It's a summer evening and a group of priests and nuns gather together in a small chapel. Despite the warmth outside, a chill has settled over the group.
They pray over a woman who appears listless, than her movements become agitated. Different voices come from her mouth. One is masculine and throaty, another high-pitched and the third speaks in Latin.
One in the group sprinkles regular water on her and there is no reaction from the woman, however when holy water is used, she screams in pain. The priests continue with their prayers.
"Leave her alone, you f***ing priests," the guttural voice shouted. "Stop, you whores. ... You'll be sorry."
This is not playing out in a Hollywood studio, but in an actual exorcism.
There is one person there who many do not imagine would be part of the team. His name is Dr. Richard Gallagher, a board-certified psychiatrist and professor
When he studied medicine at Yale, he did not imagine he would find himself participating in an exorcism. He thought that stories telling of possession of humans by invading demons, were just folklore or ancient man's attempt to explain epilepsy or other brain diseases.
If you believed in science, you could not believe in this.
However Dr. Gallagher has become a member of the network of exorcists and those who assist them throughout the United States. He knows now demonic possession is real, and he cannot ignore the evidence he has seen. Items hurdling by themselves from a shelf, people speaking in different languages including Latin, and most disturbing of all, when they have knowledge of events they could possibly not have known about.
"There was one woman who was like 90 pounds soaking wet. She threw a Lutheran deacon who was about 200 pounds across the room," he says. "That's not psychiatry. That's beyond psychiatry."
For over 25 years, he has acted as a consultant for clergy in order to distinguish between a true case of possession versus mental illness. He has witnessed enough exorcisms to know that everything about it is real.
"Whenever I need help, I call on him. He's so respected in the field. He's not like most therapists, who are either atheists or agnostics," says the Rev. Gary Thomas, . The movie The Rite was based on Thomas' work.
Gallagher is emphatic when he says that possession, is rare -- but real.
"I spend more time convincing people that they're not possessed than they are," he says.
So how does a "man of science" get pulled into the world of demonic possession?
His short answer: He met a queen of Satan.
A middle-age woman, wearing black clothes, and eye-shadow to match came to see Dr. Gallagher. She was the queen of a satanic cult.
Dr. Gallagher gave her the pseudonym of "Julia."
The priest at her parish referred her to an exorcist, who then turned to Gallagher for a mental health evaluation. She claimed she was being attacked by demons; but why would a satanist be uncomfortable with this?
"She was conflicted," Gallagher says. "There was a part of her that wanted to be relieved of the possession."
This was one of Dr. Gallagher's first cases, and what he witnessed changed him.
He helped to organize a team to perform the exorcism. They gathered at the chapel of a house.
"Objects would fly off shelves around her. She somehow knew personal details about Gallagher's life: how his mother had died of ovarian cancer; the fact that two cats in his house went berserk fighting each other the night before one of her sessions."
One day Gallagher was speaking to one of the priests, when both of them heard one of the demonic voices coming from Julia when she was in trance. She was thousands of miles away.
He says he was never afraid. "It's creepy," he says. "But I believe I'm on the winning side."
As to science, he says that a true scientist will go where the facts lead him, even if it strays into uncomfortable areas.
He grew up in a Irish Catholic family but never thought much about possession.
"I don't believe in this stuff because I'm Catholic," Gallagher said. "I try to follow the evidence. We had a sensational childhood. My mother and father were great about always helping neighbors or relatives out."
His mother was a homemaker, and his father an attorney who fought in WWII.
The Church's Rite of Exorcism was first published in 1614 by Pope Paul V.
Rev. Mike Driscoll, author of Demons, Deliverance, Discernment: Separating Fact from Fiction about the Spirit World, wrote, "A line (in the rite) said that the exorcist should be careful to distinguish between demon possession and melancholy, which was a catchall for mental illness. The church knew back then that there were mental problems. It said the exorcist should not have anything to do with medicine. Leave that to the doctors."
Spirit possession is addressed by other religions beside Catholicism. Jewish and Muslim tradition believe this is possible.
Dr. Mark Albanese, a friend of Gallagher's said that among health professionals a patient's spiritual beliefs should be incorporated into their treatment.
He cites the example of multiple personalities (dissociative identity disorder) which was once discounted by physicians is now considered a disorder with a model for identifying symptoms and treatment.
Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, a psychiatrist was asked to review a videotape of an exorcism which he dismissed as being a product of untreated mental illness.
He and a colleague were asked to examine and treat a young woman who believed she was possessed. After several months they stopped because they made no progress.
However something strange was happening during those months he was treating her. At home in the evenings, his lights would go off by themselves, objects on shelves would fall for no reason and he suffered from terrible headaches.
One day he told his colleague about his experiences, and she admitted she was having the same thing happen to her.
He said, "I had to sort of admit that I didn't really know what was going on. Because of the bizarre things that occurred, I wouldn't say that (demonic possession) is impossible or categorically rule it out ... although I have very limited empirical evidence to verify its existence."
Driscoll, the Catholic priest who wrote a book about possession, said, "I have seen it take four grown guys to hold one small woman down. When a person has no fear and is not in their right mind and they don't care about hurting themselves or hurting others, you can see heartbreaking things."
Gallagher says demons are known for sowing doubt, and will avoid being recorded. He says he sees his work with the possessed as an extension of his responsibilities as a doctor.
The late Dr. M. Scott Peck, author of the The Road Less Traveled, conducted two exorcisms, something which Dr. Gallagher thinks was dangerous.
As to what happened with Julia, unsurprisingly her story did not have a happy ending. Exorcists worked with her, until once days she stopped participating. She didn't want to lose some of the abilities she displayed during her trances. A year passed and Dr. Gallagher had not heard from Julia until she called him. She said she was dying of cancer.
Her response when he offered her help with a team of priests was, "Well, I'll give it some thought."
That was the last he heard of her.
Article originally appeared on CNN HEALTH
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