Magazine article Newsweek International

The Devil in Pictures; the Vatican Is Steadfast in Its Defense of Exorcism

Magazine article Newsweek International

The Devil in Pictures; the Vatican Is Steadfast in Its Defense of Exorcism

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbie Nadeau

For the first 22 years of her life, Anneliese Michel was an unremarkable young woman--a teacher in training and part of a devout Roman Catholic family in Germany. She also happened to be an epileptic, and prone to the seizures that often accompany that condition. Somehow, though, her parents convinced themselves that Satan had gotten hold of her soul. They called two local priests, who spent 10 months trying to exorcise the young woman's demons. To avoid interfering with the exorcism, the parents even halted her treatment for epilepsy. Michel finally died, in 1975, at the age of 23, withered and weakened to just 31 kilos from being denied food and water during the exorcism. If the story sounds familiar, that's because it is the premise of Hollywood feature "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which made its European debut in Italy on Oct. 7. In the real-life case, all four participants in the exorcism were found guilty of negligent homicide, and Michel has been a posthumous European cult hero ever since.

The movie has now reignited a decades-old controversy. A few doctors and scientists have called for an end to exorcisms, or at least for Rome or Brussels to regulate them. The Vatican has responded by digging in its heels. In an effort to add a patina of scientific validity to the ancient practice, which usually involves physical restraint and screaming prayers, last week the church began offering bona fide medical training to its exorcists to help them distinguish between psychological and pathological ailments and possession by the Devil. The class, called Exorcism and Prayers of Deliverance, which began on Oct. 13 at Rome's Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorium, features mental-health doctors who purport to show which valid medical symptoms can account for those previously thought to be Satan's work. According to Prof. Carlo Climati, one of the course instructors, "With proper scientific study, priests and bishops should be better prepared to distinguish and meet their real foe, the rise of satanic worship." Dr. Scott Lilienfield, professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert in exorcism, disagrees: "Exorcism is the most dangerous hoax in treating mental illness," he says.

The publicity comes at a bad time for the church. Interest in satanic worship has risen sharply across Europe recently; there are 5,000 Italians involved in 650 active satanic cults in operation in the country, more than double the number a decade ago. …

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