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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. Clint M

    Yes the devil exist, just look around you, but. Ii's is easy to outwit him in prayer and complete trust in God.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      Yes the devil and its minions exist. Just read some of the posts here and you'll get a whiff of demonic stench. It is NOT easy to outwit the monster, even when trusting in God. To suppose that the thing can be easily and quickly dispatched is an error. Even Jesus' disciples had touble with some possessions. Victory is always possible, yet seldom easy.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Tampa Man: I wonder which posts you consider of the devil. The patently ignorant ones? The downright rude ones? Or the merely skeptical ones? It is statements like yours that scare me the most because not only does it attribute bad deeds to outside forces, detaching humanity from its own actions, but it gives those who can "detect" the demons a mistaken sense of dominion over all others too "blinded" to see things your way, and countless followers who will not question your actions either.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  2. Keyboard Cowboy

    Quick! Drill a hole in their head to let out the evil spirits!

    March 7, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      You cannot persuade a blind man that the moon and rainbows exist.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Shamrock6

      That's because to him they don't exist and he can't experience them. Just like the devil. If you don't believe in him he doesn't exist to you and you won't experience him in any way, shape or form.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      "Just like the devil. If you don't believe in him he doesn't exist to you and you won't experience him in any way, shape or form."

      To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the devil always wants us to pay either too much or too little attention to its actions.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Shamrock6

      There are things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.

      – Dostoyevsky

      March 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  3. Tampa Man

    No man is an island unto himself. We are affected by many things in life which cannot be seen, touched or directly felt. Once upon a time, people laughed at the idea that microscopic organisms would cause disease, disfigurement and death because the things could not be seen. Only recently has it been discovered that inorganic compounds in the manufacturing process can cause disease and death and the greatest explosive weapon ever devised by man is based upon the reaction of atoms which cannot be seen by any conventional microscope.

    Our lives are prolonged, prospered or shortened by things that cannot be seen, touched or felt. Why then, is it considered to be impossible that spiritual creatures cannot affect us as well? It seems to me that those who deny it are themselves most guilty of baseless bigoted opinion. They have closed their minds to possibilities that could prosper or endanger them greatly.

    BEWARE! That which you cannot see can indeed harm you – or bless you. To ignor it is the ultimate foolishness.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  4. Stephen

    Please to meet you. Hope you guessed my name.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  5. BIGRED

    People do love their fantasies. Fake exorcisms for the fake possessed. It's all drivel and dumb.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      You cannot persuade a blind man that the moon and rainbows exist, yet they do.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • RobSee

      Cannot persuade a blind man that the moon and rainbows exist? Why not? Blind people are not idiots. Give a decent explanation of what they are and I'm pretty sure any blind person can rationalize the moon and rainbows, even though they can't see them.

      I realize you think you're being clever with that line in using it to compare atheists to the 'blind man'. You should try to come up with a better one.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  6. Ben Dover

    The foolishness is confusing exorcism with legitimately treating the ACTUAL problem with psychotropic medications necessary for the mentally ill. The "devil" is no more real than "god".

    March 7, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      Drugs are not always the right answer. Psychiatry doesn't always ask the right questions. Ignorance and religious bigotry never knows the difference.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  7. Bob

    They should charge money for exorcisms. $995? $1495 payable in installments?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      The payment for exorcisms has already been made. The blood that Jesus shed upon the cross is our payment and our primary weapon.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  8. JJ

    Amazing how many people believe in this cr*p. I mean, I understand that religion spreads because adults take advantage of the fact that children are born programmed to believe anything coming out of an adult's mouth, both educational and BS, but all of this represents such a huge, incredible waste of time and effort and money that could be put to so many good uses...

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

      In a perfect world, teaching religion to children would be considered child abuse.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  9. Bob

    Many of us have difficulty believing in "the Devil" as a distinct, supernatural personality as traditionally taught by the Catholic church. Of course, the existence or nonexistence of "the Devil" may be irrelevant. It is objectively verifiable that the works of "the Devil" - i.e., the temptation (often very strong) to do antisocial and/or self-destructive things that we recognize are things we should not do - are real. Whether this is attributable to "the Devil" or not is in many want irrelevant. We have to find ways to do the right things, because it is in our long term interest to do so. If exorcisms help some people, then that's great. There is potential harm, however, in perpetuating a popular religion of "the Devil" in which evil is seen as being typically victorious over good in our daily lives.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  10. Pat

    Why is it that only Catholics get possessed?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Ross MN

      Read the artical again idiot!

      March 7, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  11. rev richard

    The article is a window on the world we live in and the real people with whom we interact. They teach our children, and govern our country, Important to know, but scarier that hell.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Sixoh

      Kinda like the lib side of the spectrum too! Very frightening!

      March 7, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  12. Andy, PA

    I have a squirt gun that I fill with holy water. I do "drive by" exorcisms.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Sixoh

      That's awesome!

      March 7, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • J

      Very funny! You made me laugh out loud. Thanks!

      March 7, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  13. Wow

    Do people actually take this guy seriously? I mean...wow, this is sad. I believe in god, i believe in the devil but i do not believe a devil can take over ones soul.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Lucy

      Unless your soul belongs to Jesus, it is open season for the devil.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Drew

      So you believe in a devil that doesn't actually pose any risk to mankind; you believe in a benign devil!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  14. johnpaul

    how many children has this guy molested?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Diva

      I'm not Catholic and I'm not Uber religious but that is a disgusting comment and it has absolutely nothing to do with this article.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  15. M@!

    This 'article' reminds me of the tale of the priest and the virgin. Oh, and btw, please allow me to introduce myself...

    March 7, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Bella

      Are you a man of wealth and taste?

      March 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  16. Robin Bray

    More examples of mental illness on both sides of the act. Ad those who would benefit from proper treatment don't get it. Again the church messing up the lives of it's followers.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  17. Tampa Man

    That's entertainment, CNN style. Any story with the most remote whisper of Christian ideology will attract opinioniated religious bigots like roaches to dinner's crumbs. As the insects bring their infection and putrid stench out of the filth where they live, so do these trample upon things they neither respect nor understand.

    Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do nor see what they truly are.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Kay

      And you think *you* aren't being opinionated? Aren't spewing venom and stench? I'll bet you like the Old Testament best, don't you?

      March 7, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  18. Brickell Princess

    Say what?!? This is 2011....you have to be certified stupid to fall for any of that nonsense.

    Evolve!

    March 7, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Fred

      Why arent you evolving then , Queenie? Onlly a fool saith there is no God. Look it up its in the bible. Brush up on your history to if you can read.

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

      Fred says to look it up in the bible. Why would he want you to look something up in a fictional source?

      March 7, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • GreggH

      You might want to look up how evolution works in a science book instead of getting your information at church. It isn't just that your statement show that you're ignorant (you are), but it's like saying "if this 'gravity' exists, how come the moon doesn't crash into the earth?"

      March 7, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Thor......

      You have a choice to do good or evil. Period. That's why your "Son of God" "died for your sins" and "decended into Hell, and on the third day rose again..." ! If not, what was that all for? ....a good story. Be Ware! We Watch, We Wait, ....

      March 7, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Kay

      Sorry, Fred, but the Bible isn't a history book. It's a collection of stories handed through generations, finally written and rewritten countless times, changed by scribes to fit their own preconceived ideas, and so forth. Certainly there are some historical facts in it, but just as often the historical facts actually contradict what the Bible says.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • dmm

      "Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind.

      What these blessed men have given us we must guard and try to keep alive with all our strength if humanity is not to lose its dignity, the security of its existence, and its joy in living."

      Albert Einstein, In Goldman, p 88.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  19. Nathan Prophet

    I also do exorcisms on demand. "Have Holy Water and Crucifix; Will Travel." I guarantee success or your money back. Of course, I may refer you to a good psychiatrist after our first consultation. Wake up gullible people!!! There is no "Devil"; there are no "evil spirits," "demons" or the like. These are vestiges from primitive peoples, and through the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. What happened to the Age of Enlightenment. Are we returning to "goblins and gremlins" as the answer to mental health issues? I guess it's devolution at work.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • fofo

      Yap, we should thank Regan for bringing these morons back to our lives.

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

      All I know is this. The human form can only sense and perceive reality within a given spectrum. We cannont see ultraviolet light, or hear sounds outside our range of hearing, or see living organisms the size of a cell. Yet, with technology and scientific observation, we have come to see that there are things in this universe that were beyond our understanding that had definitive effects on our actions. All is not known. Therefore, it is not beyond reality that there are other forces at work that impact our lives that have yet to be fully observed or explained. Electronic voice phenomena, "ghostly" phenomena have been observed, captured, and witnessed by technical means and through analysis without yet definiative explanations. I'm not saying people need to get hysterical in life about it – but what makes you think you are the top of the food chain? Just because the ants don't see the influence behind the magnifying glass, doesn't mean there is not someone causing them to burst into flames inexplicably...

      March 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • CC

      Just because some of you do not believe in angels or demons or exorcisms doesn't mean it isn't real. If you do not believe in God...that's your choice. If you do not believe Satan exists...that's your choice. Those of us who do believe and have experienced some of these things know otherwise and your ridiculing or mocking behavior will not cause us to believe differently.
      It's amazing how many non-believers feel compelled to try to convince believers they are misled. You will scream, ridicule, torment and more to get your point across, but you will not allow a difference of opinion to be stated if it varies from yours. Funny...we're not beating you over the head with our Bibles....why are you so determined to beat us with your lack of belief?

      March 7, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Thor......

      Possession by a "demon" is an excuse for bad behavior. It removes accountability and responsibility for the few who create evil and harbor evil intent. Even priests are not immune. The psychotic rantings of one who is "possessed" or one who claims to be able to "excorcise" "demons" are ludicrously connected to the intent. Since Christ died "for our sins" the ability of the "devil" is only limited to the desire of one to do wrong or to find an excuse for going thusly. You snake oil sellers need to know that there are those of us out here who understand you predation. Be ware!

      March 7, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Rocky

      The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
      They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
      there is none who does good.

      The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
      to see if there are any who understand,
      who seek after God.

      Yes Nathan...the bad guy takes great delight in the fact you don't believe he exists. I guess all of the murders and killings in the newspaper are just based on psychological illness huh? Wake up Nathan!!

      3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
      there is none who does good,
      not even one.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Mark

      Satan does exist but he wishes for humanity to believe that he doesnt; by the comments on this board it is obvous he has had great success in that regard. I have had personal experience, not with satan, but with, how shall I say, one of his henchman – a soul who condemned themselves to hell by turning away from God in death. This soul, whom a loved one was familiar with in life, "harrased" this loved one for quite some time before they finally left. There are certain commonalities when it comes to satan – this loved one attended a private party with a psychic. In this way I believe the loved one opened themselves to satans influences as Father Thomas intimates. Trust me – I am not a nut job – I am in a stable marriage with children and have undergrad and grad degrees in engineering. Believe that satan exists because he does – the biggest mistake you can make is opening yourself up to the spirit world other than God. There are more details that are much to private to share but if my words prevent one person from falling prey to the father of lies this is worth it.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Frogist

      @CC: If you think believers do not beat people over the head with their Bibles, faith, Word, etc etc you honestly need to take a good hard look at the world. How can your eyes be shut so tight?

      March 7, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  20. pafmurray

    OH BROTHER...is this CNN or the National Enquirer

    March 7, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Simple

      My house is haunted...............by my ex-wife!!!

      I cast you out in the name of.......

      March 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
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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.