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Exorcism - the rites and wrongs
Penelope Debelle
March 3, 2011


LAUREN grew up believing she was the Devil’s child. Her family were well-off devout Christians who gave to charity and preached God’s love. Within the walls of their home in Adelaide’s inner suburbs, they told their daughter she was possessed. Lauren – not her real name – was a blonde, high-spirited child with an older brother the family adored. She became the outlet for their fears and disappointments and they turned on her. “They told me I had ‘legion’ in me. It meant a thousand demons,” says Lauren, now a vivacious 28-year-old with long, ash-blonde hair who looks and seems in every way normal. The family were Pentecostal, a charismatic religion with a history of ecstatic practice that includes speaking in tongues, divine healing and the banishing of demons.

But the Pentecostals are far from alone in believing in Devil possession. The idea is not a superstitious hangover from the Dark Ages, nor is it just the stuff of Hollywood entertainment – although a new film, The Rite, featuring Anthony Hopkins as a priest who confronts evil, will soon be on screens.

Possession and exorcism are part of the beliefs of the living church, from Catholic to Baptist, Anglican, Uniting and Lutheran. If anything, they seem to be making a comeback. In Sydney recently, Catholic priests gathered for a forum on exorcism in response to growing numbers of inquiries from spiritually adventurous young people – many of them unwittingly influenced by the gothic vampire revival spearheaded by Twilight – seeking deliverance from the forces of darkness. Spiritual counselling, healing and deliverance ministries can help if the root of the problem is spiritual belief. The problems arise when people are subjected to sometimes terrifying religious rites instead of receiving the physical or psychiatric care they really need.

In the Adelaide Catholic Archdiocese, no exorcisms have been performed for a decade but demon possession is still integral to its beliefs. “Is it theoretically possible? Yes, it certainly is because in the Church and its history, it sees that the possibility of evil possession is a reality,” says the Adelaide vicar-general, Monsignor David Cappo.

In theological terms, if God exists, so must the Devil, the anti-Christ. How he manifests is a matter of theological argument but it is widely believed that he likes to take up residence in vulnerable people. “There is quite a strong tradition of regarding (demons) as anti-persons, almost the opposite of beings,” says Flinders University professor of theology and Uniting Church minister, Andrew Dutney, who once witnessed a girl who appeared to be possessed. “They’re non-beings that have an effect on people’s lives by trickery and lying and deception.”

Lauren’s parents read the Bible literally and believed the Devil had taken on human form in their daughter. She believed them – how could she not? She remembers her skin crawling as she walked upstairs to her room and she imagined she could feel a weight on her back. Worse, there was something odd about her. As a baby she had screamed almost non-stop until she was over a year old.

As a child she suffered strange episodes in which her body would suddenly go rigid and she would shake uncontrollably. She was medically investigated but no problem was found. The episodes would begin with an odd feeling of intense familiarity, as if she had lived through everything before, and were followed by vagueness and mental confusion. Sometimes she had no idea where she was; it was as though she had blacked out even though she was still functioning. She would be left feeling sick and lost. “I’d get very confused. It felt like someone had put a blender on in my brain,” Lauren says. “It would jumble up and feel horrible.” This strange behaviour fed her parents’ beliefs. If she vomited – often violently – it was further proof of the demons at work.

She lived in a sheltered Christian world, attending a small church school at Fullarton and later a Christian college. Her mother in particular turned to the Bible. One passage in the Gospel of Mark is of particular interest to possession and deliverance. In it, Jesus cures a disturbed young man by rebuking “the foul spirit” within and forcing it out. “And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him,” the passage reads.

Lauren’s parents decided exorcism was the answer. They would force the Devil out using special rituals and prayer. Between the ages of about eight and 16, Lauren was repeatedly subjected to exorcism. She remembers being left at the home of two pastors and made to stay there for half a day at a time. They prayed and spoke in tongues, entreating God’s help by laying their hands on her and screaming to force the demons out. “Then they would take their hands off me as if they were going to catch something and say, ‘Get out of her now in Jesus’ name’,” she says. “They would make me cough, they’d have a bucket in front of me and they would tell me to cough and spit and I’d end up just being distressed. Sometimes I’d vomit because of the distress.”

This was seen as physical evidence of the Devil exiting her body. It was a situation she could not win. She went off the rails, she admits, arguing with her father who called her “demon-possessed” and “scrambled in the head”. She started swearing at him, and when she got to her teens she began running away and smashing things. At 15 she had a baby daughter who, at four months, developed viral encephalitis which ravaged her undeveloped brain. Her parents took them to a house where they tried to exorcise them both in different rooms. Lauren has little memory of what happened but she walked out and terrified the friend she was with by projectile vomiting. “It scared her because I’d just been prayed over and now I was vomiting and she thought – Linda Blair, The Exorcist,” Lauren says. “I didn’t know what it was and I couldn’t explain the cause.”

She began a struggle to get her life back on track. She moved between houses but maintained an attachment to St Luke’s Church in Whitmore Square, an Anglican church that dispenses food and blankets as well as Bible studies. There, she had the chance to sing – she has a strong soprano voice – and found a sense of family. “I still had a faith,” she says. “Partly because it’s brainwashed into me and partly because I needed it to try and survive.”

The conductor of the St Luke’s choir contacted Sandra Kanck, then an Australian Democrats MLC and a keen singer, and with Lauren they began a weekly jam session from which emerged an à capella singing trio. Kanck got to know Lauren and began to mentor her. Lauren enrolled in secondary level music at Hamilton College and discovered that, given the chance, she could excel. At the end of 2009, with Kanck at her side, Lauren filled out her entry forms for an arts course at the University of Adelaide.

At the end of first term last year, her life collapsed. Lauren rang Kanck from the back of an ambulance to tell her she was on her way to hospital. She remembers standing at the sink at home when she was seized by the intense feeling of déjà vu that she has suffered from all her life. This time, she collapsed. When she came to, her two children led her next door to get help. She remembers walking with a child holding each hand, feeling so bad she thought she had swallowed poison. “I couldn’t even see, it was like I was blind,” she says. “I had no shoes on and felt like I was walking on glass.”

After the third collapse, she summoned up the courage to tell her doctor about symptoms she never dared reveal for fear they would confirm she was possessed. “I said, ‘I know you’re going to think it’s weird but every time before I pass out – I’m just going to say it – I get déjà vu’,” she says. “That’s really the only way I can describe it because it feels like I’m remembering things as they are happening.”

The neurologist nodded knowingly. Aged 28, Lauren was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. The seizures and vomiting were not demon possession but an electrical malfunction in her brain in which the neurons misfired, triggering a seizure or fit. When she fits, her thought processes are transmitted through the memory section of her brain, making her experience life as a memory. As soon as the neurologist heard this, she knew it was epilepsy.

Lauren wants to protect her family but she is angry that in the name of Christianity she was robbed of a normal childhood, parental love, her self-esteem and most importantly, a medical diagnosis. “It causes somebody to feel like they are flawed, like they are inadequate human beings, especially children,” she says. “You tell a child often enough that they are possessed and they’re going to start believing it. They are going to start acting it and there will be far-reaching implications. It’s an abuse, child abuse.”

This is the dark side of exorcism, when mental or physical illness manifests in ways that seems to mimic the internal struggle between the Devil and God. The client service manager from the Epilepsy Association of SA, Mark Francis, says complex partial epilepsy like Lauren’s is often misdiagnosed because the person remains semi-conscious and apparently functional. “Often they are mistaken for being drunk, on drugs, all of those things,” Francis says. “They can remove things from shelves at their supermarket, throw things … they can become quite weird looking. Some people can yell out religious statements or it can be profanities, swearing. It is always out of character for those persons.” He says the medical literature on epilepsy is rich in examples of people who were thought to be demon possessed. “Right around the world, you hear this,” he says. “I go to conferences all the time and it’s a constant battle.”

It is not only epilepsy in which the Devil’s hand is wrongly seen at work. Two years ago Labor MLC Ian Hunter spoke in Parliament about the plight of young women in Sydney aged in their mid-teens to early 20s who sought help from Mercy Ministries, a charity that was sponsored by the Gloria Jean’s coffee chain and had ties to the Pentecostal Hillsong Church. The Ministry offered help for women in crisis who were suffering from eating disorders, self-harm abuse and depression. Hunter told Parliament women emerged from the program suicidal and depressed, “convinced their problems were due to demonic possession and satanic control”. He read into Hansard their stories – the anorexic who was exorcised and came out emotionally crippled; the woman suffering panic attacks who was told she had invited the demons; and the woman who cut herself in the hope the demons would flow out in her blood. “These were horrifying stories. These were young women with all different problems, body image problems, anorexia, self-harm,” he says. “Some of these women claimed they were shouted at – ‘the Devil be gone!’ – all sorts of stuff.”

The Mercy Ministries had a centre in Sydney and the Sunshine Coast and had plans to move into Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide. But after a series of damaging stories, they appear to have moved on. Hillsong Church dissociated itself from them and in Adelaide, Paradise Church, one of the largest charismatic churches in Australia, has moved away from practising exorcism, seeing it as too insensitive and aggressive. “Paradise Community Church does not practise exorcism in the manner often portrayed in popular culture,” a spokeswoman said. “It’s not even a word that we would use. We believe in giving people the appropriate support, counselling and medical intervention if they need it.”But exorcism is still part of the mainstream religious life. In 1999 the Vatican updated its exorcism rituals for the first time in 400 years, including for the first time a warning to priests to take care not to mistake psychiatric illness for demonic possession. The Rite, which flushed Anthony Hopkins out of retirement, is based on a book about the experiences of a sceptical Californian pastor, Father Gary Thomas, who takes a course in Rome on demonic possession. His initial disbelief gives way to a deeper understanding of evil and he takes part in more than 80 exorcisms guided by experienced Italian exorcists. Hopkins had reservations about taking on another “spooky film” but the quality of the material convinced him. “I thought it was interesting, no spinning heads or pea soup in it,” he told the media. Personally, Hopkins neither believes nor disbelieves. “All I know is that I don’t know anything,” he says. “I’m not certain and I’d hate to live in certainty because we live in a climate today where everyone is certain.”

Last November, one of the world’s top exorcists, Father Jeremy Davies, co-founder of the International Association of Exorcists in Rome, visited Sydney at the invitation of the Catholic Church to give instruction to interested priests on exorcism rites. This is in marked contrast to the Adelaide Archdiocese where the practice does not have active support. Under the former Archbishop, Dr Leonard Faulkner, about six exorcisms were performed each year by deliverance teams whose rituals involved prayer and the sprinkling of holy water. Today, Monsignor Cappo says most potential candidates for exorcism are screened out during psychological and psychiatric assessment. “I would say that of the people who are coming forward suggesting possession, 99 per cent of them following screening would move back into that psychological, psychiatric area,” Monsignor Cappo says. “Occasionally there would be something where even the psychiatrist would say, ‘we don’t know what is going on here’. And in some cases in Australia that may then lead to the possibility of exorcism.”

The ritual itself can go tragically awry. In 1993 a Victorian woman who suffered from schizophrenia was exorcised after her husband saw her dancing, yelling and waving her arms. He called in members of a breakaway Lutheran sect and after days of prayer and physical restraint, she made “terrible hissing sounds; some froth came out of her mouth” and she died. At her funeral, her husband, Ralph Vollmer, expected her to rise from her grave. He and two others were convicted of manslaughter.

In Adelaide last year the Lutheran Church – which declined to talk to saweekend – distanced itself from the practice after an incident at a youth camp in which a boy, 15, who suffered from stomach pains, was exorcised against his will. An off-duty police officer was charged with false imprisonment and aggravated common assault.In African and Australian indigenous cultures, people live in a world inhabited by spirits. There is less distinction between the spiritual and secular world and demon possession can occur outside the framework of religion. In indigenous Australia the ngangkari – traditional healers – banish bad spirits from the body and are an integral part of modern health practice. But there are instances of Aboriginal children afflicted with physical malaise like epilepsy who suffer because they are treated as possessed. “We have kids who have been rolled through fires to try and get rid of the spirits,” Mark Francis says. “That still happens, absolutely.”

Many African immigrants living in Adelaide bring their beliefs and practices with them. Francis knows of a recent epilepsy case in which a father was excommunicated from his family after a picnic in which he sat with his son under a tree that carried spiritual significance. When the son began having fits, the father was blamed and cast out. “We went in and did some education and training with the family and eventually convinced them that this is not spiritual,” Francis says. “We showed them the tests. It was just coincidence that this had happened.”

Sudanese pastor Father Tony Jaja, who came to Adelaide five years ago, treats exorcism as a natural part of the ministry of his church. A Pentecostal pastor in Africa, in Adelaide he leads a multi-denominational Sudanese congregation, the Sudanese Christian Fellowship. He says that wherever there is the light of Jesus, there will be a war between darkness and light. The soul of man is the ground on which the Devil and God fight for ascendancy. “These things happen. I have seen them myself, whether here or somewhere else, where you see the manifestation of demons,” Father Jaja says. “It (the evil spirit) speaks to you. When you ask, ‘who are you?’ it will tell you.”

Possession can manifest in someone suddenly falling to the ground and screaming during a church service, and when it happens, he acts immediately to cast the Devil out. “They react, they can scream in the meeting or the service, they cry out and oppose what you are saying,” Father Jaja says. It is more likely to occur in church, he says, when the power of God is at its strongest because this provokes the Devil to show itself. He performed his first exorcism on members of his family 18 years ago in Africa, shortly after his conversion to Christianity. “After two weeks I did casting out of demons with my family in Sudan, with my sisters, my aunties,” he says. “We are all possessed by demons and I was the one who received Christ first. Because of that power in me, God allowed me to deliver my family.”

In Adelaide he has performed the ritual in church or in the homes of people he visited. It can be swift, taking just a few minutes, or it can take hours if the spirit resists. It is never planned. “They didn’t call and say, ‘we have demons in us’,” he says. “We went just to minister the word of God and when we went things just happened and we started the casting out of demons.”

Theologian Dutney says the modern world has been disenchanted by our understanding of the natural sciences, yet the concept of possession still persists. Some churches have backed away from exorcism because of well publicised instances of abuse and because of its association with what he calls “the armoury of showmanship churches”. Others continue to practise it under the guise of “deliverance”.

Yet even Dutney has had direct experience of possession. In Adelaide a decade ago a young student attended his class on theology. She left the class distressed and when he approached her she told him she was being tormented by demons. “As she started telling me this, this other voice started coming out of her mouth. It was very clearly male and very deep,” Dutney says. “I’ve got to say it’s bloody scary.”He helped her to get home and contacted her minister at a Uniting Church in the Adelaide Hills. Dutney was reassured to hear she was in the care of a team that included psychiatric as well as religious support. “As far as I know it was successful,” he says. “It doesn’t crop up every day.”

When Lauren was diagnosed, she was put on medication that controlled her fits but prevented her from continuing her degree. This year she will start a paralegal course so she can earn money while she studies. She has just begun weaning herself off the medication, hoping the fits don’t return. She has spoken to her mother about her diagnosis and tried to explain what it was like as a child to be made to feel damaged and inferior. She thinks there should be legislation to prevent children, at least, from being exposed to extreme practices they do not understand. “It causes somebody to feel like they are flawed, like they are inadequate human beings, especially children,” she says.

Her mother was initially defensive, brushing off Lauren’s complaints and saying she had seen various doctors but none had noticed anything wrong. But more lately, Lauren says there are signs her mother is starting to understand what she put her daughter through. “She said, ‘if we could do things again, there would be a lot of things we would do differently’,” Lauren says. “They really did think they were doing the right thing at the time. That gave me a bit of peace of mind.”



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