The Evil Touch of the Exorcist
Once she was strapped to the bed, the priests started trying to cut her fingernails.
Irena felt weak at the knees when she saw the strange small room in the basement under the church where the priest took her. There was a cupboard, a picture hanging on the wall. A typical room in a sacristy, if it weren’t for the bed. It stood in the centre of the room. Today Irena can’t remember if it was metal or wooden, but it definitely had leather straps hanging from it - for the hands, feet, stomach and knees. She remembers the straps well because a moment later they cut into her body and chafed her skin until it bled. Next to the bed was an array of objects laid out as if for an operation – a stole, a purple prayer book, a ciborium with Communion bread, reliquaries, crosses. She began to panic, telling the priest she had a heart condition and begging him to let her go, but he paid no attention. She knew what he was thinking: Satan is a fraud, he’ll do anything to avoid contact with something holy. The priests’ assistants grabbed her and a moment later she was lying on the bed, strapped down so she could no longer move.
From Exorcisms by Father René Chenesseau, an experienced French exorcist: “Negotiating with Satan is a temptation that is in no way reserved for terrible creatures. There are many people who enter an agreement with Satan: they are tempted by the promise of power and influence (the Beast that comes from the sea) or by the gift of particular beauty, pride and intelligence (the Beast that comes from the earth).”
Since her earliest childhood, Irena had never liked praying. Perhaps it was because of her aunt who lived next door and was extremely religious. Every day she came to Irena and her parents’ house (in central Poland) and helped look after her. As soon as they were left alone, she ordered Irena to kneel, to say the rosary, to listen to Radio Maria. She wasn’t allowed to eat her dinner or play until she had said her prayers. She wanted to just them rattle off but was told that was bad, because prayers must be said with feeling. She cried when her parents went out because she didn’t want to be left alone with her aunt.
Or perhaps she didn’t like praying because of the parish priest? Towards the end of primary school she went on a youth camp organised by the Church. On the last night she slipped out of her hut in the middle of the night to return a friend’s purse. As punishment she was made to collect some pinecones and kneel on them in front of the parish priest, who was sitting on a chair. Then he made her do bows and press-ups. It lasted many hours. Suddenly she fainted. She came to as a priest was carrying her, with a woman next to him saying they needed to call an ambulance. The priest told the woman not to get involved. Irena never told anyone about what happened.
In secondary school her aversion to the Church grew deeper. Irena shut herself away, began wearing black clothes and listening to dark music. She didn’t want to go to confirmation class. She managed to persuade her parents that not going would leave her more time for her studies.
Around this time she met a girl with similar interests and musical tastes. At one point they made a short film parodying a TV programme in which ordinary apartments were transformed into ultra-modern ones. The cupboard became a “recording studio”, the nightstand became a “cinema”, the chest of drawers, a “candlelit dinner”. They thought it was very funny, but her aunt was of a different opinion. She told her parents it was a black mass.
She began searching through Irena’s belongings, finding notes, drawings, alleged proof of the Devil’s influence, which she showed Irena’s parents. So then they too began to worry that something was wrong with their daughter. They took her to a psychologist. He explained that it was perfectly normal teenage behaviour. It would pass by itself, they shouldn’t worry about it, and should just talk to her more.
But they also began to force her to go to Church. That annoyed her because she didn’t believe in God. She sat in the pews, anger growing inside her, feeling short of breath. Her parents and aunt nudged her if she didn’t cross herself, reprimanded her if she didn’t kneel properly.
Her aunt went from house to house talking about Irena and her friend: “Be careful, they’re in a satanic sect. Protect your children!” It was a small town, around 30,000 inhabitants, so rumour spread fast. People threw stones at them, chased them with sticks and threw eggs at their homes.
From Exorcisms: “Signs of demonic possession are as follows: saying a fairly long chain of words in an unknown language or understanding such speech without prior knowledge; revealing remote facts or secrets; showing exceptional physical strength that exceeds the age and physical condition of the possessed person.”
Later in secondary school, Irena met other, more religious people. She began going to a weekly Catholic youth meeting with a new friend. Partly for fun, partly out of curiosity. Prayers, discussion, games. She was always late for prayers, but found the theological discussions interesting. The group leader soon discovered that Irena listened to metal and knew the singer of one of the bands. She was horrified and said Irena should immediately cut all contact with him, that exorcism would be appropriate. Irena argued that she didn’t need it, but the other participants seized on the idea and kept repeating that she had spiritual problems.
That amused Irena, but she also began to wonder: “Well yes, once I did feel bad in a Church. And I have had blasphemous thoughts.” She stopped being late for prayers. She wanted to see what would happen. And indeed, she felt strange. Everyone could see that she fidgeted, that she kept leaving the room. Once she came to the meeting and discovered that the session was entirely devoted to prayer. The room was dark, there was a candle burning, and the leader was chanting prayers to the Holy Spirit as though in a trance. Suddenly Irena was short of breath. At the next meeting, the group began to recite prayers over her. She panicked. She wanted to leave but they surrounded her, placing their hands on her head. She became hysterical, fell to the floor in convulsions, shouting, writhing. She broke a table. At one point an exorcist priest arrived.
After that she stopped going to the youth group meetings, but everyone insisted that she should see an exorcist. She gave in.
Father M. offered his services in the neighbouring parish. There was a special room for the meetings – stairs going down, large doors, behind them a sort of chapel: pews, a picture on the wall, a small podium and a radiator. At the start they were alone in that small room. She confessed her sins and then the priest prayed over her in a monotone, trance-like, repeating the same sentences over and over. For an hour. She went there once a week for several months.
During the prayers, Irena would fall into that strange state. First she was afraid, telling the priest she had to leave because she felt ill; he replied that it was Satan, the great fraud, who wanted to escape the prayers. Then she shouted and swore. She tried to escape from the room, breaking free and thrashing about. So Father M. began to invite other priests to the small room to help restrain her. Sometimes there were several of them – possibly even lay people in normal clothes. They were always men. Each had his own idea about what to add to the exorcism. They tied her to the radiator so that she banged her head against it, they lay on her and pressed down with their whole body so that she couldn’t move, so she felt like her blood stopped circulating. They put their hands under her clothes, which slipped off during the struggles, so that sometimes she was practically naked (they said the Devil feared the touch of clerics’ hands). They rubbed holy oils into intimate areas (they said the breasts and vagina were the parts most vulnerable to the Devil’s work). Father M. kissed her on the lips (he said it was the “kiss of the Holy Spirit”). Another priest, a friend of Father M., was particularly brutal: he grabbed her by the throat and strangled her, twisting her arms and holding her for many hours until she bruised. She protested, begged them to stop, but was always told it was just the voice of the Devil.
The exorcisms became longer. Sometimes they took place every day, for ten hours. She just waited for the moment when she’d grow faint and the priests would have a break. They talked, some smoked cigarettes. They discussed her body openly. “Nice tits, not a bad arse” – she heard. Father M. told them what she’d told him in confession.
Today Irena doesn’t remember how the priest got in touch with her parents. Did he ask her mother to pick her up after one of the sessions? Did her mother see her coming home bruised, with matted hair, her clothes stiff from the holy oils, blood (she’d often bite through her lip during the exorcisms), and urine (the priests didn’t let her go to the toilet, saying it was the devil trying to escape) and forced her daughter to admit she was visiting the priest?
Even if her parents were worried about her, Father M. dispelled their doubts. He made a very good impression on them – sure of himself, charismatic. He calmly explained to them that their 16-year-old daughter had serious problems with demons.
Loss of Faith
From Exorcisms: “The Devil attacks supernatural virtues above all: faith, hope and love. (...) What can a tormented person do, when they can’t fight, to keep their faith?”
Irena is slim and delicate, with long curly hair. She is dressed in black, with red and purple elements. She’s just left hospital.
“My personality smashed like a mirror” she tells us, recalling those two and half years in secondary school when she saw Father M.. “On the one hand there was that old, dark Irena inside me, but a new person also appeared – I gave her various names. She thought I really did have spiritual problems and that I ought to work on them. When I wrote a diary I often wrote about her in the third person: “That stupid Kinga went to the priest again.””
Because the truth is that she went to the Church voluntarily. Why? Irena hated Father M. for what he did to her. But that Kinga inside her adored him, he was a father to her, it fascinated her that he fought demons.
After about a year of exorcisms she spent two weeks living in a house by the Church. The priest was planning a series of exorcisms day after day and wanted her to be near. She was actually pleased about it, because she couldn’t stand being at home: she didn’t want her parents to see her in such a state. During the day there were exorcisms and at night Father M. slept in her bed with her. He said he would look after her, protect her from demons. There was nothing sexual about it – he just slept next to her.
Irena was in an increasingly bad way. School was hard. Since she’d started going to the exorcisms her grades had suffered. She missed a lot of lessons, but her parents and form tutor somehow pushed her up from one schoolyear to the next.
Initially, she would fall into her hysterical states only during prayers, but then it started happening at home too. Perhaps because, on the priest’s advice, her parents threw out all her books, drawings and soft toys? The room was just bare walls and furniture. They also banned her from seeing her friends, leaving her totally isolated. Or perhaps it was because the priest told her parents to say prayers over her at home as well? In any case, she barely slept at night, or would drift off only to wake up a moment later. During the day she could sit still and absent for hours on end. She constantly had the feeling she ought to escape. She would slip out of the house and wander the neighbourhood aimlessly. She started to self-harm. She even tried to kill herself. She slit her wrists and lay down in the bath. Her parents found her unconscious, they wrapped her naked in a rug and went to the priest.
Not much later, after about two and half years of exorcisms, when she was reaching the end of secondary school, Father M.’s mother died. He ended the sessions in the church basement. He said “the Devil wanted to destroy him”. He gave Irena’s parents the details of other exorcists.
A Cross as an Opening Device
From Exorcisms: “An imprisoned soul may behave paradoxically and accept its enslavement together with all its terrible consequences, as did the holy martyrs, purely so that through their faith others might be saved.”
After her final school exams, Irena’s parents began to take her from one exorcist to another. She doesn’t remember much of the two years that followed. She confuses dates and places, the only constant is a feeling of resignation.
Not all the priests were cruel. There were some who asked her if they could perform an exorcism on her. She refused and that was the end of it. There were others who tied her to a chair and poured buckets of holy water on her.
But there were also some like Father P. from a church in the south of Poland who took her to the strange small room which had the bed with straps. There were two priests and several, even over a dozen, lay people. They were all praying loudly together. Once she was strapped to the bed, the priests started trying to cut her fingernails. Father P. was afraid she might scratch him. They used a surgical knife and she clenched her fists, so she bled. Then, to the rhythm of prayers they put a cross in her mouth so she would accept Christ. She felt her gums bleed. Once they’d opened her mouth using the cross as an opening device, they blocked her nose and poured exorcised holy water into her mouth. She gagged and choked but couldn’t even move her head. Then they placed a ciborium, a small metal monstrance, on her breasts and pushed so hard that bruises appeared.
These exorcisms lasted many days, and during that time she lived with her parents in a boarding house of a friend of Father P’s. In the breaks she tried to contact a friend, asking him to come and fetch her. It turned out those conversations were overheard. The plan didn’t work.
Her parents also twice took her to a controversial charismatic priest, Father Bashobora. He wasn’t performing in stadiums back then but in smaller towns, in sports halls. The first time, he just told her she had problems with self-esteem. But the second time, volunteers tried to drag her onto the stage in the sports hall so that the Father could pray over her. She fled to the broom cupboard. She was terrified, convinced the only way out of there would be in an ambulance. She went to the bathroom and drank some heavily salted water. She began to be sick. But they said it was a manifestation of Satan, who wanted to avoid the exorcism. They dragged her to the stage. An older priest saw what was happening and told them to leave her alone.
“I was overcome by a feeling of resignation,” Irena says today. “The priests often said that perhaps this was my fate, that the demons would never leave and I had to accept this suffering. There was a moment when I accepted the thought that I had to die for the sins of the world like Anneliese Michel.”
In 1978 a court in Germany convicted two exorcist priests and the parents of 24-year-old Anneliese Michel for manslaughter, having subjected her to a series of exhausting exorcisms. They were given a suspended one year prison sentence. But the Church takes the view that the girl was a martyr who died for the sins of other people.
We go to a service to heal the sick and cast out demons, which is held once a month by Father M. – the same man who exorcised Irena for nearly three years. It’s the middle of the week, in the evening. First, there’s a mass. All the pews are full. Most people are aged between 35 and 50. After the mass, a service. People take plastic bottles of water and small packs of salt from their shopping bags. Father M. – around fifty years old, short, energetic – walks around the Church and sprinkles salt into each bottle. The organist sings another hymn, and whoever has received the salt may drink from the bottle. Some do it greedily. They share the bottle with their family. After each mouthful a look of blessed satisfaction appears on their faces – because thanks to the priest’s blessing, this is no longer ordinary water or ordinary salt. A mouthful drives away illnesses and demons. You can also sprinkle drops on an argumentative mother-in-law, an unfaithful husband, an aggressive neighbour or dishonest boss.
In Poland there are about 150 churches that hold monthly masses and services to heal the sick and cast out demons. Busses full of people attend them.
Exorcisms involve prayer, not putting crosses in the mouth, rubbing oil into the vagina and breasts, waterboarding with holy water, arm twisting. Anything other than prayer goes against the Church’s guidelines.
There were 55 exorcists in Poland in 2005, and about one hundred in 2018. They are nominated by bishops. Why this swiftly growing need? According to Elżbieta Morawiec, a Catholic journalist, the Devil’s attack began seven years ago. In the “Niedziela” [“Sunday”] newspaper, Morawiec writes: “There is no doubt that Satan struck Poland particularly hard after 10th April 2010, after the tragedy in Smoleńsk. Drunken hordes ridiculing prayer and those who pray, the desecration of the cross at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw with the full approval of the authorities – that’s where it started.”
We return to Father M.’s church a few days later, to find out what he thinks constitutes evidence of possession. There are over a dozen people in the queue to the stall where Father M hears confession, including us. We pretend to be siblings. Ula goes first.
“I don’t know what to say. My brother sent me to you because he thinks I have a spiritual problem.”
“Tell me a bit about yourself. How old are you?”
“Are you single or in a relationship?”
“I’ve been in a relationship with an older man for a few years.”
“Do you live together?”
“Is anything bad happening in your life?”
“During the day I sit at home, watching series on TV, and at night I can’t sleep, my mind races with thoughts.”
“Yes. And fear.”
“Do you have experience of a bad presence? Have you seen anything bad? The Devil, for instance?”
“Not the Devil... But I have the feeling something terrible is about to happen. I’ve been to a psychiatrist who prescribed me anti-depressants, but they didn’t help. Yoga helps.”
“Have you practised yoga for long?”
“Well, there’s your answer. Yoga opens you up to the work of an evil spirit.”
“But it’s just exercise...”
“It’s not just exercise. Yoga is about opening chakras, which lets in the evil spirit. As well as that, you live with a man out of wedlock and you probably commit impure acts. Are there impure acts or not?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You don’t want to because you don’t go to confession. Look at the state of you, my child – this hasn’t come from nowhere. These are very dangerous things. Yoga opens you up to the work of demons.”
“But there are yoga schools everywhere.”
“And look how infected the world is today. It’s good you came to a priest who knows a bit about spiritual threats. I won’t describe to you what happens in exorcisms. The Devil wants to destroy a person, and yoga is one of the most serious ways. And that’s precisely because it involves relaxation exercises, which seem good but actually cause enslavement, distancing from God, a bad mental state.”
“So what should I do?”
“Move out today. If he loves you, if it’s true love, he won’t live in sin. You need to confess properly and confess all of your sins. You have the best proof that sins destroy a person. Then say the rosary and ask the Blessed Virgin for help, for her to guide you out of this state, to show you what you have to do.”
“Do you think I’m under the influence of evil spirits?”
“Precisely. Now I will pray over you, as much as I can.”
We get in touch with Father M. as journalists. He agrees to speak with us.
“I’ve carried out difficult exorcisms on two young women. These were cases where manifestations occurred during church services.”
“What are manifestations?”
“Demons spoke through the women – they shouted, trembled, panic erupted in the church. I spent hundreds of hours on exorcisms, up to nine hours a day, sometimes until three or four in the morning.”
“One Polish exorcist said that demons are situated in specific human organs, often in the vagina and breasts. Do you also believe that?”
“It can be assumed that much enslavement happens through impure sins. That’s why it’s said that the Devil is situated in intimate areas. That becomes dangerous for the exorcists themselves. But ultimately there’s no need to touch the person being exorcised, because “contactless” prayer frees them, not touching the breasts or vagina. Even if that can be tempting. Honestly. Nature is what it is. You have to be pure to undertake this kind of thing.”
“We have information that you touched one of the women in intimate places.”
“When someone is shaking, you hold them, and it’s impossible to avoid touching intimate areas – it’s one body, you touch different parts. Even if that kind of contact happened, it wasn’t intentional.”
“She says holy oils were rubbed into her breasts and vagina.”
“We’re talking about hundreds of hours, sometimes I was on my own, but I wouldn’t do that kind of thing. If undressing occurs, then it’s a difficult matter for a priest. That’s when you see if a person has a pure heart, if he’s able not to exploit that and approach the matter with love. On more than one occasion I thanked Jesus Christ for protecting me.”
“Accidental undressing as a result of trying to break free?”
“Not necessarily. There was a situation where the individual exposed themselves in front of the Holy Sacrament. It happened during an exorcism in the presence of several people.”
“Are these individuals restrained?”
“Yes, that helps prayer. And it’s for the safety of the person being exorcised, because the body is under the dominion of the Devil. Exorcists even have special beds with straps to hold people down. We wrapped one of the men we exorcised in a carpet. It was terrific. It was like he was in a tube. But he still managed to get out.”
“Where did this all take place?”
“In the basement, in the lower church, and no one knew about it. It isn’t fit to pass on what sometimes happened down there.”
“One of the women says that you and other priests lay down on her with your whole bodies.”
“That’s correct. For completeness’ sake, I should add that her parents also lay on her, trying to restrain their daughter, when the manifestation occurred between the church and the presbytery. The demons’ strength is so strong that you have to ask other priests for help.”
“Maybe she tried to break free because she was protecting herself?”
“This was superhuman strength, which the church canon states is proof of the Devil’s work. After everything I’ve been through – and I’ve been through a bit – I’ve confined myself to the confessional. I don’t meet people now outside the confessional.”
“Because after those earlier experiences I came to believe that if there is sin, it must be confessed for there to be liberation. If someone wants to meet me outside the confessional then they should find another exorcist.”
“The women say you kissed them and said they were kisses of the Holy Spirit.”
“If I had to swear I hadn’t done that, I could be lying. But I don’t remember that happening. Kisses are a common act in the Church. They definitely weren’t kisses in intimate areas. If this all has to be made public, then publish it. But I don’t see what use it would be, revealing intimate affairs.”
“And why do you think there is such a great need for exorcists in Poland?”
“There are many openings to evil. God only knows what will happen to all those children who watched and read Harry Potter. It contains fragments of Satan’s Bible, it contains hidden pacts. Who will lead those children back to the right path?”
The second exorcist, Father P., who led Irena to the room with the bed with the straps, stopped being an exorcist last year, and is now a hospital chaplain. He doesn’t want to talk to us. The curia won’t tell us why he stopped being an exorcist.
From Exorcisms: “Exorcism is such a great gift of God that it often exceeds our imagination, it is so surprising that people who are granted such favour may be considered enlightened.”
Over the several years when Irena’s parents took her from one exorcist to another, they sometimes left her for a few days or weeks in various monasteries. Exorcisms took place in some, not in others, and that’s where she felt best, they were moments of respite. But unpleasant situations still happened. One priest lay with her at night and said that if she was afraid she could always hold on to “Daddy’s finger”, implying his penis. Another said that he had to masturbate because of her. In the last monastery one evening she was drinking alcohol with some volunteers. One of them took advantage of her when she was drunk. She told the priest, and in the evening she got a text message from him: “If you try to harm those in my care, you’ll regret it.”
After that, something inside her snapped. She’d already tried repeatedly to tell her parents what the exorcisms were like, but they didn’t believe her. Her mother said the priests were trying so hard to help her and yet there she was, badmouthing them. The same thing happened this time.
A friend helped her. Together they planned her escape from the family home. She quickly packed a few things and moved to a bigger town. That was three years ago. She moved in with her friend and was overwhelmed by a giant emptiness. For nearly five years, every day was filled with exorcisms and spiritual struggle, and now it was over. She was depressed for several months. Role-playing games helped. The world began to fascinate her, she absorbed everything as if she were a small child. She found work in a restaurant, and decided to apply to university to study art.
The hysterical states stopped as if by magic, as soon as she broke off with the Church. Earlier, when Father M. was exorcising her, she’d spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. The priest was going on holiday and said that someone ought to keep an eye on her during that time. Her parents had to go to work, so together they agreed to put her in hospital. She was told there that she had dissociative disorders. She didn’t pay attention to it then, but today she understands that those states were a psychological defence against what went on in the church basements. Today she feels well again. All that remains of the exorcisms is pain in the chest, damaged cervical vertebrae, and jamming in her fingers. Sometimes she still has panic attacks when she thinks she sees Father M. somewhere. Her therapist says it could be post-traumatic stress disorder.