Putting Faith to the Test

Demon possession is popular in movies, but does it happen in real life?

ByJoy Ciarcia-levy and Richard Gerdau

May 8, 2007 — -- Litchfield, Conn., is the kind of place a lot of people might choose to raise a family. Among its other appealing qualities, Litchfield has a microscopically low crime rate, as in other suburban communities across America.

But no town can be protected from all things evil. Some time ago in this peaceful community, wife and mother Pat Reading felt as though she were possessed by satanic spirits. In a series of exorcisms, a local bishop tried to free her from what they saw as the grip of the devil.

Reading's then-teenage daughter Michelle Reading witnessed her mother's exorcism sessions first hand:

"When you see the person that you love," she said, "that gave birth to you and took care of you … and then you see her being attacked by something invisible, so heinous and so disgusting, I mean, it really is a disgusting situation and you will do anything to stop it."

Exorcism was a last resort for Reading. According to her daughter, Reading's normal life was derailed by feelings that an unseen force was hitting and shoving her and always at her side.

As Michelle described, "She'd scream, she'd jerk backward, I'd turn around and she'd be in pain. Of course, she would panic, she would cry, she was shocked."

Family legend has it that the Reading house was possessed before the spirit entered Reading. Family members said the home was subject to phenomena like furniture being inexplicably tossed about and strange knocking sounds.

"She would end up with black-and-blue marks in the most bizarre places that she wouldn't have been able to do herself," said paranormal expert John Zaffis, who is writing a book about the Reading case titled "The Struggle Within," which is due out later this year.

After witnessing Reading's exorcism, he said, "We have what we call soul victims, if you will, purely innocent individuals that have never had any exposure to paranormal stuff whatsoever, and during the course of their life they just fall victim, in the right place at the right time, and things could just occur. And I think that's what kind of happened with Patty."

But couldn't this be explained in medical or psychological terms?

"She was found to have no psychosis," Michelle Reading explained. "There was nothing wrong with her. She was not a drinker. She was not an alcoholic. Nothing like that."

"Medically, physically, everything had been ruled out and … that's when a decision had to be made," Zaffis told "20/20." "And that's when, actually, we had the Roman Catholic Church involved."

Another woman, who asked to be identified as "Traci," also felt the presence of the devil inside of her.

"When the demons are active in my body, I feel confused, I get paranoid. I get tense," Traci explained.

The exorcisms performed on Traci were documented by Paulist Productions for an upcoming documentary called "Satan Unmasked." The executive producer of the film is the Rev. Frank Desiderio. "20/20" will follow Traci's story when the documentary is completed. For more on Paulist Productions, click here.

"We've been following this story of this woman called Traci," Desiderio explained. "She does have a history of drug use … but that in and of itself does not explain everything that's going on in this woman's life."

Traci told Paulist Productions, "The first time a demon left my body, I felt like something was literally from the inside pushing out through my chest, and through my arms and through my throat.

"The feeling of freedom that I get is a spiritual feeling. The fear goes away, the insecurity goes away, the pain goes away and I'm filled with hope."

Traci, who now works as a landscaper, said she got her life back through the efforts of exorcists who held -- and imparted -- an unshakable faith.

Across the Atlantic in Italy, the Rev. Giancarlo Gramolazzo, an exorcist, said it is faith that saves you.

"Even in the exorcisms fighting the devil, it is faith that makes it work, he said. "It is faith that makes sure that it is not the priest that is working but Christ."

Gramolazzo has 30 years of experience performing exorcisms in Italy, a country where 88 percent of the population is Catholic and exorcisms are performed every day.

Pointing to a crucifix, he explained, "It is he who is exorcising, not me. I loan my body. Jesus is the first exorcist. It is the Lord in the first person who showed us that he wins against evil."

Exorcism has deep roots in the Catholic tradition, and is performed by priests who are given special license by their bishops. Twenty years ago, Italy had about 20 official exorcists, but today there are an estimated 300. The number of those approved to perform the exorcism rites has grown with demand.

Gramolazzo is one of those approved to perform the rites.

"We exorcists felt the need to come together to exchange our various experiences and to have a common vision of how to carry out exorcisms."

Gramolazzo heads the International Association of Exorcists.

"An important thing we discovered," he said, "is that the devil acts in Italy, in France, in the U.S., in Mexico, in Japan, in the same way. If I go and exorcise someone in Japan it is the same devil I exorcise here. … The devil does not have a nationality."

Tracy Wilkinson, the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Rome, spent years researching exorcism in Italy for her book "The Vatican's Exorcists." She was even allowed to witness an official exorcism performed by Roman Catholic priests.

According to Wilkinson, it does require belief and it requires faith on a very core level.

"The hierarchy of the church is ambivalent about the phenomenon of exorcism," Wilkinson said. "They recognize it can be so easily distorted and sensationalized and abused, many priests are skeptical about demonic possession. … And yet, I found quite a few academics and psychiatrists who allowed for the concept of demonic possession -- one who had even sent his patient, he couldn't figure out what to do with her, he sent her to an exorcist."

Staunch supporters claim that to believe in exorcism is to have a faith complete enough to acknowledge the existence of Satan, whose legions of devils can inhabit bodies and possess souls.

Paulist Productions traveled to Rome to interview perhaps the most famous exorcist of our time, the Rev. Gabriele Amorth.

"For our Christian faith, it's very, very important to realize that Satan exists," he said. "Go forth, preach the Gospel, throw out the devils and heal the sick -- those are the commands Jesus gave to the apostles."

In a rare interview Amorth explained how he has performed more than 60,000 exorcisms in his lifetime. He believes that Satan exists, and does so to challenge humankind.

"I said to John Paul II, I meet too many bishops who do not believe in the devil," he said. "And he answered, 'Those who do not believe in the devil, do not believe in the Gospel.' And John Paul II also performed various exorcisms. So he was a person who believed … and the present pope, Benedict XVI, he too really believes. And he is one of the members of the commission that drew up the ritual for exorcisms."

The Vatican prohibits photographing any officially sanctioned Roman Catholic exorcism, but priests who have performed them said exorcisms can look and feel remarkably similar to the 1973 Hollywood blockbuster "The Exorcist."

Gramolazzo recounted, "There are exorcisms in which the things you see in the film happen … people who lift off the ground, people whose skin is cut, people who vomit strange things. … The first exorcism I saw of an 18-year-old girl who had phenomena, her head rotated, her hands and her arms spun round, cuts would suddenly appear on her skin, certainly not made by her."

While the kind of full body possessions depicted in the movie do happen, official exorcists also note they are extremely rare. Satan, they claim, is more likely to work in more subtle ways.

As Amorth explained, "His main activity is to tempt man to fall into sin and away from God. Satan does everything he can to avoid being discovered … And he's also pleased to be projected with bat wings and with hooves at his feet, with long ears and things like that. Because by rendering him ridiculous what people do is deny his existence."

Some are not so ready to deny the devil's existence. A 2005 online poll of 889 U.S. adults conducted by Harris Interactive show that 61 percent of adult Americans believe in Satan.

But even in a world they see as vulnerable to Satan's maneuverings, leading Catholic exorcists say there is a safe haven.

"It is faith, faith, faith, only faith," said Gramolazzo.

The most well-known priests who perform the rite, like Amorth, say exorcism is only part of a larger mission.

"It is a ministry," he said, "which is gratifying, a spiritual gratification of bringing souls back to God."

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