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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.

“Yes.”

“You believe that this devil acts upon people?”

“Correct.”

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. Dragonlines

    Entertainment consists of any activity which provides a diversion or permits people to amuse themselves in their leisure time.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  2. Delsin

    Thanks for putting the story out, whatever it's worth. A subject that has not escaped my attention, for many reasons, a subject I have long struggled with settling my views on. They're still unsettled. But I do think that both psychiatry and psychology are insuffuicient to the extent that they dismiss such possibilities out of hand. Probably not very common as the priest notes, but no reason to dogmatically state that they do not exist or are not relevant. Didn't usedta believe in germs and xrays either. Still can't see the UV rays that torch my skin, but glad to have shades that protect against them.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Frogist

      @Delsin: I see your point of view, but until there is absolute solid proof that demons exist, putting your faith in exorcism to cure issues is unwise to say the least. Wouldn't it make more sense to study the disturbed in the light of what psychiatry and psychology have found out about people who were "possessed" in the past? Rather than go with the same old explanation offered by the religious that has proven itself false in the past? Filling in what we don't know with demons and angels has no good for people other than comfort born of ignorance.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • John

      Your right there was a time that we did not know about germs and the religious claimed it was demons and evil spirits that made people sick. Then germ theory came along we knew what made us sick. You can't see UV light with the eye, but we can measure the wavelength of UV light. We also see the effect of UV light on our skin when we get a sun burn. So their is plenty of evidence for UV light. Demon possession and Exorcism is no different than claiming evil spirits made people sick 2 century's ago. So your claim that some how UV light and germ theory and X-rays are on the same line as claiming demon possession shows how childish your mind works. You will except just about anything with no convincing evidence what so ever.

      March 8, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Abacus

      Ad hominem attacks aside, I think this is an interesting topic. There's no point in trying to convince a rabid atheist or a rabid believer of anything new. Research suggests that their beliefs only become stronger, the more they feel threatened by outside views. But Delsin's original comment and the one civil response above are worth considering.

      Clearly, Western science doesn't hold all the answers. Phenomena that were considered purely psychosomatic mumbo-jumbo (cf. accupuncture or tea tree oil) by the educated population were later shown to have real effects. A medication-obsessed psychiatric establishment is realizing that "soft" interventions like human relationship-building can produce better patient outcomes than sophisticated drugs. And studies show that in cultures that we consider relatively benighted and backward, the mentally ill have far better patient outcomes than they do in the West. This includes cultures where they treat some mental illness as demonic possession, but treat the affected much more kindly. Not in all cases, certainly – the "witch children" phenomenon is a horrifying example of belief turned evil – but I'm open to the idea that there's spiritual influence. I believe in God from personal experiences with him. It is a quiet and abiding conviction. I don't know to what extent he gives authority to the various religious acolytes to deal with demonic possession, but it's not out of the question. Best not to mock until we understand more fully.

      March 8, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  3. timd

    If anybody needs an excorcism, just give me a shout. I have a $99 dollar special this week.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  4. pat carr

    Wasting news space on an article about "Exorcisms"? Wow the news agencies are really scraping at the bottom. What will we have next? let's have an article about leprechauns

    March 7, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  5. Bold Coffee

    I know what they charge for a baptism, a wedding, and a funeral. I know what the charge for an Anullment. what do they charge for an exorcisim

    March 7, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Adam

      Having been married in the Catholic Church as well as had two children baptized I do as well. That would be nothing.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  6. Austin3759

    The next time the U.S. House and Senate are sitting with every member present, this guy needs to perform a mass exorcism in the Capitol.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  7. Shamrock6

    People who believe themselves to be possessed are probably actually experiencing what they believe to be a possession however – demons and the devil are no more 'REAL" than the easter bunny. Our minds are very powerful things and we create our own reality around us. Belief is real and if someone really believes this stuff they can create it for themselves. If you think it's hocus pocus like I do...then it doesn't exist in your reality and it impossible to experience.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  8. Brandi

    If the devil is so powerful, then how can he be controlled by modern medicine? The Exorcist clearly shows Regan being drugged up to keep from harming herself and others. She was supposedly possesses so that would mean the devil can be controlled by medications. He can be knocked out by some Phenobarbital and Valium. Has anyone considered giving him some Prozac?

    March 7, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  9. Jim M

    Humans created both God and the Devil in their own image (with human traits) based on their limited understanding of the power of the intelligent universe and their misunderstanding of life itself.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Venkat

      Well said!
      Add – ...and then Humans created groups with similar beliefs – called religion.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  10. GreggH

    Tom – For certain.

    Meanwhile, here's what CNN has as the "big headlines" on their main page right now, besides this story. Story on Libya and one on global slave trading, pretty good there. Then "A peek inside Mubarak's closet", "'The end is near,' group warns", "'Angry Birds' flocking to Facebook " and "Gary Busey prays for Charlie Sheen" (to be fair also a story on gas prices and one on a lava eruption).

    March 7, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  11. Bold Coffee

    so let me get this right....god invents the devil....because god is a) bored b) not as pwerful as the devil
    c) it was an experiment that got away
    d) there is no god or devil

    March 7, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Tom

      I'll bet it all on d.) please.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  12. Pilfer

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

    Should read:
    Meet America's top scam artist.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • neoritter

      Last I checked he doesn't get paid by the people receiving his services, and he turns away 80% of them.

      Yep, sounds like a scam artist to me... /sarcasm

      March 7, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Frogist

      @neoritter: Payment doesn't just come in monetary forms. And if your argument is he only scammed 20% of his followers... that still doesn't make what he is doing any more real.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  13. Jim Duron

    What bunch of Rubbish. Exocist are feeding the mentally insane. And the priest may be one of the just a nutty. just Crap.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  14. ILoveJesus

    Luis Wu - Yes, that's right, we are fools for Christ's sake everyday. But whose fool does that leave you to be? There's only one other left....and that's Satan. And he is absolutely ecstatic that you don't believe he exists.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Pilfer

      I don't believe he exists because I am more educated than a 15th century peasant farmer.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • ILoveJesus

      Pilfer–doesn't matter what century you live in, he's been around a lot longer and your unbelief is not going to make him go away....I guarantee you.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Tom

      My Flying Spaghetti Monster hurls divine meatballs at your devil. Problem solved. Therefore, I have no need to worship your Jesus, fear your devil or beleive in your lies. The Flying Spaghetti Monster will provide as he has throughout history.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Ruck

      @ILoveJesus

      Funny, science is exactly the same. Not believing in science doesn't make it any less true. However, one could draw a conclusion from your belief in that believing in Santa Clause does make him real?

      March 7, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • ILoveJesus

      Tom, that's fine Tom, but I'll keep right on praying for you just the same; praying that you'll come to know the saving grace of Jesus. There is no one or nothing of this earth that can protect you against Satan except Christ.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Tom

      I agree..... nothing on this Earth. My FSM lives in an ethereal plain.... not of this earth. Santa Clause? Of course not.....he's imaginary. I feel persecuted when you compare my deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, to an imaginary being like Santa Clause. And here's why: The Flying Spaghetti Monster is real. And that concludes my argument and discussion on the matter. I hope that you will one day see the light and realize there is only one REAL deity and he is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, as I have just proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Bill

      You may believe in whatever you like and makes you happy; doesn't bother me. However, I would like to comment that if your religion was really so awesome, you wouldn't have to try to scare people into joining.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • AHAHA

      Jesus trolls are funny!! 😀

      March 7, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Hey, IILoveJesus – While your praying for Tom, throw in a few ritual chantings of mumbo jumbo nonsense for me too. I might get a laugh out of knowing that you're trying to talk to an invisble, supernatural man in the sky. Go ahead and wallow in your fantasy world if you want and have fun with your imaginary friend.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • redragon

      @ AHAHA... love it... maybe we can poke them with sticks...
      Poke..

      March 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Adam

      Well said Tom. You've converted me. FSM:1 / Jesus:0.

      Just in case, Ilovejesus can you pray for me tonight? I want to make sure I'm covered cause I was planning on doing some blow and banging a couple chicks.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  15. W

    I wonder how this dude feels about all of his pedophile co-workers.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • GregG

      I wonder how you feel about all of your pedophile coworkers.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  16. charbroil

    This man could have violated the devil. You never know with some of these exocist guys. They are a sneaky bunch. He could try casting out your mother first. But hey everything to good use I guess. Seriously violating beezelbub is a good way to anger him. The devil has a lot of unresolved issues. See what I do is hypnotize the infested person. That in turn hypnotizes satan. Then I take them to Denny's or Olive Garden and direct satan to have a seat at the buffet.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  17. TYRANNASAURUS

    Exorcism can't work against the devil because there is no devil.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Steve

      You spelled Tyrannosaurus wrong.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Adam

      lol steve...nice one

      March 7, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  18. Matt

    What is the best way to help a mentally ill person? Tell him he has a demon living inside him!, what could go wrong?

    March 7, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Delsin

      On the other hand, how helpful is it to categorically deny that someone you call mentally ill experienced some form of possession? Have you ever seen an xray with your naked eye?

      March 7, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • neoritter

      Apparently you missed the part about 80% are turned away because the problem is actually psychological and/or drug related.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Luis Wu

      I've never seen an invisible pink and purple polkadotted unicorn before either. Wow! Maybe they do exist!

      March 7, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  19. s. pimpernel

    Why won't god heal amputees?

    March 7, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Garrett Goodwin

      God cannot heal amputees because we are not able to grow back appendages. Not theoratically or physically possible.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Ruck

      @Garrett Goodwin

      It is both theoratically and physically possible. See stem-cell research. Guess that makes the scientists the real gods here, huh?

      March 7, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Delsin

      Good question. I'd throw out the New Testament line [Was this girl born blind b/c of her sins or those of her parents? Neither, but for the Glory of God (so JC could heal her)] but it doesn't salve much for me.

      Another persepctive would be some part of God wanted to experience what it would be like to be amputee. In a whole bunch of situations, ie, not just one amputee from one socioculturaleconomic class, so a whole bunch of sparks of God wanted to experience that.

      What answers have you come up with to that question? It's a toughy for sure.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • copanut

      Now, let me get this straight. God can do ANYTHING, right? God can raise the dead. God can create Adam from clay, as a fully formed adult capable of speech. God can part the seas. God can form an entire universe from a thought. But, he can't regrow a limb, or just snap his mighty fingers and make one appear? Please explain.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • John

      @Ruck Great commit I love it when science crushes the religious with their absolutism. I watched a show on NatGeo a couple of while back. I just can't remember the name of the show. But a guy had cut off his finger to the first joint. His brother was a doctor and they used STEM cells to grow his finger back. They still have not perfected larger appendages like arms and legs, but given enough time and research science will figure it out. Also, the growing of organs, skin which is already done, muscle which was done for a soldier wounded in Iraq, bone which science as been doing for awhile. Funny how the religious can't grasp the miracles of science, but they claim the miracles of God.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • John

      @Garrett Goodwin "God cannot heal amputees because we are not able to grow back appendages. Not theoretically or physically possible." Unless your a Salamander then it is not only theoretically possible, but it is physically possible go, figure.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • conrad

      Maybe what you mean by 'heal' is different from spiritual healing?

      March 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  20. GreggH

    Why is CNN wasting time with this nonsense? No real news left to cover? Oh, I forgot, CNN lets the audience "vote" on which real news story to cover, and ignores the ones that don't get enough votes. Cable Nonsense Network.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Tom

      Honestly, if you were these guys, wouldn't you be happy to be working ?

      "I only work if I feel like it..."

      March 7, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Steve

      why are you responding? no real news stories to comment on?

      March 7, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • neoritter

      You must not come to this website very often. The top left usually has a section dedicated to the most important news of the week/month (depends on how long it lasts). So look there for coverage on Libya and the unrest in the Middle-East. The top right usually has a video. Generally it's whatever is being talked about on CNN now or will be on tonight. The section below the dedicated column contains news stories from today. Some important some not so much. To the right of that, there are the "popular" stories. The ones that people have been clicking on and searching for the most. Put there without much input by CNN or the people running the website. To the far right are articles that people are reading at that minute.

      March 7, 2011 at 11:46 am |
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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.