Crisis and the Rise of Exorcisms

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 16, 2011 — 54 Comments

I’ve spent quite a bit of time at The Wild Hunt looking at the revival of interest in exorcisms within the Catholic Church. The reason for this interest is the fact that many of these exorcists list modern Pagan religions, and interest in the occult, as symptoms of demonic possession.

“A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous.  People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …” Father Gary Thomas

“Father Euteneuer does not speak as a theorist. Since 2003 he’s had extensive experience ministering to those possessed by demons … Father Euteneuer told me possession is almost always a result of someone getting involved in some sort of occult practices, such as witchcraft, Wicca, tarot cards, and Ouiji boards. ”Harry Potter and these Twilight vampires glamorize the power of evil,” Father Eutenener explained, “and this has lead to many, many cases of possession among young people.” It may begin with a child or teenager simply “playing around” with the occult, but that seemingly harmless act is “opening a window” to possession.” – Father Thomas Euteneuer

“No one knows why more people seem to be seeking the rite. Paprocki said one reason could be the growing interest among Americans in exploring general spirituality, as opposed to participating in organized religion, which has led more people to dabble in the occult. “They don’t know exactly what they’re getting into and when they have questions, they’re turning to the church, to priests,” said Paprocki, chairman of the bishops’ committee on canonical affairs and church governance. “They wonder if some untoward activity is taking place in their life and want some help discerning that.”Bishop Thomas Paprocki

Religion News Service correspondent Daniel Burke, writing for U.S. Catholic Magazine, explores the reasons for this spike in interest and practice of exorcisms within contemporary Catholicism. Burke quotes historian Nancy Caciola, who says that increases in exorcism usually happen during times of crisis and upheaval.

“Portable manuals detailing ever more elaborate and standardized rituals of exorcism proliferated during the papal schism of the 15th century, when two men claimed to be the rightful pope. The manuals surfaced again during the Protestant Reformation. “In general, exorcisms are associated with these turning-point moments when the church [feels] challenged in some way and tries to centralize power and clarify the delegation of authority from God down through the hierarchy,” Caciola says. The challenges now confronting the Catholic Church in the United States are legion: the sex abuse scandal, a secularizing society, and a restive flock that, studies show, loses one out of three adult Catholics, to name just a few.”

One of the ramifications of a “secularizing society” is increasing competition, no matter how small in stature. Paganism and “the occult” being ready made culprits and opponents for a reviving body of exorcists. Even still, this would only be a minor annoyance were it not for the fact that the “training” received by exorcists seems to point in ominous directions. Earlier this year media critic (and practicing Witch) Peg Aloi interviewed Father Gary Thomas, the brightest star among American Catholic exorcists, also interviewed in this U.S. Catholic Magazine piece, and found that he held some rather troubling ideas concerning who exactly he was battling.

Peg Aloi: Do you believe there are a lot of satanic cults out there?

Father Gary Thomas: There are probably more than we think. In fact, I pray over a woman right now who is a satanic cult survivor.

PA: I need to ask this. Speaking as someone who has done extensive research on the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s: Do you think it’s possible your parishioner’s experiences are false, or that she may be lying, or delusional? Because despite many, many horrific accusations of abuse and murder and various other atrocities by satanic cults over the years, most of them by alleged “survivors” who claim to be former cult members, the FBI, after years of investigation, never found a single shred of evidence to suggest there is or ever has been an underground network of satanic cults in the United States.

FGT: I don’t believe that she’s lying. She had been seeing a priest in our diocese for a while and her memories stated to surface, and that’s how we learned of her involvement in the cult. But if even half of what she’s saying is true, and I have not found any reason to doubt it, in her system, if anyone exposes the group, they’ll be killed. There is a whole culture in terms of what these people tell their members.

What you are reading there are the seeds for a new Satanic Panic, the same sort of moral panic that imprisoned, terrorized, and ruined the lives of hundreds of people. Some spent nearly twenty years in prison on false charges, as documented in the chilling 2008 film “Witch Hunt”. Others, like the West Memphis Three, are still fighting for justice. The deeper you dig into these exorcists, the more problematic material you find. That they are enjoying a certain level of mainstreaming now may point to tensions and problems faced by modern Catholicism, but it also has the potential to do considerable damage to any group unlucky enough to become spiritually scapegoated.

Religion journalists, both secular and denominational, seem to completely gloss over the problems in modern exorcism rhetoric. If “occult,” “Wicca,” or “Paganism” were replaced with signifiers for any other mainstream religion or spiritual practice there would be international outcry and mountains of bad publicity. That there isn’t seems to either be a failure of journalists to understand that these priests are saying that some religions are fair game for what is, in essence, spiritual warfare, or they simply can’t believe that anything serious could result from the rise of exorcism. That this is simply a interesting trend piece. But for those who are named in the fear-mongering and half-truths, who have lived through one “panic” already, this rise in spiritual warfare, whether Protestant or Catholic, carries with it the threat of future panic and hysteria.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • I am a Shaman and I do professional paranormal interventions and exorcisms. While there has been an increase in activity over the last 10-15 years, the actual number of legit possession cases has continued to remain a very tiny percentage in the paranormal field, probably around 3-5% at best. It's true that there are more paranormal cases resulting from occult practitioners who dabble and don't know what they are doing, but of those, maybe 1/2 % result in possession. Most just open a doorway and it results in a haunting they aren't prepared to cope with.

    While there is some truth in what the Father states here, there is a slanted, heavy bias towards blaming any and all other paths for the rise in activity. The Church has even denounced Reiki, which is a form of hands on healing, as a path to evil, which is ridiculous because it's an extremely positive energy and practice with no negative side effects.

    The real issue is people exploring other paths takes power away from the Church. The propaganda is so they can remain the only supplier of spirituality. This is not healthy nor balanced, and I personally believe stunts a person's spiritual growth. Imagine a parent who bogarts all forms of self-reliance to keep their children eternally dependent on them for power, control and profit. It's not healthy. People are leaving the Church because it's tenants are outdated and they are seeking a direct relationship with the Divine, with no middle man acting as the sales person.

    The Bible is full of channelers, demon-busting, hands on healing, and talking with supernatural entities. They need to get over the idea that only their characters are good and all others capable of these feats are evil. People want to experience the Divine for themselves, that's why all the interest in New Age, occult and paranormal is out there.

    This is a time of transition and change. My experience is that the beings on the other planes are just as restless as everyone is on this one: our politics, global economy, environment, and our consciousness are all going through a time of transition right now. It's normal for the old guard to fight to hang on to their slipping power as a new era rises and emerges from the one that failed before it, which is exactly what's happening. All the old systems are breaking down right now because they simply don't work anymore.

    I believe this is what is really going on with the Church. They are looking for excuses to try to hang on to their departing flock, and blame any thing out of what only they themselves can provide as reasons for the decay of society. It's really the decay of their own power they are bitter about. They are going the way of the dinosaur. People are waking up and don't need them anymore, and this "rise in exorcisms" is a false need they are creating to try to hang on as more and more people leave the Church.

    • I just want to clarify a few things about my experience with exorcisms, because there isn't a lot of reliable information out there. First, all mundane causes need to be ruled out. This includes medical, psychiatric or environmental causes. In my work, there is ALWAYS a correlation between a trauma the victim has suffered in the past and the attack. The trauma is what makes them vulnerable, or even a target, and is frequently the point of attack the entity uses. Doing healing work to resolve that trauma is absolutely necessary. This can include therapy, energy healing, EFT or any other modalities that helps that individual. They also obviously need to choose to get better and be healthy, and not be attached to any victim drama.

      Also, when an actual exorcism is performed, ideally there should be a licensed EMT on hand to help if there are injuries and to serve as a witness for the victim's safety. There should be loved ones present to offer love and support as the ritual is done, to offer strength and positive energy and also to serve as witnesses for safety. Genuine exorcisms are NOT about religion, forcing another person's belief onto someone else, faking, acting or role-playing in any way. Also, the Catholic rites are not the only ways to deal with type of thing.

      Generally for myself and for the Church, there needs to be ample evidence that something paranormal is afoot that any sane, rational person present cannot deny. It has to be extreme, have a number of incidents, and has to be thoroughly investigated to rule out all other possibilities first. This is why there are actually so few numbers of genuine cases. Example of extreme are things like spontaneous fires, a malevolent attacking apparition with several witnesses that see it, objects being thrown around the room, and furniture levitating in front of people. These cases are extremely rare. There are many other specific descriptors in identifying the type of entity, but that would take too much space here. My point is that most hauntings are not nearly this eventful. That's why I state that genuine possession cases are really very rare and only a very small percentage of paranormal cases.

      And while any ritual does have a therapeutic effect as part of it's performance, I'm talking about actual real entities doing bad stuff to hurt people, not a healing drama to act out, or an "archetype" to banish or any other New Agey pseudo-magick. I'm talking the real deal in your face and scary as hell and everyone present experiences it. It also means the victim is in very serious trouble and really, really needs help from whoever can provide it. It is not the sole domain of the Church. I have a large number of clients that got no where with the Church and then sought me out. Thankfully, cases like these are truly a very small minority.

      And no, I don't expect anyone, even in our community who summon and talk to spirits regularly, to believe it unless they experience it first hand. But once you do, there's no going back to your former comfortable beliefs about the topic.

      I just wanted to comment on the issues in the article from the perspective of a pagan out there in the field doing the same type of work. There are some small truths, and a lot of bludgeoning of other faiths.

      • Leea

        I used to work with a social worker whom I liked and respected. Her judgement was always excellent, in the years I worked with and knew her. One evening we grabbed supper together after a pretty long day. As we talked-and I don't remember what we were talking about to lead to this topic, she told me about her experiences during the "satanic panic".. and Mary truly believed something was going on in our mid size, Midwestern city. Too many unrelated kids were describing stuff in the same way. These were little kids, traumatized kids. Mary said that other social workers were having the same experiences-but they couldn't find anything to document/prove the allegations. You know-she was scared when she was talking about this stuff. I don't know the truth, but I do believe that something was going on.

        • elnigma

          If there was something going on, the most vocal and public situations were false and cause the whole to be discredited. How to know if the urban myth (spread most publicly by con men) had really happened.

        • Jason Pitzl-Waters

          "I don't know the truth, but I do believe that something was going on."

          The problem I think is distinguishing isolated instances of religious abuse from the idea of an interconnected, underground, Satanic conspiracy. We should also not underestimate the suggestibility of small children, something that led to dozens of people being wrongfully imprisoned during the Satanic Panic. In addition, folklore and myth easily spreads to all sorts of people, even "unrelated" kids. Take, for instance, the unusual folklore that has grown up around the "Blue Lady" and "Bloody Mary" among homeless kids across the country.

          When you deal with children and families in crisis, stuff gets around. For some kids, it may be easier to believe a Satanic cult did horrible things to you than a family member.

          • Jennifer Parsons

            My gods…the stories the children tell in that article are so beautiful and so sad.

            Also very interesting: some descriptions of the Blue Lady keep reminding me of Yemanja, who is said to protect children.

          • Bloody Mary sounds like a Banshee. Thanks for the link, Jason.

          • After all, the whole phenomenon of "Satanic Panic" revolves around the fact that large numbers of people are swept up into sincerely believing that "it" is true.

  • elnigma

    JPII was a brilliant man, too bad it wasn't all used for the good, especially when it came to protecting children from abuse.

  • Beth Winegarner

    I absolutely agree that these kinds of trends are dangerous, particularly for those who belong to "alternate" spiritualities. It's something I return to again and again on my own blog, including in today's entry on a goat slaughter in rural Britain:

    Thanks so much for continuing to put this message out. We need it.

  • Ooh, I'm gonna use that. TPK, dead ahead. (haha "dead ahead" I kill me! Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week. Tip your waitstaff.)

  • Thaniel

    “…have lived through one “panic” already…” ONE? Just one? Oh no. Let’s not forget The Burning Times. Or the fact that the Catholic Church has spent 2000 years trying to destroy us. Individual Catholics may be benign but the Church itself has ALWAYS been our enemy.

  • korakaos

    I agree completely. The exorcisms these men offer are not necessary. Demons can be dealt with in different ways. I will say from personal experience that I would not trade my ecstatic experiences for anything- connection with God is priceless- but I would rather that none of it had been induced through abuse. I would rather it had been bookended with a loving approach. The actual ecstasy was good, but the human behavior not so much. A decent exorcism would be incredibly rare- these men are obviously the ones perpetrating the only horrific, Satanic activity here.

  • Khryseis_Astra

    Actually I think there's a world of difference between my gods, goddesses and other divinities & spirits and the twisted perversion of them that the Christians sell as "demons."

    Their definition of "demon" (the word itself coming from the Greek daimon) as anti-divine, inherently evil entities that go about randomly possessing good, morally upstanding (usually Christian, go figure) folk has nothing to do with the beings I honor and worship. As far as I'm concerned, it's nothing more than a scary tale to frighten children and anyone else who might dare return to the gods the Christians thought their violent conquest extinguished.

    • korakaos

      You're the only one imposing this "Christian" definition that you've got going on in your head, boxing in the definition of demon, when this idea you've got is nothing more than the idea of SOME Christian weirdos. Not that labels mean anything, but I do like language, and am a student of Greek- the definition of demon is not anti-divine. I am surprised you speak of the root and yet not correctly- *whips out her Autenrieth* "δα?μων , ονος. divinity, divine power; sometimes equivalent to θε?ς, but esp. of the gods in their dealings with men, Il. 3.420 ; σ?ν δα?μονι, ‘with the help of God,’"

      If you would prefer the opinions of a few slightly more in-the-know men, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle did not think demons were scary tales to frighten children, nor did they think they were evil, but rather, benevolent. Aristotle even uses eudaimonia to mean happiness. Of course, this is all imposing value judgments- having been a longtime practitioner of Goetia as well, I know that imposing value judgments is besides the point in the highest dealings of spirituality. Why would I want to box in any demon as "good" or "bad"? For nothing is good or bad but only thinking makes it so.

      But I don't really feel like getting into any big philosophical debate here with you. I only wanted to correct you in case anyone else thought you spoke the only truth. Also, I want to make you aware that you are employing fallacious generalization- "the Christians sell" and "the Christians thought THEIR violent conquest"- LOLOLOL I've never conquered a pagan in my life. That's like blaming the Jews and Italians for killing Jesus, or the Germans for killing Jews, when it was only certain individual human beings.

      • Khryseis_Astra

        Perhaps I'm being unclear. 🙂 I accept the original definition of the word daimon. I do not accept the modern definition of "demon," which more often than not is used exactly as I have described it: evil beings led by a big baddy evil being called Satan, or as an insulting reclassification of my deities and daimons.

        You can protest my definition if you like (and no, it is not only *my* definition), and I will accept that you yourself do not share it, but I can find you numerous examples of Christians who do believe exactly that, and more than a few of those can probably be found in the archives of this blog.

        As for the rest, it is a point of historical fact that the conversion of ancient cultures to Christianity was not generally a peaceful thing. Modern Christians are only responsible for the actions of their predecessors to the extent that they continue their atrocities and the teachings that encourage them. In many cases, exorcisms could be put on the level of spiritual, mental and physical abuse, and as such I oppose them.

        • korakaos

          You don't have to accept the "modern" definition- it is only the definition of some cranky old men. I could find numerous examples of Christians who have used it as well- but see, I'm tired of people generalizing Christians, or Pagans, or Jews, or anyone. Not all Christians are violent evil people who think demons and gods and magic are evil. I think you might be surprised at the amount of Christians who think as I do. Why, even my own priest does not think Satan himself is evil, but rather, an intrinsic part of ourselves which we must take care not to let treat others in an unloving fashion. I am just tired of generalizations, and so I call them out when I see them. I just ask that people try not to use them. Just because people like Fred Phelps are vocal does not mean they represent Christendom, for instance. There are far more like me than one might guess.

          And yes, I know conversion was often not peaceful. I am aware that the dark ages and the inquisition could be horrible. And that is not just for those poor women who thought they'd fancy a walk in the woods to gather some flowers and thus be labeled a witch- it was even self-destructive, that is to say, good Christians were persecuted by other "Christians". A monk named Bruno was killed for having dared to believe things like that the Sun is a star and that other stars might have solar systems and that the universe is infinite. To be frank I do not think any Christian who is violent is a real Christ-ian, even if they call themselves as much, but I know that those who have labeled themselves Christian have often been violent. I also know that those who have labeled themselves Jews or, say, followers of Jupiter have been violent- just look at Herod's violent politics or all the crucifixions that took place during the Roman Republic and Empire. I prefer to look at it as that humanity itself has been violent, not any one group. If I label a group instead of individuals, that keeps us divided. There is no need to blame a religion itself. I do not burn witches, nor do I perform violent abusive exorcisms. You, I assume, do not crucify other human beings or set lions upon them. I use demon in just the same fashion as Socrates, Solomon, Aleister Crowley, Jung, Joseph Campbell, and so on- you know, the real ones. And I am a Catholic.

          I, too, oppose these modern shams of exorcisms. I oppose abuse in every form. Love is the law, love under will.

  • Pitch313

    What's telling here is that the Catholic Church itself (as well as many other Christian denominations) promotes and upholds "occult" endeavors and beliefs through exorcism. When the Catholic Church conducts rituals to remove demons and afflicting spirits, it affirms those demons and such as "real."

    I think that many strands of Paganism accept incorporeal non-human entities as "real." But not necessarily as primarily inimical or hostile to human beings. Like lots of other living things we share the Earth with, mostly these incorporeal non-human entities won't bother us if we don't bother them. They go about their affairs. We go about ours.

    What I'm getting at is that the Pagan acceptance of these incorporeal non-human beings is often not so much founded on an"occult" world view as on one that is more expansive, acknowledging non-human spirits their niches in the planetary ecosphere. A much less "occult" inflected world view than that of these eager-to-exorcise (exterminate) Christian denominations.