For most Roman Catholics, the rite of exorcism belongs to the shadows of their church's distant past. As medicine and psychiatry began to explain the demons that produce mental illness, the ritual - although still officially sanctioned - became a rarity, confined largely to supermarket tabloids and Hollywood scripts. But Cardinal John O'Connor, the archbishop of New York, has been pulling this exotic rite back from the fringes of the faith. During a sermon last year in which he warned that the Devil was still at work in the world, he disclosed that he had recently authorized two exorcisms in his archdiocese. Last week, with the consent of a diocesan consultant to O'Connor, ABC's "20/20" aired the exorcism of an emotionally disturbed Florida teenager.
The segment featured two priests, one identified only as "Father A," administering the rite to a writhing, cursing 16-year-old who church officials said was plagued by demonic spirits. The Rev. James LeBar, a consultant on cults to O'Connor and the other priest involved in the ceremony, said the press attention would offer "hope to those who may be afflicted."
But other Catholic theologians contended that the telecast was exploitative and misleading, promoting the illusion that complicated emotional disorders can be treated with ritual. "Televising this was indefensible," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, chairman of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame. "To sprinkle holy water over serious and complex problems is to trivialize them and ensure that they continue." Others questioned the church's judgment in allowing a young girl (identified only as "Gina") who had been hospitalized for psychotic behavior to become grist for a lurid, tabloid-style news show. "Was she capable of informed consent?" asked Lisa Cahill, an ethicist at Boston College. ABC producer Rob Wallace says "20/20" obtained releases from Gina and her mother, a Colombian immigrant who sought the church's help when psychotherapy proved ineffective. He added, however, that mother and daughter "felt pressure from the church to cooperate."
The 26-minute televised segment was more "Geraldo" than high mass, slickly packaged with ominous, medieval-style choral music and shots of the anonymous exorcist meditating at sunset. The ceremony itself seemed at times like little more than the gratuitous torment of a deeply disturbed young girl. Strapped to a chair, she barked and babbled gibberish like "sanka dali" and "booga" while Father A pressed a cross to her face. "You want pain? I'll give you pain," he said, addressing the supposed demon. After reading the Roman Catholic Rite of Exorcism ("Throw your terror, Lord, over the beast who is destroying what belongs to you."), the priests sent Gina home. But within days she was rehospitalized and given antipsychotic drugs. She was subsequently released, but ABC won't say where she lives. Dr. Warren Schlanger, Gina's psychiatrist at Miami Children's Hospital before and after the exorcism, said the ceremony was "a significant risk" to her health. "If part of her delusion is that she's possessed, it just might confirm that delusion," he says.
The usually outspoken O'Connor is keeping his distance from the controversy. A spokesman said last week that the archbishop was aware of LeBar's collaboration with "20/20," but that formal authorization for the filming - after a six-month investigation of the case - came from Bishop J. Keith Symons of the Palm Beach, Fla., diocese. Others who have worked with O'Connor and LeBar believe they hoped to gain a wider audience for their belief that evil, in the form of Satan, is a reality in the world. Father Lawrence Gesy of Baltimore, who serves with O'Connor and LeBar on a Vatican commission investigating cults, says the church is concerned about the impact of satanic rituals and "New Age" spiritualism. "We see today where people openly and willingly invite Satan into their lives without being aware of it," Gesy says.
O'Connor and other church officials are not alone in their preoccupation with the Devil. In a 1990 Gallup poll, 55 percent of the respondents said they believed in Satan, and 49 percent said they thought people are sometimes possessed by the Devil. But with all the palpable evidence of evil in the world why would Satan--if he exists - manifest himself in the soul of a troubled 16-year-old? Neither "20/20" nor the church's exorcists offer an answer. Notre Dame's McBrien believes that the exorcism debate distracts us from the real face of evil, which is plain enough in the torments of Kurdistan or of American inner cities. "The important thing is not whether evil is a persona," he says, "but that it exists."