Joe Eldred, a survivor of childhood sexual assault featured in the documentary “Procession,” speaks to the audience about his story after the documentary screened Friday in Overland Park. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)
OVERLAND PARK — When Joe Eldred was a child, he was sexually abused by three Catholic priests while attending Nativity of Mary Catholic Church and the accompanying elementary school in Independence, Missouri.
Eldred told his story in “Procession,” a documentary directed by Robert Greene that tells the story of six men who were abused by priests in the Catholic church. The documentary starts in Kansas City, Missouri, where much of the abuse occurred, and follows the survivors as they face their trauma and work to heal together.
Most of the abuse Eldred discussed in the film occurred at Lake Viking, a private, man-made lake in northwest Missouri. There, a priest introduced him to Thomas Reardon.
“I remember Father Reardon saying, ‘Come on, let’s show them how much fun this can be.’ And that’s when he raped me,” Eldred said in the documentary.
Through the filming process, Eldred was able to physically go to the lake and face the nightmares he had of his abuse there.
The documentary was shown for the first time in Kansas on Friday at the Glenwood Arts Theater in Overland Park. After the screening, Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith led a discussion panel with five of the survivors, Greene, and Kansas Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, surrounding the film, questions from the audience and recent changes in Kansas law to the statute of limitations.
Effective July 1, the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of childhood sexual abuse will be removed in Kansas. Additionally, the timeframe for civil lawsuits involving child sex crimes will be extended to 13 years after the victim turns 18 or three years after the abuser is criminally convicted, whichever occurs later.
This expansion is part of the rewrite of House Bill 2127, signed into law by Gov. Laura Kelly on April 24.
While survivors of child sex crimes will now be able to file for criminal prosecution at any time, many survivors have already missed the deadline for civil lawsuits.
“I think it’s too late for justice for us,” said survivor Michael Sandridge, one of the men featured in the documentary. “The important part is to make sure there’s justice in the future for people.”
The “Procession” team still has hope for additional change.
“I definitely have hope that it’s going to change some things, but I don’t think it’ll have much of an impact on the decision making within the Catholic Church,” Eldred said. “I feel that there’s still a long ways to go since they still tend to not be transparent with what’s been going on.”
Holscher said she is “thrilled” to have the statute of limitations removed from criminal prosecution cases, but there is still work to be done to continue working on the civil side.
“The senator made a great point about, we are making incremental changes, there’s not one sweeping law or enactment that is going to solve all the problems, but we attack it here, we get, you know, you take one step to enclose the church, you take another step to close prosecution,” said Dan Laurine, a survivor featured in the documentary.
Eldred said he doesn’t understand why there are statutes of limitations at all. He didn’t get back his repressed memories until he was 38 and is still receiving counseling in order to continue remembering.
“I don’t think you can force that on people,” Eldred said. “I mean, I think it’s awful. A victim finally comes up with the strength to confront, and they try to seek some kind of help and then a law shuts them down again. I think that is emotionally toxic and abusive. And probably, in some cases, even deadly.”
In Missouri, where Eldred was abused, the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution was removed in 2018. However, like Kansas, there is an age limit of 31 to recover damages. An effort to raise the age limit to 41, inspired by widespread allegations of abuse at Christian boarding schools around Missouri, fizzled during the recently adjourned legislative session.
‘It was like a playbook’
During the filming of “Procession,” when Eldred told his story about being abused at a lake, Laurine shared a similar story.
Laurine said the men were “kind of reclusive and shut down” at the beginning of this process because of the abuse and it took them coming together for this project to open up about their experiences.
“That’s really shown in the movie — a lot of the similarities between everybody’s stories,” Laurine said. “You could tell that in the diocese and church groups, there was a fraternal nurturing of the abuse. … It was like a playbook they gave each other. They all refine how to do it and get away with it, or at least they thought they were getting away with it.”
A summary released in January of a four-year Kansas Bureau of Investigation inquiry into allegations of misconduct among Catholic clergy concluded 188 clergy members in Kansas had abused 140 victims. The agency forwarded 30 cases to prosecutors, but the statute of limitations halted any movement.
Laurine said his abuser is still free and living in Florida.
“It’s a daily thing: You wake up, and you feel like, ah f***,” Laurine said. “Like it’s the thing I wake up to every day and the exhaustive feeling of I just can’t do it. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know where to turn.”
The healing process for abuse victims is not something in which you can receive treatment and are suddenly OK, Eldred said.
“When it comes to abuse survivors, they don’t have that luxury,” Eldred said. “There’s no test you can take, there’s no amount of time that’s going to pass by — and everybody is different in how they react to it, how they treat it, how they overcome it. And you never truly overcome it. It’s always there. It’s always affecting you. And even you might not realize it’s affecting you, but it’s always there, hanging over your head.”
Now in Springfield, Missouri, Eldred works for the state Division of Youth Services to help teenage boys who have been abused or have been the abuser. He has also shown them the documentary.
“It does, I think, help them to see that they’re not alone and that, you know, in their own misery and probably self hatred and depression based over what happened to them, that they can overcome it and survive it, and then learn to thrive again,” Eldred said.
While the film is available on Netflix, Greene said the documentary is about coming together and was glad that the showing Friday allowed for it to be seen as it was meant to be, together.
The “Procession” team invited members of the Office for Protection and Care of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and Journey to Bethany, a program from St. Joseph, Missouri, focused on broadening awareness for healing resources and sexual abuse help, to represent the church at the showing, and they attended the screening, said Alison Byrne Fields, impact producer for the film.
“Although all dioceses have a dedicated staff member charged with the care of victim/survivors, each individual diocese is responsible for taking the steps needed to work towards trust, accountability and reconciliation,” said Anita McSorley, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, in a statement. “The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas is using restorative principles and a survivor-centered approach to work towards atonement for clergy sexual abuse in the archdiocese. Particularly, they are reaching out to victim/survivors who have reported abuse in the past as well as caring for victim/survivors who come forward today.”
Through his healing processes, Eldred wrote a letter to his younger self about the struggles he faced and the strength it took to get to the other side. He said that he used to love Superman and that he always wanted to be like the superhuman hero.
The ending of Eldred’s letter to himself: “Make no mistake, you are the epic hero in the story of us.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Anita McSorley. Her title has been updated.
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