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Return of the Devil: Exorcism's Comeback in the Catholic Church 

Wednesday, Mar 9 2016
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In Rome, Thomas attended classes and traveled by bus to a monastery on the outskirts of town, where he was apprenticed to a friar named Father Carmine De Filippis. While Thomas watched, De Filippis would see "patients," women and men of all ages and walks of life who professed to be possessed. At first, he was not impressed.

"I used to think, 'Is this for real? Is this a placebo effect? Are they acting out because they think they're supposed to?'" he says. But one visitor to De Filippis in particular won him over. One day, the experienced exorcist told Thomas to come over on a Saturday for a "special case." When Thomas arrived, three other priests were there to see a woman in her 30s, who was a "stocky" five-foot-four. Not huge, and not strong — but as De Filippis prayed over her for three hours, she thrashed so much that "it took four of us to hold her down," he says. "She was hissing and pissing and blaspheming and screaming. That was the first one I ever saw."

On his return to the States, Thomas began performing his own exorcisms. (He says he's currently seeing eight troubled souls; since the publication of Baglio's book in 2009, he now fields "at least" one call from someone new seeking treatment every day.) While in Italy priests operate solo, Thomas has a team of medical and mental health professionals: a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, and a clinical psychologist, all of whom are practicing Catholics, a rarity in the mental health field. "Most mental health professionals are atheists or agnostic," he says. "[Exorcism] isn't even on their radar." (He declined to identify all but one of the members of his team by name. The psychiatrist, a San Jose-area man with a Silicon Valley practice, did not consent to being interviewed and Thomas asked that SF Weekly not print his name, for fear of professional ostracism.)

Anyone coming to Thomas alleging to be possessed is given a thorough questioning — about their mental health history, about a history of trauma or sexual abuse, drug habits, sexual partners — all things that a shrink at Kaiser Permanente might ask anyone.

And only after all medical avenues are exhausted — after the doctors on his team conclude that the affliction in question does not have a medical, psychological, or psychiatric source — does he begin administering the solemn rite.

"The exorcist is the ultimate skeptic," he says. "The more emphatic someone is that they're possessed, the more I'm probably convinced that they don't have anything."

Common sources of possession, Thomas says, include trauma like sexual abuse. (Eighty percent of the people who seek exorcism from him are abuse victims, he says.) Drug use, particularly cocaine and methamphetamine, can lead to the demonic. (Cannabis users can rest easy; "you really have to be addicted" to marijuana to see demons as a result of pot, Thomas says.) It can also include sexual promiscuity, as devils can be transferred via intercourse. They can also travel via electronic currents, meaning the Internet and smartphones are possible sources of demonic activity.

The rite itself is a long prayer, with reported exhortations to the devil that God is the boss. During the process, the exorcist will try and learn the name of the demon afflicting the subject; doing so is considered a major victory that weakens the baddie's power.

However, the rite itself isn't always recited. An "exorcism" could be as simple as a 20-minute prayer session, at the end of which nothing might happen. The subject might foam at the mouth or dry-heave — both "good things," he says, as "that's the devil being expelled." And unlike the dramatic denouements in the movies, where demons exit with a roar, a bang, and some projectile vomit, most modern-day exorcisms require multiple sessions, sometimes over a period of years. Thomas has been seeing one man in Silicon Valley for almost a decade; his old mentor, De Filippis, reported exorcising one nun repeatedly over a period of 40 years.

"Demons are always looking for people with broken relationships," says Thomas, who says that "not once" has he been afraid while going toe-to-toe with the devil, though he notes he's been attacked. While in Rome, he found himself beset by sexual urges of the kind he hadn't had since his 30s — a surefire "demonic attack," he says. At home in the States, after performing an exorcism on a Friday evening, he felt ill and out of sorts the following day, when he had to perform a few weddings. After receiving communion at one of the wedding Masses, he passed out. When he came to, he went to the hospital, where he suffered through "Montezuma's revenge all night," he says. He consulted his doctor, who agreed that it was unlikely he could have fallen so ill so quickly. Then he remembered: During the exorcism, he'd blown into the face of the person he was trying to exorcise. The person blew back. Except it wasn't the person blowing.

"It was a demonic attack," he says.

San Francisco is not necessarily proud of its status as a sort of hub for exorcism. While Thomas's fame is nationwide and Immaculate Conception's Lauriola is open about practicing exorcism, the Archdiocese of San Francisco declined to identify the other trained exorcist in the archdiocese, and at which church he is practicing. Mike Brown, a spokesman for Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, also declined to comment on a rumor that Cordileone himself performed an exorcism at one of his own churches within the past two years. (Both Thomas and Lauriola also politely declined SF Weekly's request to see an exorcism in action — my lapsed Catholic nonbelief being the main reason. "It's very dangerous" to have a nonbeliever in the room, Thomas says, noting it creates an opportunity for the devil and a risk to the exorcist.)


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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