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. John

    I am still not sure if I would put these exorcism witnesses in any different category than a viewer of a stage hypnosis presentation ... especially when the observers want desperately to believe in it beforehand.

    PS: I am glad they are not trying to perform exorcisms on down syndrome kids or others. Some of the stuff they used to do was unbelievably horrific.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  2. Frogist

    I don't dismiss the possibility of demons, possession, hunters named Sam and Dean who are too gorgeous and may show up on my doorstep one day carrying salt shotguns and holy water... *ahem* but I digress...
    I don't dismiss those possibilities, but I do see them as infinitely rare to the point of almost improbable. And in light of past experiences with what people mistook as demonic possession, to the detriment of the helpless who came to them, I consider instances of demonic possession highly questionable. I realize that the delusion maybe that the "possessed" have convinced themselves that they are in need of an exorcism, and that indulging in that fantasy may be the only thing to really help them at the moment. But without psychiatric scrutiny, it is altogether possible that the real issues are not being addressed, and the "exorcism" is just a temporary fix. It is also dangerous to characterize as evil those who may just be mentally ill, as the Fr is describing those he has met.

    I also find it disturbing the Fr's antagonistic talk about Wiccans and pagans. I don't think we need any more prejudiced rhetoric against those whose religions are different from Christianity.

    Regarding the "end of days" part of his interview, isn't it more likely that people are behaving as their biased and fearful psyches tell them to, seeing demons and signs at times that humans have designated significant, rather than demons presenting themselves to humans on arbitrary dates?

    Does anyone have any scientific research on demonic possession? Or exorcisms? I'd really love to read some froma credible scientific source.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • jayb

      is there always scientific evidence for everything? answer is NO...religion/faith is one of them, thats why its called faith

      March 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  3. steve

    Is it too much to ask that CNN report actual news and stop giving press to these idiots?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  4. Erica

    I have to sit back and laugh when I

    March 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  5. barney

    The Ouija Board is dangerous. No joke.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  6. Enrique Bosquet

    these guys are poisining vulnerable minds with fantasies!

    March 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  7. REG in AZ

    I remember working with a young lady that I honestly believe was possessed. She was extremely devious and evil for no reason other than to inflict her control, with her only reservation being whether she thought she could get away with it. What I finally decided, was that it wasn't demon possession but rather she was a demon in being possessed by her own ego, by her drive to have and control everything ... as I latter came to understand, a sociopathic personality totally self-focused and without any conscience. We see a lot of that today and much of it with individuals in controlling positions ... in business, in politics and in general, with the significant costs to others always being rationalized away and with a whole lot of subterfuge offered to con the public. Maybe the prevalent mentality that seems everywhere today, that says,"more for me for nothing", simply perpetuates or is a product by example. More exorcisms aren't about to resolve that.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Mr Mark

      Q: have you ever come across a case where a non-religious person was possessed by a demon? I'm going to guess the answer is "no," because the only people who imagine they are possessed are those people whose religion tells them possession is real. That would be Catholics. i was brought up Lutheran, and the topic of demon possession and exorcism never came up.

      For those living in the rational world, demon possession isn't an option, so we don't even consider it, just like we don't consider that a rain dance is a cure for drought.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  8. JonDie

    A freaking lunatic.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  9. Data1000

    Isn't this the same religious group that put Galileo under house arrest for having the audacity to say that the earth goes around the sun?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • calista

      While it is true that the scientific community at the time did not believe in a heliocentric Earth and believed the Earth was on pillars, an animal or Atlas' back, etc and the Bible held a very different and now known to be accurate view, e.g. round Earth and suspended upon nothing. Like my old English college professor used to say: when in doubt, go back to the text.

      He spreads out the northern [skies] over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing," (Job. 26:7, NIV).
      "He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in," (Isaiah 40:22, NIV).

      March 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  10. Kate

    Wow, way to bolster someone who is obviously abusing mentally ill people.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  11. barbara

    I agree that featuring this crackpot as news is absurd on cnn.com. But then again, so are half the news stories appearing up in their "above the fold" banner lately ... might as well be partnering with National Enquirer these days, by the looks of it.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  12. Mike


    "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?"

    I'd venture to say that BELIEVERS are more guilty of opining than NON-believers.....AMEN!

    March 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  13. Jd

    Utter nonsense; god, devils, angels, virgin births, resurrections, all of it nonsense.
    I live in Mexico and can you imagine how all of this nonsense integrated into the nonsense of the indians who were conquered by the Spanish? All of the Americas, central, south and North are all crazy.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • sealchan

      Its called culture...and its only crazy to the modern mind that thinks only the provable is true...but no one lives without unproven axioms/assumptions behind their implicit or explicit epistemology.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  14. sanjosemike

    This entire article is unmitigated nonsense: There are no god or gods. There is no devil. There is no afterlife. There is no prior life. Bibles are best used as an adjuvent for TP, when you run out of it. This saves you an extra trip to C***co.

    Consciousness is a byproduct of your biology and its multiplicity of electrical connections. Once that is gone, so is consciousness. Enjoy it while you can. When it ends, there is nothing. sanjosemike

    March 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • JoeJoe9

      That is just what you believe...your proof?

      Did you ever think when you are typing words, gathering your thoughts, deciding/choosing what to say, and using the best intellect you can find in your brain; that you are conscious in these thoughts/decisions, and that your eyes/hands/brain synapses, are all part of the lense (of the human body) that you are able to see and control to the limitations inherent in its essence? That you are a consciousness outside of the body that see and controls to some extent, through the human body, as a perceiver, like a photography to a camera...?

      March 7, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • sealchan

      Our consciousness at least lives on in the memories of our friends and loved ones and in whatever impact we have made on society...

      March 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  15. aach

    wow, amazing all the hateful comments. people post here

    March 7, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Jake

      What hateful comments? That people don't believe god exists? It's not any more hateful than people saying they believe otherwise (and these are the people suggesting the recipient will be tortured for eternity for not holding the same belief).

      March 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      As one poster blogged on another post ... something like this. He'd rather believe in God while living on earth, being a good and moral person then die and found out there was no God, than to not believe there is a God, do whatever he pleased, to die and find out there is a God. If the first choice doesn't turn out to be true, then nothing gained, nothing lost, he still lived his life morally and righteously. However, if there is a God to meet him when he dies, boy was he mistaken how he lived his life.

      I wished I had copied that quote. It is great. I forgot what article we were blogging on to go back and copy it now.

      Peace out.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Frogist

      @HeavenSent: Look up Pascal's Wager, I'm sure you will find what you are looking for. But while you're at it, you should also look up some very valid responses to it that toss the logic of that position right out the window. That's a bet I'm not willing to take. BTW The implication that non-believers are less morally sound than believers is a bias you would do well to leave by the wayside.

      March 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  16. This Story is a Mess

    Does this really qualify as news? I mean, really CNN. Really?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • sealchan

      The poll referred to does if it is true that 1 in 10 people say they have witnessed an exorcism...

      March 7, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  17. Ben LaBédaine

    Exorcism was established to up the ante in the "who's got the most DivineSuperPowers (TM)" race between the Catholics and the Protestants during the dark ages. In time, it has become a hobby for bored, self delusioned paranormal believers.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • beadar

      There were no Protestants in dark ages you moron..

      March 7, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Ben LaBédaine

      Correction: Late middle ages, beginning of the Renaissance, if you want to get technical about it like my charming little replier, and believe that this epoch consisted of wall to wall enlightenment.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  18. Russ

    are you serious, cnn? exorcism? why don't you do a big foot expert next. jesus, and people wonder why your network does so poorly, you report on idiocy instead of important news stories.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  19. grist

    We really really need to grow up. That a major news organization reports on exorcism in 2011 as if it were real, is astonishing. Where is the skepticism? These poor people being subjected to this ritual either have deep psychological problems or suffer from epilepsy. I am a neurologist and have seen both. These people should be seen by medical professionals, not witch doctors. I don't doubt that there have been "cures" by this guy. The placebo effect is very strong.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Dave Wiseman

      Somehow, call it the "really really", or something else, but I seriously doubt the "I am a neurologist" portion.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Mr Mark

      Exactly. It's pathetic that childish crap like this is still around in 2011. CNN giving such risible stupidities a forum promotes ignorance.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • pickycb

      It's CNN. They're the heavyweight champs of hate-mongering. They'll print anything scarey to shoo the lambs.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • getalife.com

      As a neurological professional, how would you explain the spontaneous speaking of an unknown language? Is there a disorder for that as well? I am so tired of people like you who speak upon issues they know nothing about. Should we hold these folks down and stuff pills in their throats? Or maybe lock them up and throw away the key? If one has tried absolutely everything to cure themselves, and if people like you can't give answers, then why not consider the possiblity of possession? Science cannot debunk, or even explain HALF of what happens to us as human beings. Any person with logic HAS to consider the illogical!

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

      There are non-neurological contexts for people to think they are demon possessed. This is a possibility (albeit a medieval way of describing it) within the realm of psychology so it wouldn't necessary show up on a brain scan.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Dave

      I read the article and found the reporting to be objective. It didn't promote fear, in fact, it's closing lines specifically veered away from fear-mongering. The article described how the priest made great efforts to refer seekers to proper medical and psychological channels first, never purporting to give such opinions himself. As for the "real" comment – yes, the RITE of exorcism is real in the Catholic church and many other religions. It's like saying "baptism is real" and "matrimony is real" – these are rites that are "really really" performed as physical ceremonies. Whether you belief the church's views on the metaphysical aspects of the rite is irrelevant – the rites do exist. This article didn't seem to take any side, and merely reported on the man behind the movie character. He related his own experiences and the article goes to lengths to portray him not as a scary or supernatural or "Hollywood" stereotype.

      I don't understand all the CNN-bashing for this piece of reporting, even though I'm now used to the Catholic-bashing and "religion is for idiots" bandwagon that is automatic whenever the word "priest" appears in any context.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      grist, the placebo affect was mentioned by another blogger. Maybe it's true, that only the righteous get tested.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  20. Matt

    Catholic witchcraft, they are abusing people with severe mental disorders in order to sell their snake oil about God and the Devil. I cant wait until 2012 has passed and nothing happened, maybe then people will see how INSANE this all is.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • mattymatt

      I'm not Catholic, but who in the Catholic church is talking about 2012 being a significant escalotogical event??

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

      I think 2012 comes from Mayan calendar/prophecy and isn't on the radar of the Catholic church...except, perhaps, in certain areas of Latin America...

      March 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • jayb

      when did the catholic church believe the world would end on 2012? the bible says no one knows when the world will end.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • benigno

      Did you not read the article? The Catholic Church does not believe that the end of the world has a set date. No one will know!

      March 7, 2011 at 1:17 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.