by Alison Smith
With renewed energy and fervor, the world has plunged again into a paranormal realm. Interest in psychic phenomena, communicating with the dead, and healing with the power of the mind have become, in this age of science, a gateway to the mysterious and escape from the mundane.
Religion has also turned back to a more fantastical realm.
“Exorcism” refers to the expulsion of demons from an individual’s body. Everyone is technically able to perform the rite of exorcism, as Christ said in Mark 16:17 that anyone who believed could perform the same miraculous works as he, in his name. “Minor exorcism,” which can include an Easter service or a baptism (any rite that involves denying the influence of the devil), is incredibly common.
Until recently, “major exorcisms,” the kind William Peter Blatty wrote about in his famous novel “The Exorcist,” were incredibly rare. Major exorcisms, the expulsion of an actual demon from a possessed person’s body, have become relatively common, though many deny their rate of incidence.
These demonic possessions reportedly include great feats of paranormal ability, including levitation and the ability to speak in languages that were before unknown to the victim of demonic influence. Major exorcisms contain every sensational tidbit that the stories about them do. And most even followed in the footsteps of one.
In 1971, William Peter Blatty’s acclaimed novel, “The Exorcist,” was published, followed in 1973 by the film version’s release. The novel marked the first time exorcisms had been mentioned in such a public way since the 1600s. The demand for real Catholic exorcisms rose, but there weren’t many priests actually trained to perform exorcisms, and the Catholic Church didn’t often give permission to perform them. A person who believes they are possessed by demonic forces, according to the catechism of the Church, must undergo psychiatric evaluation to prove that there is no underlying mental cause. There is some confusion about whether the mental screening is really a requirement, or just a good idea, though the catechism is the true reference point. In his novel, “Interview with an Exorcist,” Father Fortea writes that “The Church does not usually require a psychiatric evaluation prior to proceeding with an exorcism.” Though it may be the habit of the Church to perform exorcisms without this evaluation, it is clear from the catechism that one is, indeed, required. To ensure that this procedure is followed, exorcisms must be approved by the Bishop of the exorcist’s diocese, a rule that has been in place since AD 416. Pope Innocent I wrote to Bishop Gubbio saying, “Quod hoc, nisi episcopus praeceperit non licet.” (To perform [an exorcism] is not licit without the order from the bishop.)
Because there were not enough trained priests to meet the new demand caused by Blatty’s novel and film, and because the Church was unlikely to give official permission, some priests chose to ignore the guidelines for exorcism and perform them on their own.
Ed and Lorraine Warren, Amityville Investigators and self-described Ghost Hunters, helped possessed individuals contact priests who were willing to perform these secret exorcisms throughout the seventies. Some of the priests weren’t really priests anymore – they had left the Church for other pursuits. Others kept their exorcisms secret. One priest, though, is notable for his involvement with the Warrens. Father Robert McKenna, from Connecticut, performed many exorcisms with the Warrens in attendance, though he is reluctant to admit the association. In an interview with Michael W. Cuneo, author of “American Exorcism,” Father McKenna said that the Warren’s “… books are sensationalized, and you just can’t take it literally. I don’t like to be publicly associated with them.”
Since the Amityville hoax has since been uncovered, it’s easy to see why.
In 1983, following the wave of exorcisms that swept the nation, the Catholic Church dropped the requirement that each diocese must have its own appointed exorcist. For seven years, the topic of exorcism lay quiet.
Then, in 1990 came another revival of the exorcism fad. Father Gabriele Amorth, an Italian priest and “official exorcist of the Vatican,” published a novel entitled, “An Exorcist Tells His Story.” Three years later, in 1993, he founded the International Association of Exorcists. The first meeting of the Association only had six attendees. Six years later, in 1999, 200 attended. Possibly because of Amorth’s influence, the number of exorcists in Italy has grown from 20 to 300.
The effects from Amorth’s attempts to gain support for exorcists have been felt worldwide. Recently, the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Archdiocese of New York publicly appointed exorcists, a scenario that would have simply never come to be in previous years. In fact, many priests are still under the impression that exorcists are completely anonymous. Father John Schmeidler of the Saint John the Evangelist Church in Lawrence, Kansas, was under the impression that, “… each diocese of the Church appoints someone to be the priest to do exorcisms. Yet, no one knows who the priest is except the bishop,” referring to the policy that changed in 1983. And Father Brian Doerr, Director of Vocations at the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana, went even farther saying, “if you read anything about the details of an exorcism, chances are they are making it up as real exorcists just do not talk about their experiences.”
Father Amorth, with multiple books and interviews, certainly does talk about his exorcism experiences. He claims to have performed at least 50,000 exorcisms, with just over a hundred being “true” demonic possessions. Deacon Charlie Cornell at the Archdiocese of Boston believes that Father Amorth “has a definite leaning toward sensationalism,” and concludes that he “… would take what [Amorth] says with a rather large grain of salt.”
Amorth’s claims are not strictly of exorcisms. He also makes claims that reach back into history. Amorth believes that Hitler and Stalin were both possessed by the devil. Professor Richard J. Evans, a Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge and author of books including “The Third Reich in Power” and “Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History, and the David Irving Trial” disagrees that Hitler and Stalin were possessed. “They were both human beings,” he says, “and in the real world we need to try and understand them by rational means so that we can prevent anything like the crimes of Hitler and Stalin happening again.”
While some believe that Father Amorth’s claims are exaggerated, especially in the number of exorcisms he claims to have performed, Matthew Gambino, Associate Director for the Office of Communications at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia says that “when in doubt [Amorth] performs the rite, whether it’s a case of possession or not,” and that even if Amorth didn’t have the permission of the bishop, he “took the initiative for the good of the person. As long as the rite was celebrated in a valid manner, only good can come from it.” That statement, while hopeful, is not precisely true.
In 2004, Ray Hemphill, minister at the Faith Temple Church of Apostolic Faith in Milwaukee, suffocated eight-year-old Terrance Cottrell Jr. during an exorcism. Terrance Cottrell Jr. suffered from autism and his mother volunteered him during a prayer circle meeting. Ray Hemphill sat on the young boy’s chest, restricting his lungs and killing him.
While this was not a Catholic ceremony, it is important to remember that according to the Catholic belief, anyone can conduct an exorcism. Hemphill’s attorney, Tim Provis, stated in court that Hemphill was doing what he thought best for Cottrell, and that the boy’s death was “an honest error.” It seems that acting for the good of a person doesn’t always go well after all.
This may seem like an extenuating circumstance. Surely the Catholic Church wouldn’t condone such behavior during an exorcism? According to Father Jim Gigliotti of the St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas, “The Exorcism usually has at least two priests present at all times, with others present to constrain or restrain the person being exorcised if that is needed.”
The biggest question, then, becomes: Are exorcisms, on the whole, illegal?
It’s a complicated answer.
The exorcism Father Gigliotti was referring to took place sixteen years ago in Florida. According to the web site of Florida attorney JP Gonzalez-Sirgo, Florida law defines “false imprisonment” as non-consensual on the victim’s part, while intentional on the perpetrator’s part. The victim must be aware, at the time, that they are falsely imprisoned, and there must be no available means of escape.
Kenneth B. Nunn, Professor of Law at the University of Florida says that, “Technically restraint of the possessed would be false imprisonment… a priest performing a ritual exorcism may have a defense, in the way that a parent or physician may be able to use coercive force for instruction or treatment as long as it is not excessive.” Nunn adds that “a possessed person may be viewed as ‘mentally ill’ and thus incapable of withholding consent for the restraint.”
Fortunately, those guidelines for exorcism outlined in the catechism are in place to protect the mentally ill from being put in such a position. Or are they?
Father Gigliotti’s retelling of his experience with exorcism is an in-depth look at how all of the guidelines can swiftly become meaningless.
Sixteen years ago, Father Gigliotti was called upon to assist in an exorcism in Florida. A fifteen-year-old boy had been repeatedly hospitalized for drug use, but had apparently been clean for some time. He was, however, still behaving strangely, and in a way that his physicians could not adequately explain. The boy complained of auditory hallucinations and thoughts of suicide.
The boy’s mother requested an exorcism. She was a thirty-year-old nurse, and had recently gone through “an ugly divorce.”
The local bishop granted permission for the exorcism upon receiving permission from the fifteen-year-old’s doctors. Father Gigliotti, accompanied by the main exorcist and praying partners, went to the home of the woman to perform the exorcism.
The home was in disarray, and the woman was smoking and pacing. Gigliotti noted that they appeared “quite poor.”
The boy sat on a chair in the living room while the priests began to pray. The mother stayed in the room to pray as well.
During the exorcism, the boy did not react in any unexpected ways. However, as the praying continued, the mother began to perspire, scratch at her skin, and complain of a burning sensation. The priests, realizing they were exorcising the wrong person, changed their focus from the boy to his mother, and altered the wording of the prayers to reflect the “servant daughter” they now hoped to deliver.
The woman laid on the floor in a fetal position, gagging and moaning when the priests demanded for the demon to name itself. After an hour and a half, the woman lost consciousness and went limp, and the priests blessed her and the house.
Every failsafe on the ritual of exorcism was bypassed.
The psychiatric evaluation was for the wrong person. The woman was not evaluated prior to the exorcism or, if she had been, her records had not been reviewed. The permission for exorcism granted by the bishop was for the wrong person.
Later, Father Gigliotti discovered the reason behind the woman’s lies.
For some time, the woman, who worked as a nurse in a hospital, had been stealing drugs and taking them. She also sold some of the drugs. One person she sold them to got sick and nearly died. That victim told their family about the origin of the drugs, and the nurse received a threatening phone call one night, warning her that the family would send demons to disrupt her life.
The woman began to hear voices, entertain thoughts of suicide, and lose her sense of reality. She became obsessed with the power of stealing and selling drugs, even though she tried to stop.
Demonic possession or mental illness? Without a prior psychiatric evaluation, it’s hard to say, though many of the woman’s symptoms seem to fall under the category of mental illness.
Father Fortea, author of “Interview With an Exorcist,” states that, “The best way to determine if something is demonic in origin or merely a psychiatric problem is through the passage of time. If something that seems extraordinary… is a mental illness, it will get progressively worse and obvious psychosis will develop.”
Dr. Judith Ford, Professor of Psychiatry with a focus on schizophrenia at Yale University School of Medicine agrees that, during the initial stages, some symptoms of mental illness – like intellectual abilities and social functioning – worsen. However, schizophrenia is classified as an episodic illness, meaning that symptoms can wax and wane. A sufferer might experience better and worse days in regards to auditory hallucinations, for example.
After reviewing the case of the thirty-year-old nurse, Dr. Ford gave the opinion that, “she has psychotic features (auditory hallucinations). Her apparent attention-seeking behavior could be a part of a delusional system.”
When asked, Dr. Ford states her opinion concisely: “I don’t believe in demonic possession.”
Without more clear-cut rules on what is and is not permitted during an exorcism, one can imagine that more mishaps will occur. Psychiatric evaluations prior to exorcism are important because, whether you believe in demonic possession or not, it is not up to any religious institution to offer hope of a cure in the face of a real disease when none exists.
Claims of exorcists can hardly be proven without documented evidence. In order to protect those receiving exorcisms as well as those performing them, it is important that records be kept of what, exactly, happened and who was involved, if not only to ensure no criminal acts are taking place.
Religious belief leaves us open to the influence of those we would deem protectors. In the case of exorcism, it could be said that many who are supposed to be knowledgeable in doctrine are not, and also that many bend the rules that are already in place to protect those who would be under their care.
- Richard J. Evans
- An Interview With Fr Gabriele Amorth – The Church’s Leading Exorcist
- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Exorcist, Catholic Encyclopedia
- Exorcism, Catholic Encyclopedia
- False Imprisonment
- Paper: Oregonian, The (Portland, OR)
Title: CASTING OUT DEMONS
Author: NANCY HAUGHT – The Oregonian
Date: September 22, 2000
- Paper: Hartford Courant, The (CT)
Title: GIVING THE DEVIL HIS DUE – WERE HISTORY’S BADDEST BAD GUYS POSSESSED BY SATAN?
Author: JESSE LEAVENWORTH; Courant Staff Writer
Date: September 15, 2006
- Paper: Victoria Advocate, The (TX)
Title: Pastor accused of ‘exorcism’ rape
Date: August 31, 2006
Paper: St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN)
Title: CONVICTION UPHELD OF MAN WHO SUFFOCATED BOY DURING ‘EXORCISM’
Author: SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press
Date: August 16, 2006
- Paper: Evansville Courier & Press (IN)
Title: E IS FOR EXORCISM
Author: Susan Orr, Courier & Press staff writer
461-0783 or email@example.com
Date: July 29, 2006
- Paper: Journal Gazette, The (Fort Wayne, IN)
Title: Validity of exorcisms has skeptics casting doubts
Author: Joe Milicia Associated Press
Date: April 28, 2001
- Paper: The Record (New Jersey)
Title: FOR CATHOLICS, THE DEVIL IS MORE THAN A MYTH – EXORCISM IS PART OF ARSENAL TO FIGHT EVIL
Author: ROGER OCHOA
Date: January 18, 2001
Section: RELIGION & VALUES
- Paper: Guelph Mercury, The (Ontario, Canada)
Title: New rules set for exorcisms
Date: November 24, 2000
- Paper: Journal Gazette, The (Fort Wayne, IN)
Title: DEMONIC POSSESSION: IT’S NOT JUST A SCARY MOVIE
Author: Jeannine F. Hunter Scripps Howard News Service
Date: October 28, 2000
- Paper: Tulsa World
Title: Exorcising rite
Author: DAVID R. MILLION
Date: October 4, 2000
Section: EAST TULSA ZONE
- The Holy Bible, The New King James Version
Copyright by Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1984
- “American Exorcism” by Michael W. Cuneo
Copyright 2001 by Michael W. Cuneo. Printed by Doubleday.
- “Interview With an Exorcist: An Insider’s Look at the Devil, Demonic Possession, and the Path to Deliverance” by Father Antonio Fortea, Foreword by Samuel T. Aquila, D.D.
Copyright 2006, Ascension Press, LLC
- “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty
Copyright 1971 by William Peter Blatty, reprinted 2004 by HarperTorch
- Father John Schmeidler
- Father Brian Doerr
- Deacon Charlie Cornell
- Professor Richard J. Evans
- Matthew Gambino
- Father Jim Gigliotti
- Professor Kenneth B. Nunn
- Dr. Judith Ford
Alison Smith runs SkepticalAnalysis.com