Exorcising Anneliese

On March 30, 1978 at a district court in northwest Bavaria, Pastor Ernst Alt and Father Arnold Renz went on trial for their role in the death of 23-year old Anneliese Michel.  Along with Anneliese's parents, the two clerics had been charged with negligent homicide after her death on July 1, 1976. In the months that followed, the judge who presided over the Klingenberg Case (as it is now known) sought to answer a fundamental question: are clerics liable for deaths that occur as a result of an exorcism?

Born on September 21, 1952 to a devoutly religious German family, Anneliese Michel's life began to change following her first epileptic seizure in 1968.  A Wurzburg neurologist later diagnosed her with grand mal epilepsy but Anneliese's bizarre symptoms and religious upbringing led her to suspect a darker reason for her illness. In addition to her seizures, she became increasingly depressed and entered a psychiatric hospital in June, 1970. Her lack of improvement (despite being placed on antidepressant and anti-seizure medication) caused her to lose confidence in conventional medicine.

Given her symptoms (including seeing "devil faces" during the day and hearing voices telling her that she was damned), Anneliese became convinced that she was demonically possessed. While cases involving belief in demonic possession or demonomania have been noted in the clinical literature, they are usually part of a broader psychiatric condition (and largely shaped by the patient's preexisting religious beliefs). For Anneliese Michel, her symptoms came to include intolerance of all religious symbols or sacred places. Although it was never directly linked to her case, the fact that The Exorcist was one of the big blockbuster movies of 1973 seems fairly relevant. Based on the 1971 bestseller by William Peter Blatty, the vivid images of Linda Blair's possession and exorcism sparked a mini-epidemic of exorcism hysteria around the world. Catholic Church authorities were besieged with requests for exorcisms. Anneliese Michel and her parents were hardly immune to the movie's influence and the similarities between Linda Blair's on-screen ravings and Anneliese's behaviour during her possessed episodes are apparent.

Anneliese's plea for an exorcism to cast out the demons possessing her was initially refused by the Catholic Church but her parents visited different pastors for help. At the time, permission for 330px-Saintfrancisborgia_exorcism[1]performing an exorcism could only be given by a bishop following a structured process for proving demonic possession (known as the Infestatio). Although the parents were told to let Anneliese's treatment continue, they still persisted. This permission was finally given by the Bishop of Wurzburg, Joseph Stangl, in 1975 following testimony by Anneliese's family and her pastor, Ernest Alt, that her condition was worsening despite psychiatric treatment. They stated that Anneliese was sleeping on a stone floor, eating spiders and flies, and tearing off her clothing. According to Anneliese, the demons possessing her included Judas Iscariot, Lucifer, Nero, Cain, and Hitler.

From September, 1975 to the following July, Ernest Alt and Father Arnold Renz performed daily exorcism sessions following the Ritual Romanum formula for exorcism. Anneliese's response to the exorcisms was certainly dramatic: she often needed to be held down or even physically restrained. Family members and visitors were usually in attendance and an extensive series of audio tapes were made to record the exorcism sessions. Despite the bizarre nature of Anneliese's actions before and during the sessions, nothing supernatural was ever actually seen although everyone present seemed convinced that what was happening was very real. Over the months that the exorcism sessions continued, Anneliese became visibly weaker. She often refused food and developed pneumonia. Her knees were eventually ruptured by her frequent kneeling and her parents had to help her as she became more emaciated. Anneliese Michel died on July 1st and a subsequent autopsy determined that the cause of death was malnutrition and dehydration due to her semi-starvation during the months that the exorcism took place.

While authorities began investigating Anneliese's death immediately, formal charges weren't laid against the parents and the priests for nearly two years. Bishop Stangl was also investigated but was not charged due to his poor health. Just before the trial was set to begin, Anneliese's parents arranged for the body to be exhumed. They wanted to see if the body was decomposing properly indicating that she was no longer possessed (it was).

When the trial finally began, prosecutors argued that the death could have been prevented if forced feedings had begun even a week before Anneliese died. The priests were defended by lawyers paid for by the church while the Michels were defended by one of Germany's top criminal lawyers. The trial was undoubtedly bizarre with tapes of the exorcism sessions being played by the defense to prove that she had been genuinely possessed. Doctors presented evidence for the prosecution arguing that Anneliese symptoms had been caused by Temporal Lobe epilepsy (now called Complex Partial Seizures epilepsy) influenced by her religious upbringing and sexual development issues. The prosecution also argued that the court needed to send a strong message to prevent other exorcism-related deaths - a very real concern given the exorcism mania that resulted from the Anneliese Michel case.

Anneliese's parents and the two exorcists were found guilty of manslaughter and received suspended sentences with probation. Although the Catholic Church had initially authorized the exorcism, it reversed its position after the verdict and declared that Anneliese was mentally ill. Despite the verdict, Anneliese Michel continues to be regarded by believers as someone who defeated the devil and her grave in Bavaria is still visited by religious pilgrims. The 2005 film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is (loosely) based on the case although it was written to make the exorcist as sympathetic as possible.  Youtube videos of the Anneliese Michel exorcism continue to be watched even today.

While exorcism-related deaths continue to occur, the Anneliese Michel case has made exorcists more aware of their legal liabilities. The Catholic Church revised its exorcism ritual in 1999 to ensure greater cooperation with mental health professionals although there are few other differences between the new and old rituals. Exorcism is still widely practiced in other cultures as well so future Anneliese Michel cases seem far too likely.

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