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Challenge for a religious journalist: how to handle a report about exorcism

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 30, 2014

How should a news service like CWN, dedicated to providing a Catholic perspective on current events, handle a story like this one, about a reported exorcism in Gary, Indiana?

It is a complicated story, with a very confused religious background. There are hints of dabbling in the occult, charges of neglect, and state intervention. Yet there are also reports, confirmed by independent witnesses, of levitation and inhuman movement and a bizarre injuries and a host of incidents that seem to defy the laws of physics. What makes the story particularly interesting is the fact that many secular observers, including police officials, welfare workers, and journalists apparently became convinced that a family suffered from demonic possession.

The story from Indiana, reminiscent of the film The Exorcist, has the potential to break through the wall of skepticism that ordinarily blocks public discussion of the supernatural. Yet it is a dangerous story to handle, for two reasons. First, because it could easily rouse an unhealthy interest in “spooky” mystical affairs, rather than a healthy interest in genuine religious belief. Second, because the story may be based on misunderstanding or hysteria or fraud.

In the life of the Catholic Church, extraordinary things happen every day. The Eucharist is celebrated; sins are absolved. These are realities far more momentous than the epiphenomena of the day’s news headlines. But we do not cover them, because although in one sense they are the only news that truly matters, in another sense they are not “news” stories at all. We carry reports of the workaday world: stories about developments in the natural order.

Still now and then the supernatural intrudes into the natural. Is that what happened in Gary, Indiana, in 2011? I don’t know. Maybe the strange events recorded in the Indianapolis Star story are exaggerated; maybe they can all be explained in terms of abnormal psychology. But quite a few people, many of them severely skeptical, were convinced that something beyond natural explanations had occurred.

A reporter can only ask and hope to answer the “W” questions: who, what, when, where, why. In a case like this there are no satisfactory answers, particularly to the questions of “who” and “why.” The Church sometimes renders a final judgment on the claims of extraordinary phenomena, but more often—as in this case—the Church is silent.

A family complained about demons. A priest (among others) found the complaints plausible. A bishop considered the evidence sufficient to warrant an exorcism. And finally the demonic influences (if that’s what they were) stopped. Those are the bare facts, as we know them. The true story? We don’t know.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Nuage - Feb. 01, 2014 9:43 PM ET USA

    In this case, at least 5 responsible, highly educated, professionals witnessed a young boy go up a wall backwards, move to the ceiling, and flip from upside down to the ground - impossible actions for a normal human being. Post Vatican II, along with the decline in the Catholic Church, there has been a dramatic rise in direct demonic activity in the US & Europe. Praise God that in 2008 Pope Benedict mandated that every Catholic diocese now once again HAS to have an exorcism ministry.

  • Posted by: New Sister - Jan. 31, 2014 10:32 PM ET USA

    apparently some doctors & nurses witnessed this, too. What will discredit the story, though, is the woman at the center - she can profit handsomely from it all.

  • Posted by: littleone - Jan. 31, 2014 10:31 PM ET USA

    Thank you.I do wish I had read it from you,first.Then I would have been spared the surprise of reading about it late last night,wondering how this story from Indianapolis had hit a UK newspaper,and I had not heard about it in the States,and might have avoided reading details that were emotionally and spiritually difficult for me.I see that you did have something on it yesterday,yet unfortunately I missed that.I will always appreciate hearing about things here, first. Blessings!!!