal of….” See inside!”

Last edited 2 years ago by peter lucey
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago

“The show was beautifully shot — and structured to hit the pleasure points of emotional catharsis, outrage at injustice, heartwarming empathy. Still, it shocks me to think how frequently I am being entertained by the stories of the worst and darkest moments of a person’s life”

Here we go again: more expensive anti Catholic propaganda. Were any of the priests or church officials actually named? If no, why not? We see this in Ireland all the time, high budget docudramas made with lurid details of unproven allegations and shadowy priests and nuns, numerous expensive reports of alleged abuses where alleged victims refuse to swear testimony or be cross examined and nobody wonders why so few priests or nuns are ever convicted. It’s very little to do with the statute of limitations, it’s because the “evidence” is so weak it wouldn’t stand up in a court of law. Vulnerable people exploited by lawyers and anti Catholic ideologues, and some narcissist money grabbers keen to make money from being “victims”.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Was “show business” the old word for “entertainment”? Perhaps “show business” and “entertainments” (plural) had co-existed at certain times, but meant slightly different things. Probably from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The advertising slogans have of late been “Entertainment as never before!” or “A new way in entertainment” and the like.
As if show business is well and truly buried. Read the urgency behind the new messaging! Read all about it!

With all the fancy technology in existence today, you’d think Oliver Hardy’s lively saying of “Now we’re going places!” would be foremost in people’s minds, as they dream of lying on the couch in front of their expansive TV screen to forget the travails of the day. But we go nowhere. We don’t get transported anywhere. The travails are instead piled on further.
Glum and Grim fill the slots, many a time. TV shows and advertising hoardings are filled by pained expressions. The pained expression is chic. Has been for a while these days. It fits in with the politically correct zeitgeist. It may even be an attempt to lift you up than raise any awareness to a cause or even cheer you up – but you’ll end up mimicking the grim chic look at the end, that’s all. Certainly smiling, happy celebrities captured doing a song and dance number is verboten on the billboards (so offensive, like).

Yes, read all about it! As if you actually could. So is it really true that in America the local newspaper has been in major decline? I believe that many were of a very high standard. But that’s where the issues were raised. The relevant issues to a community. Where action might have first been taken in the long road to getting redress or justice. Retired lawyers and judges probably have nothing to do with Netflix. They only watch the old movie channel, probably. But everybody used to read the local newspaper. Everybody used to chat over the fence. No wonder that awful Netflix screams at you. If you choose to move within its orbit.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
2 years ago

There will always be some element of injustice in society, some people who slip through the cracks in the system, and there can never be any perfect political solution to prevent every conceivable problem a person might face in their life, so I’m not sure what the piece is supposed to be about. Watching TV about people’s problems doesn’t solve those problems. So what?

Diane Tasker
Diane Tasker
2 years ago

I may just as well ask “Why am I reading this article?”

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Do you actually know the difference between ‘porn’ and ‘pawn’, or indeed, as above, ‘prawn’?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

And you satirise it with a post about you you you?

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

One step away from, “It’s springtime for Hitler …”