Pastor’s assault trial centers on exorcisms

But critics say practice a tool of denial
Detroit News, Dec. 1, 2002
By Maureen Feighan / The Detroit News

ROSEVILLE — The bizarre image is burned in the collective consciousness of horror movie fans.

A teen-age girl, afflicted by evil, talks in a demonic voice, swivels her head in a full circle and levitates above her bed before a priest performs a special rite, freeing her from the devil.

As bizarre as the “The Exorcist” may seem, the concept of releasing troubled people from figurative demons or literal ones such as addictions is becoming increasingly visible in Metro Detroit and nationally.

In Macomb County, a jury could decide this week whether to send the Rev. Gennaro Piscopo of Evangel Christian Church in Roseville to jail for allegedly groping three women who came to him for exorcism-like procedures. Piscopo insists he did nothing wrong.

An exorcism is defined as an act to get rid of a troublesome, meddling or evil spirit. According to Christianity Today, a national magazine, the number of officially sanctioned Catholic exorcisms has grown from one or two in 1995 to roughly 15 a year now.

The Archdiocese of Chicago hired its first full-time exorcist in 2000, and Pope John Paul II himself has conducted three exorcisms — including one in September.

Still, critics are skeptical of procedures they see as a tool for denial.

“Exorcism is a fantasy that people have something inside them,” said Dr. Sander Breiner, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who teaches at Wayne State and Michigan State universities. “It goes back to the most ancient times. Of course, it doesn’t make sense. It’s a way of disowning that these are natural things inside of them.”

Despite increased attention, a local priest insists the procedure is “very, very rare.”

The Rev. John West, pastor of St. Rita Catholic Church in Holly and a theologian for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said he hasn’t conducted one in 22 years as a priest. While he has been approached by troubled people seeking exorcisms, he believes ordinary tools — prayer, regular mass attendance and perhaps a sacrament for anointing the sick — are the best approaches. He also sometimes suggests psychotherapy.

“People will say they need one and they haven’t been to church in 25 years,” West said. “They want a quick fix and they haven’t been involved in the ordinary life of the church.”

But if exorcisms are considered a quick fix, they’re certainly complex enough not to be talked about openly — at least in the Catholic faith.

The Rev. Bodan Kosicki, a former pastor at St. Lucy’s Catholic Church in St. Clair Shores, said he used to conduct exorcisms for the archdiocese, but wouldn’t discuss them. He said they’re so intense he needs to pray before he even talks about them.

West said the process — called a rite of exorcism in the Catholic faith — involves a prayer in Latin. The afflicted person is seated in a chapel or at home as a priest says the prayer, using certain devotional objects such as a cross or holy water.

The ceremony is very private and very personal, West said.

“It’s asking that the person be freed if they are indeed possessed,” West said. “But it is extremely rare. Most people will never need one.”

But exorcisms — called deliverances in some other faiths, particularly nondenominational Christian faiths — are much more common in other religions than is typically realized.

Expelling demons

Michael Cuneo, a sociology and anthropology professor at Fordham University in New York, attended more than 50 exorcism-like procedures while researching his book, “American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty.” They ranged from private homes to arena-size venues where people are delivered at the same time. Cuneo could not be reached for this article.

Ron Richardson, a Macomb County resident who testified at Piscopo’s trial, participated in a deliverance at Evangel Christian Church last November before its minister was charged.

Richardson, who was having marital troubles and had been unfaithful to his wife, said the two-day process involved fasting, group prayer and individual prayer. When the actual deliverance began, participants were seated in chair with a volunteer in front of him whose job was to try to “provoke (out) whatever’s inside you.”

The experience was so intense, Richardson said, that he wept and vomited. Throughout the room, he said, people were screaming, yelling and crying.

“If you harbor something, it’s going to stay there and fester,” he said. “That’s the purpose of the deliverance. It delivers whatever’s down deep inside and brings it out.”

Defendant explains

At his trial, Piscopo testified that his intent in performing deliverances — which he said he’s been conducting for more than 20 years — was to free people of what bothers them.

The 51-year-old Roseville pastor demonstrated on his attorney how we would sometimes tap women on their arms and outer thighs to help them “manifest,” as he called it, or bring the evil spirits out.

“I did it to see people set free, to see people helped, to see people delivered,” the defendant said. “People can have things other than demons that they can be delivered from.”

Still, Breiner of WSU and MSU believes exorcisms or deliverances are essentially a way for some people to rationalize or deny things they don’t like about themselves — such as certain thoughts or actions. Nevertheless, he said they can have value if participants feel better.

“People are dealing with a self-hating element,” Breiner said. “An exorcism in some instances can protect someone from considering something more drastic, such as suicide. When somebody doesn’t feel good, they have to do something.

“If it means going and praying in church and it’s going to relieve their tension, I’m not against it.”

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