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Exorcism and the Church

25 September 2017

Listen to Katie read ‘Exorcism and the Church’

“And Lord, you’ve given her this assignment. Father, I’d just ask that you would touch her heart as she’s writing it, Lord, that she would hear from you, that she would say what you want her to say, Lord.”

In hindsight, I should have been more worried.

When Elizabeth Ryan, a devoutly Christian woman who I was interviewing about her experience of being “delivered” of 43 demons in 2008, offered to pray for me and the article, I was mostly just confused. As an atheist, I was concerned that I might have to participate in the prayer, something that I did not know how to do. Elizabeth reassured me however, that only she would speak, and even at the end, I only needed to respond to her “amen” with a hesitant “thank you”.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that drawing God’s attention to a sceptical article about exorcism was not going to help with the writing of it. I spent the next few weeks with the most debilitating writer’s block I have ever experienced. Every word of this piece has been a struggle

However, my (definite) curse and (probable) damnation is not really the point. No, the point is that in 2014, for the first time ever, the Pope and the Catholic Church officially endorsed the International Association of Exorcists, an organisation founded in 1990 now composed of 250 priests in 30 different countries, indicating an increasing mainstream acceptance of what most would still see as a fairly fringe practice. This drew much attention, and raises the question, ‘wait, this still happens in the 21st Century?’

Professor Sarah Ferber, from the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong, has studied the history and sociology of exorcism extensively.

“Exorcism is practiced by a large number of religious cultures around the world. It means roughly the same thing in all of them which is the removal from a person’s body of what is believed to be an inhabiting evil spirit,” she says.

This belief doesn’t sound like something that should still persist in this day and age. Yet, exorcism seems to be on the rise and many people in Australia have even undergone the practice, including the aforementioned Elizabeth Ryan who found God in primary school, when a group came to start a Bible study group.

“They said if you want to pray and give your heart to Jesus and make him Lord of your life, just come and do that,” she says.

While the ethics of promoting religion in supposedly secular public schools may be questionable, Elizabeth herself has “never looked back”.

Although, she admits that “At that stage I probably didn’t understand a whole lot about… what it was about, but the more understanding you get of God the closer you become to him, and the more on fire for God you become.”

Her faith did not, however, protect her from experiencing a number of difficulties in her life. She describes how, in 2008, she was not in a good way.

“Things had become very difficult because of the WorkCover I was on, because I had swollen nerves in my elbows. My husband and I … weren’t doing too well either, probably just because of stress.”

She was also being treated for depression, but was not finding the medication or the counselling helpful. When she heard about the ‘revival meetings’ being held by Pastor Danny Nalliah, she went along – stories were coming out about people being healed of all sorts of ailments, and Elizabeth hoped that she too could be helped.

“[Pastor Nalliah] said to come up for depression, people with depression. I knew I had that so I went up, and as soon as I sort of got on the stage I realised that there was something demonic, I could just feel demonic things inside me, just like a presence of evil, I suppose is what I felt, and then Pastor Danny started to pray for me and I fell over, and then he started casting demons out.”

Elizabeth says she was then “delivered” of the 43 demons, many of which she believes had inhabited her body since she was very young.

“Pastor Danny said, ‘How many demons are there?’, and it wasn’t even my voice, I knew that the demons were saying 46, but an interesting feeling, I felt like in the pit of my stomach this number 43, and I felt, in the midst of everything, I felt like a peace, there, of knowing that was the right number.”

“Danny started delivering me of the demons, and he was quite aggressive with the demons, not as in physically aggressive but he would speak to them and say, ‘you have to get out, you know, you don’t belong in this body and she’s a child of God’, and he would look in my eyes and even put his fingers on my eyes because he could see the demons. And then he would just tell them to go, and I would know when they went, because I felt a bit cleaner, a bit freer, I suppose, each time one went out. And I’d been wearing this brace on my arm because of the swollen nerves and Pastor Danny said, ‘Put your hands up and say hallelujah and tell the people that you’re free’, and when I did that I realised that there was no more pain in my elbow.”

Elizabeth feels that this experience was an extremely positive one. She claims to have not had any problems since, and that her exorcism changed her perspective “On life, and on church and God and my husband, and yeah, everything”.

Despite this glowing praise, exorcism is controversial – and for a number of good reasons. Obviously, the idea of demon possessions is a fairly high hurdle for even the most open-minded to overcome. It sounds like a practice from medieval times, or at best, something only the most extreme religious sects would believe in, despite the fact that one in every 28 Catholic dioceses in Australia is supposed have an official exorcist.

Furthermore, many suspect that the symptoms of supposed demonic possession are more likely those of undiagnosed mental illness, and worry that attempting exorcism rather than seeking proper professional treatment will do much more harm than good.

This was one of the things that concerned me most about Elizabeth’s story – she told me that she had been on antidepressants and undergoing therapy before her “deliverance” but that these treatments weren’t helping.

Ferber cautions against taking any testimony from individuals who had experienced exorcism at face value, pointing out that there can be many reasons why a person might feel better after an exorcism. A main concern is that “They might indeed feel pressured to say that they feel better, even if they don’t”.

She also suggests that the automatic diagnoses of mental illness can oversimplify something quite complex. In the Western psychiatric tradition, mental illness is a cognitive problem whereas within Christianity, the underlying issue is a moral one.

A 2005 study by Swiss psychiatrist, Samuel Pfeifer, on 343 psychiatric patients who were believers in exorcism found that a negative outcome is achieved when the exclusion of medical treatment is coupled with coercive forms of exorcism, even when the patients believe in the possibility of possession and deliverance.

Equally concerning is the potential for abuse in the practice of exorcism. When giving someone the power to label another person’s behaviour demonic, it allows them to judge which behaviours are acceptable and which are not. This means that those performing exorcisms are able to respond to behaviours that they do not consider to be acceptable in forceful and violent ways.

Ferber has co-authored a number of papers on the case of Joan Vollmer, a Victorian woman murdered by her husband and three of their friends in the early ‘90s. The court case effectively came down to the question of belief – whether Vollmer’s killers truly believed they were attacking a demon, rather than the woman herself, or whether this was a convenient excuse to cover a more regular murder. Two of the attackers were eventually convicted of manslaughter. This, though, was after a drawn-out court case in which even the judge, in the interest of remaining impartial and even-handed, never even questioned the possibility of possession itself.

The manslaughter conviction seemed to imply something unintended about the death, framing it more as an unforeseeable side effect of their attack on a demon than the totally foreseeable outcome of strangling a human woman. Ferber, in the Sydney Morning Herald, stated, “When the human body is seen as a cosmic battleground, women and children in particular are vulnerable”.

In recent decades, violent cases of exorcism, increasingly involved women and children, have become the norm. Ferber believes a “fragmentation within Christianity” has led to rogue exorcists who are not governed by any kind of religious hierarchy that can monitor their activities.

In part, this could in some way parallel the history of witchcraft accusations in places like Salem, which tended to be a way of controlling women’s behaviour and punishing them for perceived wrongdoing. However, Ferber says it is not so simple, “There can be a gender dynamic where possession is seen as a function of kind of sexual seduction… often people who are said to be possessed are said to be possessed because they have thought or done something evil.”

It is the timing of this resurgence of interest in exorcism that is particularly interesting. Within the Catholic Church, exorcism is an extremely political issue. The practice seems to have often seen spikes in popularity at times of division within the Catholic Church, such as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Around 40 years ago, when the Church council tried to modernise and reform the church, the traditionalists who opposed these more liberal reforms become those advocating for and carrying out exorcism.

Ferber explains why exorcism is often brought back into popular practice during times of division, “It can be perfectly logical to think all of these troubles we’re enduring are because of the Devil… it can actually be an interpretation of why events are unfolding the way they are.”

As Western societies become increasingly secular and progressive values become more mainstream, it makes sense that the Church might feel threatened. As a result we have the increased visibility and acceptance of a practice which can make them seem more powerful, and offer an explanation for why, exactly, things have changed, and are changing, so radically.


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