March 7th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Meet America's top exorcist, the inspiration for 'The Rite'

Editor's Note: This story comes from a new CNN Special, "Stories Reporter," with Tom Foreman which features an in-depth look at the news of the day.

By Tom Foreman, CNN

The sun was shining on the Santa Cruz Mountains. The freeway from the San Francisco airport to San Jose was still buzzing in my ears when I stepped into the parking lot of an unassuming church and the most famous exorcist in America walked up.

“Hello, I’m Father Gary Thomas.”  At 57 years old, he has an easy smile, an abiding love for the Giants and strong convictions about the nature of evil.

"You believe there is a devil?"  I ask him as we settle in at a small, beautiful chapel near the church.


“You believe that this devil acts upon people?”


He says it with the certainty that I reserve for answers to questions like, “Did you bring your lunch?” but that’s no surprise.  He has faced skeptics many times and never more than now, because his life and training as an exorcist in Rome are the inspiration behind the Hollywood film "The Rite."

Father Gary Thomas at the premier of 'The Rite'

Indeed, at the premiere, as the cameras swirled around the star, Anthony Hopkins, Thomas walked the red carpet alongside him.  This movie, like salvation, is something the priest believes in.

“First of all,” he says, “it was very emotional for me.  I found some of those scenes very riveting.  I found some of them very profound.  They’re very accurate.  That’s what I’ve seen in real life.”

That’s saying something.  "The Rite" is chock-full of heaving, cursing, ranting characters, who, according to the screenplay, are possessed by Satan, people who one moment seem fine and the next are raging against all that is holy.

And yet, Thomas says people who fear that very fate come to him constantly.  “Well, often times they’ll begin the conversation with ‘Father, I need an exorcism.’  And my answer back to them is, ‘I don’t do them on demand.’”

But he does think a lot more of them need to be done.  It is all part of a push by the Vatican to make more exorcists available to the faithful.  Some in the Catholic Church believe the world is facing a rising tide of demonic activity, particularly in America, where millions are moving away from traditional faiths and looking for alternatives.

"A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous.  People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …"

A vision of politician Christine O’Donnell fills my head and I interrupt.  “But a lot of people would tell you up front, ‘I’m just playing around.’”

“Right.  Absolutely.  And it’s not,” he says, noting that those who feel adrift from the church and from others of faith are more likely to be drawn in.  “Demons are always looking for human beings who have broken relationships.”

Simply put, Thomas believes just as surely as a person can summon God through prayer, through other rituals, the devil can be called, too.

Father Thomas, left, and Tom Foreman

Thomas says an exorcism usually takes from 45 minutes to two hours and involves reciting prayers, reading scriptures and using sacramental objects such as crucifixes and holy water.  Of course, that’s like saying surgery involves a knife and some sponges.

It is vastly more complicated.  Before the rite is even considered, there must be psychological testing by professionals, extended consultations and questions about drug and alcohol addiction.

Thomas says fully 80% of the people he meets claiming demonic possession have actually suffered some kind of abuse.  An exorcism, he says, is the last step in a long process.

“I have a particular situation now,” he says, “where I think this particular person is suffering from a very unique psychological disorder, but she’s also been exposed to satanic cults, and I want to make sure that what we’re dealing with … is satanic or if it is psychological.”

Even when an exorcism is prescribed, it often must be repeated.  Judging from Thomas' comments, it takes something of a trained eye to decide whether it is even working.

Father Thomas and Anthony Hopkins at the premier of 'The Rite.'

The movie, to be frank, complicates this whole discussion.  Not "The Rite."  Thomas says he likes that one, and found Anthony Hopkins a “delightful” man.

But rather the movie from 1973.  "The Exorcist" captured America's imagination about demons taking over a person’s body and profoundly shaped the public's perceptions about the process of throwing those devils out.  It was lurid, violent and unforgettable.

It was also based on a real exorcism in Washington, which was far less dramatic than the film.  Thomas will tell you emphatically there are no spinning heads, spewing pea soup or levitating bodies.

But he has seen manifestations of possession.  "Sometimes the person's head will begin to move in very rigid ways.  Sometimes their eyes will roll.  Sometimes there will be epileptic-like seizures," Thomas said.  "Occasionally people will take on kind of a body language of a serpentine look, and they'll begin to stick their tongue out and use their tongue in ways that would look snake-like, and they'll coil up in a snake-like position."

“And these are things that you have seen in real life?” I ask.

"I have seen that," he said with a wry smile.

I’ve seen it, too.  A few years ago I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to report on a Protestant exorcist who was holding a session in a hotel meeting room.  Several dozen people filed in while, no kidding, "The Devil Inside" by INXS played on a stereo system.

Suffice to say, there were plenty of eye-rolling, seizure-like eruptions in the crowd as people cried out and the exorcist confronted them, pressing his Bible against their heads, and demanding that their demons reveal their names.

We talked to some of the participants before and after, talked to the exorcist, too. For all their heartfelt expressions of belief, I can’t help but ask Thomas the same thing I asked that night: Couldn’t all these folks just be acting?

"I don't think they're acting out in a conscious sense,” he says, “because many times … they don't remember the experience itself.”

What’s more, he says, occasionally the person will do something that defies explanation.  "Sometimes the person will begin to speak in a language in which they have no competency in.”

Meaning, for example, someone who knows no German might start speaking precisely and accurately in that language.  Thomas says he has witnessed that, too.

I stopped by the Pew Center in Washington, where some of the best research on religion is done, to ask about all this.  Allison Pond is a charming young researcher who kindly sat me down before delivering some startling news: A Pew survey found more than one in 10 Americans have witnessed an exorcism, and when you narrow it down to Pentecostals it’s about one in three.

“Forty percent of Americans said they completely believe angels and demons are active in the world,” she told me, “with 28% telling us they mostly believe this."

That is the kind of information that needs more than a priestly explanation, so I roamed over to Georgetown University to talk to Ori Soltes, a theologian.  The problem, he says, is that we can’t know for sure what people mean when they say they’ve seen an exorcism.  Was it a formal ceremony?  A personal revelation?  A changed way of life?

Still, he has no doubt that claims of demonic meddling are high, because, after all, the year 2000 rolled around less than a dozen years ago, and at every millennium fears of the devil’s influence rise.

"My sense is that we are still in the backwash from the millennium,” he says, “but then you know ... events have helped to proliferate that:  9/11,  the war in Iraq.  And now as we approach 2012, suddenly everyone is very interested in the Mayan calendar and how we interpret the idea that the apocalypse is coming in December of 2012 at the time of equinox ... all that sort of stuff.”

So maybe it’s no wonder that Thomas is getting calls for exorcisms from not only Catholics, but also from followers of other faiths.

"How often?" I ask.

"I would say probably one out of 10."

Thomas says there are about 50 Catholic exorcists in the United States, and that’s not nearly enough.  He’d like to see one exorcist in every parish.  But until that day, he does not mind explaining over and over what exorcisms are really all about.

“It's a healing ministry.  It's not hocus pocus.  It's not smoke and mirrors.  It's not magic. But I think if we don't respond to people who come in their very troubling moments, I think it diminishes us as a church."

Despite all that Hollywood has done to mythologize exorcisms, he still believes in the power of this rite, a power born not of fear, but of faith.

CNN's Eric Marrapodi and Katie Ross contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Devil • Mass • Movies • Vatican

soundoff (1,247 Responses)
  1. DL

    For what reason do some spend so much time attempting to discredit others' beliefs? This makes no sense to me. Does what I believe offend you so much? You know literally nothing about me. I don't understand.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • m

      No. It doesnt offend us in the least. What does offend us is when you start wars in Gods name.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • John

      Yes by the way your faith is offensive! You want all of us to believe that 2000 years ago a human sacrifice took place and if we don't believe, then we are going to burn in hell forever. I know that is a simplistic explanation of Christianity, but technically that is the bases for the entire believe. "The death and resurrection of Jesus." You either except it or your damned. I really could careless that you believe this. I just don't want to hear about it. Keep it to yourself. Stop trying to get it installed in the public school system. Quit telling Children there going to be punished forever if they don't believe this drivel. It is offensive when you think your belief deserves kid gloves when being spoke about. That some how the religious are special and we should take care in not offending them or their belief. I say no, I for one will not apologize because you chose to believe in bronze age mythology.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  2. Colin

    I wonder if Satan only seems to possess the mentally disturbed for the same reaon that aliens tend only to abduct drunken fisherman in Mississippi.

    Supersti-tious clap trap in the 21st Century.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  3. aizen

    know your enemy, is origin and his work and you will fight him better...i dont know if i have to believe in this man but all i know is there are forces in this universe beyond our comprehension and not all are of good nature...God can help you fight them as long as your faith is strong, if not then seek help...i want him to exorcize his church too many pedophiles..i always wonder when africa and south america will come forth with their complaints on this matter, it will be worse cus there are barely any laws there...i personaly know of priests in africa who have children...in fact my cousin has a child by a catholic prist...

    March 7, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  4. Jon

    I enjoy articles like these, not only because of the topic, but because the people that comment are absolutely hilarious.

    I wonder if any of these people have even taken an introductory class in philosophy to understand that "logic", a human construction that is necessarily limited by human experience, cannot adequately address certain religious topics in an objective manner. It is not logical to say that, because you have never had a spiritual experience be it Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or whatever, a spiritual aspect to existence cannot be possible. That's poor logic, and that is basically the premise that pretty much every anti-religious bigot – besides professional atheist philosophers (no, not Dawkins, Hitchens, or the other snake-oil salesmen of the atheist movement) – holds as their reason against believing in the supernatural.

    If religious persons, so sure in their belief, are illogical, then atheists – also sure in their belief – are equally ridiculous. Get over yourselves.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Colin

      A bit of Orwellian logic there Jon. I also 100% do not believe in a pink bunny on Mars. does that make me the equivalent of someone who is 100% there is one?

      March 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • bones1918

      logic? even Plato and Aristotle both realize that logic brings them to the existance of some sort of god. they disagreed on the nature of who god is, and if god took an active roll in manipulating the universe. but they both arrived at the same logica conclusion that we cannot be accidental.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • John

      I am Atheist and I a 100% sure in my belief that there is not evidence for a supernatural being claimed by Christians. Christians just don't claim that God exist. They claim they know the mind of god. That is a huge undertaking for them. I would think they barley know there own minds let alone the being that supposedly created everything.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  5. Luke

    I wish I was a better actor. There are many people making a fortune acting like they are closer to god than you. Evangelists are some of the highest paid people in the country. How many can you think of that have run afoul of the law or of the morality they preach? They are phoney baloney. Also, if you have messages for our savior leave them here and I'll make sure he gets them. I'm also taking all donations for the lord from now on he just told me.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  6. Satanless & Godless

    What if I don't believe anything and am just a good person? I don't believe in Satan or God.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Smarter Than You

      That's a good thing. Be a good human being because you want to be a good human being – not because you have been enticed by the carrot of heaven or the stick of hell. If people behave themselves simply because they expect to escape future punishment or receive future reward, that is a morally less desirable scenario than everyone behaving because they love their fellow human beings. Fundamental flaw of christianity = channeling people towards moral behavior by encouraging immoral thought processes.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  7. JIM D.

    Please allow me to introduce myself
    I'm a man of wealth and taste
    I've been around for a long, long year
    Stole many a man's soul and faith

    And I was 'round when Jesus Christ
    Had his moment of doubt and pain
    Made damn sure that Pilate
    Washed his hands and sealed his fate

    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guess my name
    But what's puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game

    I stuck around St. Petersburg
    When I saw it was a time for a change
    Killed the Czar and his ministers
    Anastasia screamed in vain

    I rode a tank
    Held a general's rank
    When the Blitzkrieg raged
    And the bodies stank

    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
    Ah, what's puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game, oh yeah
    (woo woo, woo woo)

    I watched with glee
    While your kings and queens
    Fought for ten decades
    For the gods they made
    (woo woo, woo woo)

    I shouted out,
    "Who killed the Kennedy's?"
    When after all
    It was you and me
    (who who, who who)

    Let me please introduce myself
    I'm a man of wealth and taste
    And I laid traps for troubadours
    Who get killed before they reached Bombay
    (woo woo, who who)

    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
    (who who)
    But what's puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby
    (who who, who who)

    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
    But what's confusing you
    Is just the nature of my game
    (woo woo, who who)

    Just as every cop is a criminal
    And all the sinners saints
    As heads is tails
    Just call me Lucifer
    'Cause I'm in need of some restraint
    (who who, who who)

    So if you meet me
    Have some courtesy
    Have some sympathy, have some taste
    (woo woo)
    Use all your well-learned politesse
    Or I'll lay your soul to waste, mmm yeah
    (woo woo, woo woo)

    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guessed my name, mmm yeah
    (who who)
    But what's puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game, mmm mean it, get down
    (woo woo, woo woo)

    Woo, who
    Oh yeah, get on down
    Oh yeah
    Oh yeah!
    (woo woo)

    Tell me baby, what's my name
    Tell me honey, can ya guess my name
    Tell me baby, what's my name
    I tell you one time, you're to blame

    Oh, who
    woo, woo
    Woo, who
    Woo, woo
    Woo, who, who
    Woo, who, who
    Oh, yeah

    What's my name
    Tell me, baby, what's my name
    Tell me, sweetie, what's my name

    Woo, who, who
    Woo, who, who
    Woo, who, who
    Woo, who, who
    Woo, who, who
    Woo, who, who
    Oh, yeah
    Woo woo
    Woo woo

    March 7, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  8. Really?

    Gotta love the Catholic church, still using fear to keep people in line. Pathetic.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • LouAz

      Hey, it's a living.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  9. William

    This is CNN's Religion blog. It knew it wouldnt take long for the anti-religious bigots to invade it and spit their bile.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Smarter Than You

      You need to read a book – specifically, the dicitionary; more specifically, the entry under the word 'bigot.' If any one group has the historical monopoly on bigotry, it is those involved with organized religions.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  10. wes

    I would have been just as cynical as all the snide comments here. Sadly, my sister suffered from a Jinn (this same junk, Islamically) – an Imam saved her life. We have never been to any church of any religion, or cared to pay attention to any of it. I didn't believe in God before that week. It scarred me for months. Thankfully, a family friend who was very religious was able to save us.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • John

      Really! a Jinn. A Jinn is a Genie a supernatural creature of Arabic folklore. According to the Qur'an they are not demons and can not poses a human. They are another created being by Allah. I would say you and your family where duped just all of the other people here that believe. I am wondering how much it cost (dollar and cents)your family to get of this Jinn?

      March 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  11. Burbank

    That movie was such an over hyped flop! The friend I saw it with fell asleep during the climax!

    March 7, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  12. Susan

    the foundation of any religion is faith – belief in what you cannot see. if people believe that they are possessed by the devil, then they are. if they believe that they will be healed by specific prayers and objects, then they will. if these prayer and objects bring a troubled person peace, what's the harm?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • John

      Because it is delusional Susan that is why it is harmful. It doesn't say much for peoples ability to be reasonable when we talk about faith. Faith = I will believe in just about anything with no evidence at all. People don't stop having mental problems just because some guy in white collar prayed for them. It is a ridiculous way to deal with mental issues.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Shamrock6

      Just your opinion. Means no more than anyone elses.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • Pope Higherthanmost

      What's the harm? The harm comes when these people of a specific faith decide that the "unbelievers" must be eradicated from earth as they might insult God (Allah) by their atheism. These people of faith might crash airliners into high rise buildings, or demonstrate hate at the funerals of heroic dead soldiers. They might also take control of a political system, invade their neighbors and put people of a "lesser" faith to death in prison camps. Herein lays the harm of any organized religion. All for the "love" of God.

      March 7, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  13. Jake

    I find it amazing that people blame things on angels and demons. You people have absolutely no proof that gods or devils exist. None. Making assumption and stories up about the world around us is as ancient as we are, but these jumps that people make in order so that their beliefs make sense to them, is just too silly in an age of reason where answers, real scientific answers are being discovered to prove these weird ideas wrong wrong wrong. The world is an amazing place. It does not have devils or gods though. Of this I am 99% sure. And that last 1% is saved for something either than what any of us mortals has ever though up.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  14. Name*charles

    The Vatican wanted more exercists available to "the faithful"? I didn't know demon possession was a problem for "the faithful". I was pretty sure that saved people had the holy spirit with them, and demon possession wasn't possible. I REALLY don't trust the catholic church......

    March 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  15. Lily

    Seriously, are there people who still believe in demons, exorcism, and religion??? What, are they idiots?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • John

      "Still?" Like there is some evidence that has recently emerged as of late to disprove? Please, tell me about this evidence of which you know about that I have yet to read . . . .

      March 7, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Dan

      I am a very skeptic person and very scientific in nature, but even i don't dare to say that someone who believe in angels or demons is an idiot. I am very open minded. I feel the universe is complex beyond that of human understanding and we still don't know how the origins of life began. I think atheists are probably the most closed-minded of all human beings, pretending for some reason or another that they have figured everything out, that they know for sure that we are alone in the universe and than intelligent design does not exist. That doesn't mean you have to accept organized religion, but to state that angles or demons do not exist or that their is no god is to state that you are somehow are in fact the greatest thing in the universe and smarter than everyone else.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • John

      Dan you might not like what Lily said, but Atheist in no way shape or form believe we have all the answers. As a matter of fact Atheist believe we do not have all the answer. Like whether or not God exist. We believe there is no evidence for the existence of such a being, therefore we are unable to believe. Christians on the other hand claim they have all the answers to life, including the creation of the Universe, life itself and also claim they know what happens after you die. These claims by Christians are absolute fact with no wiggle room for something different. You either follow god and go to heaven or you don't follow god, which by default means you follow the devil and you go to hell. This is all claimed with no evidence for any of it. It is supposedly faith, which is then turned into fact in their minds. It is the biggest lie told to mankind to date.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  16. WhatwouldJesusDo

    Amen!! @ John Smith

    March 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  17. Sam

    I just checked my underwear and there is a skitter that looks exactly like the baby jesus. I'm selling it to the highest bidder.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • LouAz

      Hang on to it. The Miracle Shrine folks will be there with a Contract soon. Will you charge extra for Parking ?

      March 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  18. Tom

    Ken, I will renounce God and Jesus on my death bed, right before I die. I don't know what happens after you die. Neither do you. I just don't obsess over it. I also don't know how my dog knows we're going for a walk.... and I'm not just leaving him behind as usual. But he somehow does, every time. But I'm not going to form a religion around it.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Shamrock6

      Read the Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception. It details exactly what happens to us after we die.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Ken

      Tom, you can renounce what you may because whatever outcome, will be for you alone.However, let me ask you this, growing up as a child, was your family very non-religious or very religious? My family was somewhat in the middle, however, I was always skeptical of people in religion. Now with that being said, I still chose to read and interpret for myself and you have the same right. But the thing that I have to support is that there is a god. So with the belief of there is a god, I also believe there is a satan and demons. Now me saying that or anyone else in OUR culture would think you are insane or crazy to think that. But if we look at our Mainstream culture, what do they believe in---Nothing but the trend of the day. Also, we have been conditioned to attempt defining everything with our visual eye and logical mind. When it comes to god and satan, it is not about logic, its about something beyond this physical world that is lacking in all of us, Faith. We are all fall short, but I tell you this Tom, you and I have FREE WILL. So with that being said, me and you both will make that transition from this consciences into something that logic can't explain. At that moment, me and you both will know the truth.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • John

      Really Shamrock6 this your explanation of life after death. I've read part of this. It claims one should not cremate or embalm some body for at least three days after death nor should any postmortem examinations. because the vital body is with the higher vehicles and still connected to the dense body by the silver cord. Any injury to the dense body will cause pain to the individual. This is so much drivel I can't even begin to explain how ridiculous this is for no other reason than know one can know this anyway. Doctors who deal with death daily don't even claim this kind of absolute knowledge of death. This is just silly. I have read some of your other posts and it makes since coming from you though.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  19. Kerry

    Even more ridiculous and shameful than those who conduct exorcisms is the Media like CNN perpetuating this mumbo-jumbo nonsense.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Julie

      You said it. CNN just joined the growing number of discredited news sources...

      March 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  20. bones1918

    Many mainline protestant and Catholic infant baptims are in the nature of an exorcism.. the litergy casts out any demons that may have laid a claim on the infant, then the minister marks the child as christ's own as a seal of protection against any demonic attacks. This seal is whole until the child is old enough to hear the gospel and reject or embrace it. The bible also speaks of God wishing we could all have a childlike faith – that is to say – not needing to know about principalities of darkness. Focusing only on loving God and loving a person's neighbor.
    People focus so much on denominational Christianity and use words that illicit a reaction (i.e. exorcisms, demons, being born-again, or the end-times) but all that stuff is just a red-herring to pull attention away to what Christianity (either Catholic or protestant) is all about. Love God and love others. Is it really all that bad?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Denise

      You, my friend, are a wingnut. This does not happen at an infant baptism. My chips are on the priest.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • bones1918

      With all due respect, Denise, read the litergy in your book of common prayer. YOUR priest or minister may omit it, but Rite II clearly instructs the officiant to dismis any demons prior to marking the child with chrysm, and asking the family and the congrants to renounce Satan prior to accepting the roll of guiding a child's upbringing. The fact that some priests chose to omit it is why i said "many" and not "all". You missed the greater point, though, that exorcism isn not rare or practiced only by "exorcists." I'll cite my comments. I agree with them – are they wingnuts too?

      Reisswitz, Crista Kramervan. “Exorcism Rite Reformed.” Catholic Culture website. Accessed October, 2010.

      Toner, Patrick. "Exorcism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.

      United States Catholic Conference, Inc. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Image Books Doubleday, New York, 1994.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.