November 23, 2021

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.

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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?