I was honored to speak last weekend on the phone with Father Gary Thomas, the subject of Matt Baglio’s book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist (Doubleday Religion), which is the inspiration for Mikael Hafstrom’s film THE RITE, opening in theatres January 28, 2011. Father Thomas also served a consultant for the film.
Peg Aloi: How long have you been a practicing exorcist?
Father Gary Thomas: I’m pastor of a parish, but also an exorcist who serves this diocese, and I’ve been eligible to perform exorcisms for just over four years.
PA: How do feel about the film version of THE RITE? (Interviewer’s note: I had not seen the film at the time of this interview)
FGT: I went down to L. A. to see it last Tuesday and Anthony Hopkins and I sat down and watched it together, just the two of us. He’s very comfortable to be around, very down to earth. I was also on the set with Anthony in Budapest; they were being very anal about wanting it to be accurate.
I think it’s a very well done movie; it’s really a movie about faith. They really took some license with some things but there’s nothing I am ashamed of or appalled by or that I found incredulous beyond possibility. I mean, there’s no special effects, no green pea soup, no spinning, no levitation.
PA: So do you think it’s scary?
FGT: This is not a horror film, although there are scenes that, if you see the trailers, they don’t really match the movie as a whole and they make it seem more like horror. I’ve even been telling some of my parishioners that there are scenes that are somewhat startling. But there is nothing to that movie that I could consider to be horror or gore. There is scene where Rosario, the character who is possessed, spits up nails. In my experience I have never actually seen that, and the priest I trained with had never seen that, but another priest in Rome told me himself that he had seen that more than once.
PA: How long was your exorcist training in Rome?
FGT: I spent about eight months total in Rome, but not all of it was involved in training. When the bishop sent me to Rome on my sabbatical, the exorcism angle was not the primary reason I went, but providentially there was a course in exorcism going on at the time, so he said, “While you’re there, you should take that.” I was there for an extended period of time, and so after the course it was clear I needed to apprentice to somebody.
PA: So do you feel there is a growing need for this skill in the United States? Has our increasingly secular society made our citizens more vulnerable to demonic possession?
FGT: There certainly is a need for skilled exorcists. In order for me to function effectively, however, I had to get that special instruction. This is not the kind of training we get in the seminary, this in an incredible specialty. You have to know what you’re looking for, you have to know the language of deliverance, and you need to know something about Satan. You don’t need to be an expert, or have to have a degree in demonology to do this, but you do need to know what you’re doing, because when someone comes to you, you’ve got to know how to recognize their symptoms.
Actually, I just finished talking with someone five minutes ago who thinks they are dealing with a case of possession, but I told them it seems more likely to be related to drug use.
But to go back to your question, I would say yes, there’s definitely more of a need today, because there is more and more involvement in paganism and idolatry. You don’t need the Internet to get involved in satanic things, although certainly the Internet does lead people into dabbling.
PA: (I did have to bite my tongue to avoid talking about Christine O’Donnell here, after that “dabbling” comment.) When you talk about paganism, how would you specifically define this?
FGT:I’m talking about the occult, the new age, and satanic stuff. I’m taking about being involved in things that are not of God; these idols are of self or something that is not of God. It’s all in the same category, as far as I’m concerned.
PA: Does that include Judaism and Islam?
FGT: No, because those are of God; those are monotheistic religions.
PA: So, in your view, polytheistic traditions are unacceptable, or evil? Does that include Native American spirituality, which is polytheistic?
FGT: It depends on your vantage point when you’re asking the question. I would say that anything that is outside the realm of the Supreme Being is polytheistic. But that term is not necessarily pejorative. Native Americans have their own religious culture, it doesn’t make them bad, but quite honestly, it’s opening them up to a spirit realm that could be very dangerous.
PA: I wonder if you also make a distinction between what you consider occultism and the modern earth-based spiritual traditions, such as Wicca or neo-paganism. And I should tell you that in addition to being a film critic and a media scholar, I am also a former Catholic, and I’m now what you’d call a neo-pagan, or a witch.
FGT: The occult is not the same thing as the satanic. So people who are involved in Satan worship are not the same thing as those are involved in Wicca, but we (priests, presumably–PA) would say Satanists are Satanists. I don’t even consider pagans in the same ways as I would consider those involved in the new age, but I think it’s fair to say the occult can be a doorway to the satanic.
PA: Would you say the vast majority of satanic involvement is teenagers dabbling, who eventually get bored and move on?
FGT: I can’t really give en educated guess. I’d say for some it certainly could be the case. I think honestly there are more teenagers who have an undeveloped understanding of God and faith in life than have a developed one, so I would be more inclined to say it’s more likely than not there are more teens involved in it, yes. There’s a website I saw recently called Teens for Satan (actually I found two: the Yahoo group Teens4Satan and an e-group on, strangely enough, the angelfire domain Kids and Teens for Satan); and one of the teens in my parish was on it. His mom discovered this and practically had apoplexy right there.
PA: Do you think there are more kids interested in Satanism now than in previous years?
FGT: I think from my vantage point it would be hard to give a response, based on a very limited experience of having conversations with kids about this. But I’d say more than involvement there is definitely a greater curiosity now than ever before. I don’t necessarily think a higher percentage of kids want to be actual Satanists, though. It would be improper for me to come out with high-level absolutes.
PA: Are you familiar with the Church of Satan, which was founded in San Francisco in 1966? I know at one time it was a tax-exempt religious organization, but I’m not sure now. Would you say those Satanists are involved in something dangerous?
FGT: I think the fact that they’re a legal entity makes a difference. The Church of Satan is a different reality from the world of satanic cults, which are illegal and criminal. Also, satanic cults are very secretive.
PA: Do you believe there are a lot of satanic cults out there?
FGT: There are probably more than we think. In fact, I pray over a woman right now who is a satanic cult survivor.
PA: I need to ask this. Speaking as someone who has done extensive research on the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s: Do you think it’s possible your parishioner’s experiences are false, or that she may be lying, or delusional? Because despite many, many horrific accusations of abuse and murder and various other atrocities by satanic cults over the years, most of them by alleged “survivors” who claim to be former cult members, the FBI, after years of investigation, never found a single shred of evidence to suggest there is or ever has been an underground network of satanic cults in the United States.
FGT: I don’t believe that she’s lying. She had been seeing a priest in our diocese for a while and her memories started to surface, and that’s how we learned of her involvement in the cult. But if even half of what she’s saying is true, and I have not found any reason to doubt it, in her system, if anyone exposes the group, they’ll be killed. There is a whole culture in terms of what these people tell their members.
PA: I guess that’s my point: I would tend to think very little of what she’s saying is true. I’m personally very skeptical of the existence of satanic cults of the type you’re describing. I do have a videotape I’d like to send you though, it’s from episodes of Geraldo and Oprah when they were exploring Satanic Ritual Abuse on their shows, and watching it is very eye-opening to say the least.
FGT: I’d really appreciate that, thank you.
PA: So, to continue along these lines, isn’t is possible these people claiming to have been in satanic cults are misrepresenting the truth, or at least confused about what they experienced?
FGT: I’ve learned a lot of what I know about it this from this woman, and there isn’t that much written about it. People who have escaped these groups and who have come forward are in fear of their lives. Most of these people are also dealing with multiple personality disorder (MPD). That is a terrible cross to live with, and trying to find a therapist who deals with MPD is very difficult, so they come to us for help. There is plenty of opportunity to get involved in such groups. I’m also praying over a second woman who is involved with a Santeria group, which is a form of satanic witchcraft.
PA: I always thought Santeria combined Catholicism and Voodoo. It’s based on a belief in the saints and the powers the Catholic saints have to heal and help people in their lives. That’s why the botanicas sell all those seven-day candles with pictures of saints on them.
FGT: Santeria does involve Satan. And it’s as dangerous for some people as any other form of Satanism. I’m in the process of connecting with a woman who is a clinical psychologist, to discuss it with her. The woman I pray for who is in the Santeria group, she is a person who triggers every time I meet with her, and there have been several episodes related to her Santeria involvement. So I am more inclined to think this may be satanic than an MPD thing, but I am not a clinician. My team does have clinical psychologists, and they are Catholics who believe in possession. This way we are open, but we’re skeptical. In my role as an exorcist, I have to be skeptical. We never assume when people walk in the door that they automatically have what they say they have. I learned that in Rome, the exorcist is the ultimate skeptic. I assume everything they’re telling me is true, but my role is to get to the root cause of the problem.
PA: So in other words, their experiences may be hallucinations or delusions, and the cause may not necessarily be demonic possession, even if they claim it is?
FGT: The vast majority of people who come to me for help with possession are experiencing mental health problems and not actual possession. I have performed exorcisms on five people in the past five years, out of maybe a hundred cases of potential possession. When we talk about people who are possessed, that is very rare. Possession means someone whose body has been taken over by a demon. I also use the term “demonic attachment.” This happens when a person is not fully possessed but there is an attachment to the demon. They can function, they can work, shop, take a vacation, etc. But when a person is fully possessed they can’t function in the world. And then there is what is called “integration” and that is where they have accepted the demon’s possession of them.
People who come to me, who think there is a diabolical attachment of some kind that is affecting them, they realize they have crossed a line and they want to get out of this relationship. But the majority of people who think there is a demon inside them actually are suffering from psychosis or hallucinations or other things that happen that they can’t figure out. It may be bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or depression, where either the people they are seeing have not helped them, or when they mention the word “demon” they’re told to seek help elsewhere or the people treating them just write them off as delusional. Most therapists are atheists or agnostics. That is why people I have on my team have to be practicing Catholics, not just because I want to have them all vote the same way, I want them to be able to look at this with the lens of faith, and accept the possibility that Satan does exist. These people on my team believe Satan does exist. I assure you, however, that doesn’t mean Satan lives under every bush and tree. We’re very cautious; we have to be. The forward in The Rite of Exorcism says that the exorcist must use the greatest caution at all times, and that means being skeptical as well.
FGT: I think it’s more a problem of inviting the spirit world into their lives in ways that they’re not prepared for. I think people who are worshippers of the earth, well, I don’t look at those folks as being involved in the occult necessarily. I use the word “pagan” as a category; I don’t use it as a judgment of somebody else. Although I do think when you get into the new age and alternative spiritualities and anything that is not concerned with the one Supreme Being, you run a risk. I would not say people who are into Wicca are going to become possessed, but to those people I would say, you are opening doors to realms you may not know much about.
PA: I would agree with that. There is an underlying assumption in the neo-pagan community that people should be mentally and emotionally stable before entering formal spiritual training; in other words, undergo therapy if it’s needed.
FGT: Often where people can get hurt is if they have other difficult things that have happened in their lives. This is my opinion based on experience. With people who have a history of sexual abuse, the bar goes up. Those are deep soul wounds, and they affect everything in a person’s life. Demons are always looking for people who have no relationships or broken relationships: they want to attach themselves to people with a history of sexual abuse. I’d say eight out of ten people who come to see me with concerns of demonic attachment have been sexually abused, usually by a parent, sibling or family member. This doesn’t mean that anyone who has been sexually abused is going to have issues of demonic attachment, but the risk is greater. Pornography is another doorway to this risk, as are addictions to drugs and alcohol, especially heavy use. And again, if you get involved in alternative spiritualities, I think the risk goes up. That’s my opinion, based on people who have come to me.
PA: It’s intriguing to me that the issue of sexual abuse is such a risk factor, especially given the Church’s recent years dealing with clergy who have abused their parishioners.
FGT: Where there has been sexual abuse, no matter who the perpetrator, this leaves deep wounds. That is why the Holy Father came out so strongly on this issue, but it was too late. I think, had John Paul II not been so sick for so long, the Vatican would have acted far differently than it did. It took way too long. We’ve had around six priests who were accused in our parish over the years, and they were all removed. One guy has been dead for twenty-nine years, and he had molested two dozen kids. At one point, we had a town hall meeting and asked the parishioners to write letters to the bishop. If they had removed Bernard Law expediently, I don’t think the reaction from the American clergy would have been anywhere near as volatile as it was. Of course you know about a lot of this, being in Boston during that time.
PA: People talked about little else for quite a while.
FGT: I called a meeting of the biggest movers and shakers in my parish, and had them come to my house. I felt like I was on the sidelines watching Rome burn, and I asked them, what can we do? These were people who were one step away from Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. We came up with a whole bunch of recommendations which we unfortunately never acted on because we were told the bishops were going to meet in Dallas and their reaction was going to be very severe.
Obviously, they needed to take a severe stand, since at that point it had been going on for six months, this awareness of the vast cover-up. The abuse was bad but it was the discovery that some bishops had hidden or shipped people around from parish to parish that was the worst. The vision of the 1990s was that pedophiles could be put in therapy and be healed, and obviously we now have knowledge we didn’t have then, and we know this doesn’t work. There were some bishops who were told by therapists it was okay to put these priests back to work, and they didn’t stop what they were doing and that led to the cover-ups and some bishops’ lies. I think people realized priests are no different from anyone else, we’re all flawed human beings, but when something like this happens you have to act. I wrote letters to one powerful bishop I had met in Rome. I sent him three very obnoxious letters and received three form letters in return. In the letters I basically said, “You threw us all under the bus; if you guys had any balls you would have gone to Bernard Law and said ‘You either resign or we will denounce you.’ What you did was cowardly.” In the Vatican, there are all these little bosses everywhere, and there is no one who will tell anyone, “You can’t do that.”
I was very candid with my parish and my bishops, which is the only way to be when you feel powerless and as if there’s nothing you can do. I stood up before them and said “Bernard Law should go to jail” and they all applauded. I mean, if someone else did what he did, they’d be incarcerated. You have to act when such wrongdoing occurs. To know and to deceive people, that is inexcusable. I was doing research on it at the time, and the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Anthony Bevilaqua, was accused of covering things up in his area, and the district attorney for Philly put sixty cases online, cases of different priests and what they did. I read fifteen of them and could not read any more. I was so sick from reading it, I thought, how could this be?
Bevilaqua had everyone under a code of deception, and he manipulated anyone who came forward with any kind of complaint. He had them all lying to cover his own ass, but I thought “Screw you, if you’re not going to do anything I’m going to the press.” Again, I think if Pope John Paul II hadn’t been so sick, it would have been different. When I went to Rome, I spent time with people who worked in the Vatican. Once the jubilee year in 2000 was over, they told me he weakened considerably, and could not get out of bed. The Archbishop of Krakow (Stanisław Dziwisz) was the gatekeeper and the pope’s secretary, and the truth about the Pope’s health and incapacity wasn’t revealed to many people for a long time. Every bishop has to submit his resignation at age seventy-five, why should he be any different?
PA: I appreciate your being so candid about this topic. But I also wanted to ask a bit more about film. There have been some notable films dealing with exorcism and the Catholic Church. Have you seen any of them and what did you think?
FGT: I‘ve seen the original of course, The Exorcist. And then a few months ago I saw The Last Exorcism.
PA: Did you like it?
FGT: Actually I thought it was a pretty well done movie. It’s a movie about satanic cults, but you don’t know that until the last scene. Another priest went with me and he didn’t get it.
PA: I actually liked that film, although it has some flaws, and I thought the ending was really interesting, I wasn’t expecting it.
FGT: I don’t tend to go to moves about those kinds of things as a rule. I sometimes use current movies as bylines for my homilies. Like Hereafter, which I liked, and 127 Hours, which is a movie about realizing you can’t live a human life all by yourself, out of the nature that God has made us, we are meant to be in relationships, and you can’t say “I don’t need anyone.”
PA: So you don’t like horror films?
FGT: Those two I mentioned are the only two demonic movies I’ve seen I can remember. But it does seem like there are more of them coming out. Like that film a few months ago, Devil. I emailed the producer of The Rite and asked him if he had noticed all these other films coming out that had a similar theme.
PA: What implications do you think this trend holds for our culture? From a religious perspective, what does this mean?
FGT: I can’t give you an opinion other than to say, I think in general humans by nature have a spiritual component. And I don’t think it’s even about denominations or religious institutions, I think by nature we are very spiritual. I also think there is a great hunger for spiritual involvement and for some people traditional religion just doesn’t work out, and hasn’t for a while now. I have a homily all about how the institutions in our society have failed us: the government, the car companies, the banks, the Church. And not just the Catholic Church in terms of what we were talking about earlier, but the Church in general. The Catholics are just the biggest moving target right now, and it will take us at least twenty years, an entire generation, to recover from it.
People want to trust, but who do you believe? What news network even tells you the truth? I have to say the closest thing to the truth I have found in the news is watching Jim Lehrer. He knows how to ask questions. I’ve never understood why people like Larry King so much, I think he’s one of the worst interviewers out there, and yet he’s been so successful. What I like about Jim Lehrer is he seems to be apolitical. All these guys on Fox and CNN, I already know where they sit on the issues, I don’t care what Hannity and all these guys have to say. I don’t really want to listen to their editorial stuff, let me decide. News should not be about just opinions.
When this movie comes out, I’ve been interviewed by loads of people, but I keep wondering, are the things I’ve said going to really appear in the way I said them? Everything is just sound bytes now. Who do you believe? I think especially with a subject like this there could easily be a perfect storm of hype around it, and what I say can be misinterpreted, so who do you trust to give an accurate picture? The reputation of the Church is already in trouble. I’m not saying we’re going to hell in a hand basket, but there are days when I just want to retreat from it all. All you can do is reward and encourage good behavior; I learned that long ago and I have never forgotten it. That is the only way you can build trust is to keep repeating the same behavior over and over again and encourage people to do the right thing.
PA: Do you think the film will be received well?
FGT: I hope so. I think they did a good job. But it went through seven rewrites before I signed on.
PA: Really? What were your objections?
FGT: There were a lot of factors, like Ted Turner’s public antipathy towards Christianity. The writer’s strike was coming. I said to Beau (Flynn, one of the producers), I like him a lot, but I said “You know what your industry is like, and I’m not signing anything until I read it.” I basically said, you know, I don’t mean to be disrespectful but I don’t even know you, and your industry basically hates everything I stand for. But in the end they wanted to make an accurate movie, not a horror movie. I would not normally go see it, because it looks like a horror film. But I do think it’s well done. You see a human side of the priest. I think it’s a good story.