Willard’s Eldred in Netflix doc PROCESSION

Steve Chapman

Abuse survivor Joe Eldred reads a letter to the younger version of himself, played by Terrick Trobough. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Last month, Netflix released PROCESSION, a documentary that details how six men, who were abused as boys by priests in the Catholic Church, work together to come to terms with their abuse and reclaim their lives though the use of drama therapy. One of them is Willard resident Joe Eldred.

Legal action against abusers led to involvement in documentary
When he was a fourth grader, attending the Nativity of Mary Catholic School and Church in Independence, Joe Eldred was sexually abused by three priests. He would repress the memories for years, until they finally came flooding back in 2011. He went on to formally accuse his abusers, and a class-action lawsuit he was part of against the church that was eventually settled.
Eldred was later contacted by his attorney, Rebecca Randles about taking part in the documentary. At first, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do it, because he feared confronting this part of his past might harm him further. However, Eldred eventually felt that participating in the documentary would allow him to be able to help others who had been victimized the way he was.
“I wasn’t sold on it at the beginning,” he said. “I was kind of nervous that I would get retraumatized. But as time went on, I saw the very unique way of not just being able to tell my story … but I saw it as a way of helping other guys like me that find themselves lonely and not knowing where to turn, and you feel like you’re all alone. I saw it as an opportunity to reach those guys that feel lost and alone and, hopefully, give them some hope and maybe some guidance on what to do next.”

Abused at the hands of three priests
During his interview, Eldred spoke about the abuse he suffered. He was violated at the school by two priests there; Monsignor Thomas O’Brien and Father Mark Honhart.
“It began with one priest who was new; he’d just come to Nativity,” Eldred said. “He got me a couple of times, and during one of those incidents, in the basement of the rectory, I remember the door opened up and there was another priest standing there, and it happened to be Monsignor O’Brien, and that’s how I met Monsignor O’Brien, he was the main abuser. So, instead of saving me from this other priest, he actually saw that as an opportunity and immediately began grooming me.”

Combined church and school buildings gave abusers easy access to victims
Eldred said that church and school were in the same building, the priests had easy access to students. They would pick a boy under the guise of having the child assist them in some task as a way to get them alone.
“The priests were allowed to come into the school and could ask for help and then pick someone to go and do whatever task. And Monsignor O’Brien would pick me to go and, after grooming me, the abuse started, not just with me but with other classmates and other grades as well. He was a pretty prolific abuser at Nativity.”
O’Brien later took him and other boys to a lake house at Lake Viking, north of Kansas City, where he was assaulted by another priest, Father Thomas Reardon.
“(O’Brien) took me on a trip along with a couple of the other guys from school,” he said, “a couple of the altar boys, and took us to Lake Viking, and that’s where he introduced me to Father Reardon. Father Reardon was just one time, at the lake, where he raped me.”
A major turn of events brought an end to the abuse, though. In 1983, a boy a few years older than Eldred, who had also been abused by O’Brien, committed suicide. After that, the church removed O’Brien from Nativity, and he never returned.
“At that point, all the abuse stopped,” Eldred said.

Returning to site of abuse ends nightmares
After his memories of the harm he’d suffered resurfaced, Eldred began having nightmares about the lake house. In them, he said, he would be running away from some threat to the house, where he was supposed to be safe.
“And then, once I climbed the steps of that porch and the door opens up, it was just the blackest blanket of evil,” he said. “It was like these black tentacled-arms coming out and embracing me, and I knew that that was exactly where the threat really wanted me to be, because that was the threat. And then in the blackness, these green eyes would open up and shine on me, and that’s when I would wake up.”
During the filming of the documentary, Eldred returned to the house at Lake Viking. In doing so, he said, he overcame his nightmares.
“When I went there, it was a beautiful summer day,” he said. “It was just such a bizarre moment, that I could see the house as it was on that day, but I could also see the house how it was back in the early ‘80s. And it was just this weird visual of seeing both houses at a time. But the house I went to that day (in) July of 2019, that house was a happy house. It was someone’s home, and I just pictured grandparents being there, and there was now a swing set in the yard, and they had Sea-Doos down at the lake, and it just looked like a place built for fun and happy memories.”
Eldred also learned that O’Brien’s family no longer owned the house, and so he decided to make a type of fresh start.
“I kind of wanted that to be the new beginning,” he said. “I kind of wanted to let the old die away, and let (the new owners) create something new and something happy.”
After that, Eldred said, the nightmares stopped, and two years later, he hasn’t had another one since.

Dramatizing incident of abuse brought flashbacks
During the documentary, Eldred helped create a dramatization of a time when he was raped in the confessional at Nativity by O’Brien. One of the other men in the documentary, Tom Viviano, played O’Brien, while a boy actor named Terrick Trobough played the 10-year-old version of Eldred.
Eldred said the scene evolved beyond its original intent.
“At the beginning, the intent of filming the confessional was just to kind of illustrate the opportunity for power and control over someone that’s younger and weaker,” he said. “The power that a priest has, how it can be manipulated to someone younger in the confessional. But what no one there knew was that I had been abused in the confessional. That was one of the abuses that I underwent.”
As the scene progressed, however, Eldred began to have major flashbacks, and he can be seen visibly shaking. Eldred said it was because it brought back vivid memories of the trauma he suffered at the hands of O’Brien.
“I went into some major flashback filming that,” he said, “and if you watched that, you see me shaking a lot and get emotional because … I was listening to Tom in there filming with Terrick on the other side, but in my head, I’m back in that confessional in Nativity with Monsignor O’Brien. And it was a very heavy thing to recreate. That was not what we meant to recreate, but ultimately that’s kind of what happened.”
Dramatization also gave Eldred a victory over trauma
While it was hard to confront what happened in the confessional, Eldred said by doing so, he gained a victory over the abuse. He credited his being able to do so with the artistic freedom given to him and the other abuse survivors by the director.
“The entire team that we worked with just created this safe space that allowed not just me, but all six of us, to explore whatever we really felt like we needed to explore, and we were never pushed to do anything beyond whatever we wanted to,” he said. “Dan Laurine, a brother to one of the abuse survivors, makes a statement in there that he’s been pushed beyond his means, and we were never pushed beyond our means unless we did the pushing ourselves. That freedom allowed me to go further and deeper, and so when I had the opportunity, I used it. I’m so much better for having that opportunity, and confronting the confessional removed the power that it has.”

Letter to self helps Eldred confront the past
Near the end of the documentary, Eldred reads a letter to the younger version of himself, symbolized by Terrick, who sits in a chair nearby and listens.
“I took it as a personal challenge to write this letter to Joe,” he said. “The film crew actually came down to my house to film me starting the process, and it was so hard to do, not because there were people there, but because it’s just hard to confront my past self.
At first, Eldred said, he could only write for a little while before having to stop, but he eventually persevered.
“I started it, (but) I only made a few minutes in before I broke down and started crying, and that was all I could do at that point and time,” he said. “I could have just dropped it right then and there, but I challenged myself to push through this time, and so that’s what I did over the next few weeks to a couple of months. I worked on it when I was in a good, healthy headspace, and once I kind of really started, the words just started to flow, and pretty soon, I had my letter to Joe.”

Hopes are that the documentary changes lives
Eldred hopes that, as a result of the documentary being released, it will help many other abuse survivors come to terms with what they have suffered. He said statistics show that almost as many men are sexually assaulted as women, but men are not encouraged to come forward when they are assaulted.
“I want the hard conversations to take place,” he said. “I want lives to be changed. It’s been a very strange run, but ultimately that’s what got me on board with this, was knowing and being assured that other people, other guys like me, would be able to see this film.”
Eldred said he hopes other abuse survivors will be able to find the same healing he did.
“I remember sitting at the lake house at Lake Viking,” he said, “feeling overwhelmed that out of the 300 guys that had accused Monsignor O’Brien, I was the one that was allowed to return to the lake house and then to have those nightmares destroyed; I wanted that for all these 300 other guys that did not have that opportunity. There are so many people out there that have their own secret pain; their own secret pasts of abuse that aren’t allowed to deal with it or handle it, or talk about it. And I want those conversations, I want those lives changed, because you don’t have to be alone, and you don’t have to sit there in silence. You can reclaim your life; you can reclaim that power. You can be happy again. That’s what I want out of this.”


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