German Catholics bring back exorcism

The ritual of exorcism, abandoned by Catholic bishops in Germany for more than 30 years after the starving to death of a girl who underwent repeated exorcisms, may be undergoing a revival.

German Catholics bring back exorcism
Anneliese Michel died after multiple exorcisms. Photo: DPA

The Archdiocese of Paderborn in the German state of North Rhine-Westfalia said on Monday that church officials had commissioned three exorcisms in the past eight years, most recently in 2003.

“It’s a plea to God for help,” archdiocese spokesman Ägidius Engel told German news agency DPA, saying that the people affected were “people experiencing the deepest of spiritual suffering.”

Engel told DPA that church officials commisioned exorcisms – a ritual to drive out evil spirits – only after examination by pastoral counselors and psychiatrists had found the affected people to be free of mental illness. Paderborn officials received 18 serious requests since 1999 for exorcism from people who believed themselves to be possessed by the devil, he said.

“It is a normal, but rare event,” Engel told DPA, adding that church officials required a doctor to be present. “In such difficult cases we can only become involved with medical assistance.”

The announcement came after Bavarian radio station Bayerischer Rundfunk reported on Monday that church officials in Paderborn and the Bavarian city of Augsburg had commissioned exorcisms. The radio station said it had information showing that Augsburg Bishop Walter Mixa had ordered the practice.

In a statement, Mixa spokesman Christoph Goldt declined to comment on which priests had performed exorcisms and in how many cases, citing pastoral confidentiality. He described exorcisms as rare cases governed by strict church rules updated most recently in 1999 by Pope John Paul II.

“Exorcism does not have anything to do with spectacular movie cliches,” Goldt said in the statement, describing it as a prayer to deliver believers from evil similar to the words said at a baptism.

Though German-born Pope Benedict XVI has supported wider use of exorcism in the Catholic Church, his countrymen have retreated from the practice since Anneliese Michel, a student from the Bavarian town of Klingenberg am Main, starved to death after undergoing dozens of exorcisms in 1976.Her parents and the two priests who performed the exorcisms were found guilty in 1978 of contributing to her death through negligence.

Jörg Müller, a theologian and therapist at the Pallotti House in Freising, told The Local he was not aware until this week of any officially sanctioned exorcisms since the Michel case.

Müller differentiated between exorcisms and what he called a “cleansing prayer,” a more general plea for help and rescue that is not directed at any specific evil spirit. He said only a few of the some 350 people who contacted his centre last year with concerns about evil spiritual influences qualified for the therapy.

Most of the people who came to the centre asking for help with evil spirits needed other medical or psychological assistance, he said, adding that most had been emotionally or sexually abused as children.

“You see more exorcisms in eastern, southern countries. They believe more in demons,” Müller said. “If this ritual was ever to be used in Germany again, it could only be done in a team and under the strictest supervision.”