An article in the Telegraph today interviews Dr Gallagher, a psychiatrist based in the US, all about how he thinks demonic possession is real and exorcism can be helpful.
The article doesn’t give any alternative point of view, or ask Dr Gallagher any particularly challenging questions, so it’s possible to read it and think it’s not that controversial.
The practice of exorcism is worse than controversial though. It’s not a neutral thing to do that might not work but doesn’t cause harm. It’s often frightening for the person and may prevent them from being able to access treatment that can be helpful. It often involves being restrained. The few exorcisms I have heard described to me have been been confusing and frightening at best and brutal and sad at worst.
The way the psychiatrist in the Telegraph article talks about exorcism uses examples where a person has requested it themselves. This is by no means always the case however. Often the use of exorcism is instigated by families of young people who are experiencing significant mental health problems, for instance psychotic experiences such as hearing voices or seeing things other people can’t see. Whilst people are entitled to make sense of experiences through different frameworks of understanding, if the framework leads to the use of a ritual that is frightening and involves labelling a person as possessed or bad then this is not ok.
Exorcism is also be used when no mental health problems are present, but for some reason the child has still been scapegoated as possessed or evil.
Whether or not a child is experiencing their own mental health difficulties at the time, these scenarios are all abusive, and the London Safeguarding Board has clear guidelines about why this is unacceptable. The guidelines talk about how to work respectfully with faith communities engaging in this, whilst removing risk to the child.
Adults can be vulnerable too, and use of exorcism with adults against their will is just as abusive.
Use of exorcism with freely consenting adults presents more of a complex dilemma: we are all free to make decisions about what we want, but exorcism remains problematic in my view, in the way it offers false hope and possibly delays access to other more evidence-based help for whatever is making someone want to request an exorcism. It also often involves restraint even if it has been requested, which I think has huge potential to be traumatic.
The psychiatrist interviewed in the Telegraph offers “discernment” assessments to say whether or not he recommends exorcism. He is clear that he doesn’t think priests should charge for exorcisms, but he doesn’t state whether he charges for these assessments. I would be very surprised if these are also free of charge, although I don’t know for sure, and the book on discernment that Dr Gallagher has coming out soon certainly isn’t.