Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Contents Page,
Spring 2001

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Faith-Based Ambivalence

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

Left Behind at the Box Office

The Voucher Circus












































Hit Counter


Puffing Exorcism
by J. Ashe Reardon

"Exorcism Making a Spirited Comeback in U.S." announced the New York Times headline December 3, summing up what newspapers across America had been reporting since early September about the ancient rite of removing demons from the body. "All of a sudden," wrote the Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper, "exorcists are all over the news again, from the hallowed grounds of the Vatican to the Archdiocese of Chicago." As if out of the blue, it seemed, exorcisms were all the rage in America.

Three separate news events came together in the first weeks of September to trigger the blitz of exorcist stories. On September 11 a clutch of them, mostly pulled from European wire sources, reported that Pope John Paul II had within the past few days carried out an "impromptu" exorcism on a 19-year old woman on the steps of St. Peter’s. According to the Sun-Times, the pope had apparently "talked with the girl" after a normal Wednesday mass, "exorcised her and stayed with her for a half hour."

The details were a little vague, however, and a week later the Vatican issued a statement saying that the pope had not performed an exorcism but simply prayed for a disturbed woman. Then, on September 22, Chicago itself climbed aboard the exorcism bandwagon. "Archdiocese Gets Exorcist," announced the Sun-Times, when Cardinal Francis George confirmed rumors that a full-time exorcist had been appointed to "cleanse those afflicted by the Evil one" in the Windy City.

It was the September 22 re-release of the horror classic "The Exorcist" that clinched the deal. While the film’s new souped-up version was "less likely to shock people," in the words of the Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson, there was no question that "exorcisms remain a very real element in Christianity today."

The initial release of "The Exorcist" in 1973 had created a flurry of reports that Roman Catholic clergy were witnessing an increase in requests for exorcisms. As the New York Times’ Edward B. Fiske put it in January 1974, prelates "have become fearful that the film is creating widespread misconceptions about the church’s teachings and practices."

Now the media of the new millennium, expecting a similarly hyperbolic reaction, cranked out dozens of stories covering the entire gamut of demonic themes. The headlines read as if out of the Weekly World News: "Deliverance from the Devil" (Tampa Tribune), "Devil Be Gone: Exorcists Work Overtime to Banish Badness" (Memphis Commercial Appeal), etc.

But as far as could be determined, the only reporter to actually track down an exorcism to write about was Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. In an October 31 article, Watanabe described the "standing-room-only crowd in the Hilton" viewing a public exorcism carried out not by a Catholic priest but by an evangelical Protestant minister named Bob Larson. Larson, wrote Watanabe, is a man who "has honed the art of exorcism into astonishing performance."

"Brandishing a Bible in one hand and a microphone in the other," he removed the demons from the body of a woman whose family had been possessed for ten generations. Watanabe went on to detail the many services provided by Larson’s Colorado-based ministry: Exorcisms by radio and telephone, videos from $29 to $39.

How did journalists manage to spin out so many exorcist stories without actually trying to check out the phenomenon for themselves? Simple: They flipped the Rolodex to ‘L’ and dialed the Rev. John LeBar, chief exorcist for the New York Archdiocese and the go-to guy for exorcism quotes for over a decade. In story after story, LeBar attributed heightened demand for exorcisms to a "rise in satanic cults, and other malevolent influence" (as The Observer, journal to Manhattan’s rarefied classes, put it). LeBar claimed that he now gets "several hundred" applications a year for exorcisms, an exponential increase from just a decade ago.

There was another expert source as well—Michael Cuneo, a Fordham University sociologist who has studied other forms of traditionalist Catholicism. Cuneo happens to be the author of a forthcoming book on exorcism in contemporary America.

According to him (in the Los Angeles Times), exorcist ministries "have skyrocketed" in recent years "from a handful in the early 1980s to more than 600 today." He told reporters that he personally had sat in on more than 50 exorcisms, both those officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church and "underground" exorcisms conducted by Catholics and Protestants alike. Exorcisms have become so popular that people committed to obtaining one "simply start asking around or hop on the Internet," he told the Seattle Times. "There’s no question that the popular entertainment industry in the United States has played a significant role in generating a market for exorcisms."

Comments from LeBar and Cuneo dominated the vast majority of exorcist stories. Not surprisingly, the stories were largely mirror images of each other. And the question remains: Is there a bona fide exorcism trend abroad in the land or is it merely wishful media thinking and publishing hype?

Barring independent journalistic investigation, we’ll have to wait at least for Cuneo’s American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty to appear in October to find out. Smelling a big market among those tantalized by the author’s talk of "maverick priests" and "bootleg rites," Doubleday has quarantined the book till then.