Sympathy For The Devil's Foes

If the Roman Catholic Church provided priests with hazardous-duty pay, those who do exorcisms would be the first to qualify. The hours are long, the work is highly stressful and-to shield themselves from cranks and the virus of vainglory--exorcists must remain anonymous. Worse yet, it now appears, exorcists don't get no respect from their own bishops.

"We exorcists are forced to work almost secretly, like rats in a sewer," says Father Raul Salvucci, who drives out devils in the town of Fermo, in the Abruzzi region of Italy. In a recently published book, "Pastoral Indications of an Exorcist," which he wrote as a pleading "open letter" to the Italian bishops, Salvucci asks that the church's anonymous exorcists be allowed "to perform our exorcisms in the open sunlight, just like the Lord did during his mission here on Earth."

When Salvucci began doing exorcisms, 17 years ago, working conditions were more professional. Most major dioceses had an exorcist who trained apprentices in anti-sorcery for the sometimes grueling task of confronting those thought to be possessed by the Devil. But now, he says, bishops merely assign young priests to the job without training under a master. Instead, he argues, exorcists should have their own professional organization, headed by a bishop, where standards could be maintained and techniques passed on. "Are we demanding too much," writes Salvucci, " if we ask to know who and how many of us there are, if we wish to meet to encourage each other and share our experiences so that we can operate with more confidence?"

Last week Salvucci's plea was seconded by Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist for the pope's own diocese of Rome. "The way things are now," says Amorth, newly assigned exorcists are told simply to "wing it." What's needed, he has argued in a letter of his own to the Italian hierarchy, are training centers for studying the Bible, theological treatises on demonology and actual case histories- plus internships with practicing exorcists, like doctors have in hospitals.

The underlying problem, Amorth fears, is that too few priests show Satan due respect. Some theologians, he complains, dismiss the Biblical accounts of Jesus' own exorcisms, saying, "They simply were cured from a disease." Others, he says, "have confused the existence of Satan with an abstract concept of evil. The majority of the clergy, especially cardinals and bishops, don't consider the Devil as a concrete reality." Bishops, who appoint exorcists, don't ever see an exorcism themselves, Amorth observes. "And in this field, seeing is believing."

Amorth thinks exorcists have a secret ally in John Paul II. The pope, he claims, performed exorcisms as a bishop and has continued to do so privately since coming to Rome. If so, the message apparently hasn't reached the Italian bishops. Thus far, neither Salvucci nor Amorth has received answers to his letters. Some respect.