Johann Hari: The devilish church practice of exorcism

Share
Related Topics

Last year, I met a drawn, defeated 14-year old girl who had been possessed by Satan, until he and his Armies of Evil were tortured out of her.

That is how her priest explained it to me. That is how she explained it to me.

They spoke as if it was all as obvious as her scars. Clarice was a tiny girl wrapped in a big white woollen cardigan. In a church in the middle of Congo's carnage she explained how she had chosen to let the demons enter her when she was twelve.

Since then, Satan had forced her to make her mother fall, breaking her leg.

Satan had forced her to jinx her father, making it impossible for him to get a job. Satan had forced her to kill her little sister, by giving her a deadly fever.

Her Pentecostalist priest, Papa Enoch Boonga, told me with pride how he had driven the demons out. They starved Clarice for four days, whipped her and threatened to burn her, until finally she "confessed."

Then they forced her to admit to everything she had done, and performed a long exorcism ceremony. They only believed it was working when her little body began to judder and howl and curse. I ask Clarice quietly if she really believed she had done all these things. "Yes," she said. "I do." And so we sigh lazily: another example of African primitivism. But no. Exorcism, even of children, is being aggressively promoted today by one of the most powerful men in the Western world, Pope Benedict XVI, in only slightly watered-down form. Presidents and Prime Ministers fawn over this man.

His every word is reported with the respect we are required to show to "religion", lest we are accused of bigotry.

And yet he is openly commanding an army of exorcists to tell horrifically disturbed and mentally ill people that demons and devils are within them – because they invited evil in.

This December, Father Gabriele Amorth, official exorcist of the Rome Diocese, and friend of the "Holy Father", announced that the Pope will soon undertake a new campaign to unleash a fresh batch of 400 exorcists on the world, in addition to the thousands already in operation. "Thank God," he said, "we have a Pope who has decided to confront the devil head-on." (One representative of this evil, he added, is Harry Potter.)

The Catholic Church has officially denied having such a plan – but they admit the Church has had official exorcism rites since 1614, and that bishops and priests are encouraged to act on them today "where appropriate."

In practice, official Catholic exorcisms have been dramatically increasing since the mid-1970s, according to Michael W. Cuneo, a sociologist at Fordham University in New York who conducted a four-year study into this topic. But very few people were prepared to talk to me about what this involves.

I was finally able to track down one of the more "moderate" exorcists – if you can imagine such a thing – in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hallam, in Yorkshire.

Father Anthony Hayne is a soft-spoken, sincere man who tells me that in his little slice of Britain he carries out "a couple of exorcisms a month".

Although it's years since he's seen the movie The Exorcist, he thinks it's broadly accurate, explaining, "As a Catholic, I would use those methods, yes.

"Lately I've been seeing a professional person who seems very balanced, except she feels demons are ruining her life. Sometimes she speaks with a voice that is certainly not her voice, it is obviously a demon using her. . . We have prayed together, and if that doesn't work we have a solemn rite of exorcism we can use if we have the approval of the bishop."

He says he takes the question of whether these people are mentally ill "very seriously".

He encourages anybody who feels they are possessed to go to their doctor – but he claims he has to take their word for it when they say the doctor says there is no physical or psychological cause for their disturbance, because of patient confidentiality.

Father Anthony tells me he does indeed believe children can be possessed, although he would only ever "treat" a child with the presence and co-operation of its parents. The closest he has come is to treat a few people in their late teens, who "had been using ouija boards and had let the darkness into their lives".

It's true the official Catholic exorcism rites do not involve the physical torture inflicted on Clarice – but in many cases, it inevitably involves telling the mentally ill they are responsible for their own suffering.

For example, one of the heroes to Catholic exponents of exorcism is M. Scott Peck, who wrote: "People who are suffering from demonic possession [have] at some level co-operated with demonic evil; they have invited it into their life. In such cases there is always – perhaps at an unconscious level – some kind of sell-out to evil." Imagine telling this to a howling woman hearing voices. Every day there is a case somewhere of an exorcist taking the Catholic theology seriously but going beyond its fetid rules. To pluck one recent example from hundreds: recently a 23-year-old Romanian nun called Maricica Irina Cornici became convinced she was hearing the voice of Satan.

Her colleagues reacted by tying her to a cross, gagging her mouth with a towel, and leaving her for three days with no food or water, to "starve out Satan". At the inquest, it was revealed she had a long history of schizophrenia. Whenever I write about the harm caused by organised superstition, well-meaning people write, asking – why get so worked up? Isn't religion all about love and light and helping people through the hard times?

No. Here is the biggest, richest and most powerful religious institution on earth, explicitly telling deeply mentally ill people the Devil is within them because they asked him in, and they have to suffer to get him out. Even the famously wet and woolly Church of England has an official exorcist in every diocese. This is not love, nor light.

Nor can we fall back on the glib claim that these people are distorting the "true" religion, which is all about peace and love. Jesus Christ himself performed exorcisms and he called on his followers to copy him, engaging in spiritual trench warfare against Satan. If a Christian is somebody who follows the example of Christ, these people are true and good Christians – and they are also deeply immoral human beings.

In that crater-church in Congo, I wanted to be able to hug Clarice, and tell her that there was a place in the world where these barbaric superstitions were a distant, dismissed relic. Thanks to the Catholic Church, I could not offer her even that.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

English Teacher- Manchester

£19200 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Are you a ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A study has revealed that 80 per cent of us underestimate the calorie content of a glass of white wine  

Sure, giving up alcohol will help you lose weight, but it also makes you desperately dull

Siobhan Norton
Jules and Delaney  

Disney needs a princess with Down's syndrome

Keston Ott Dahl
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes