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Exorcists, Abusers, and When Catholic Historical past is Horror — The Revealer

(Picture: A scene from the 1973 movie The Exorcist)

Concerning the Catholic Horrors Collection: For the previous two centuries, Catholicism has performed a particular function in American horror tales. Throughout that point, the Catholic Church has been complicit in real-life horrors. On this three-part sequence, three students of American Catholicism – Jack Lee Downey, Matthew Cressler, and Kathleen Holscher – take into account Catholic horror as a cinematic and literary style alongside horrors dedicated by the Catholic Church and its leaders. In so doing, they discover horror as an aesthetic and as a solution to analyze and confront the shadow facet of Catholicism in North America. Learn half one here.


Warning: What you’re about to learn is true and includes Catholic clerical sexual abuse.

The priest arrived at night time. The mom was stunned to see him there so late. She let him in all the identical. A a lot youthful priest met him within the lobby. He spoke in hurried tones concerning the girl’s daughter. The elder priest stopped him. “I imagine we should always start.” The youthful frowned. “You imply now? Immediately?” “Sure, I feel so.” So the mom led them up the steps. They entered a room the place a twelve-year-old woman lay strapped to the mattress. The lads shut the door. They have been alone together with her now. They started working.

So begins the climactic scene in The Exorcist—each William Peter Blatty’s bestselling 1971 novel and William Friedkin’s 1973 cinematic basic. By the point these clergymen start the ceremony of exorcism, audiences have witnessed a mom and daughter’s life crumble. Regan is a cheerful younger woman firstly of the story. She quickly finds herself possessed by a demon. Her mom, Chris MacNeil, tries and fails to assist her. She brings Regan to psychiatrists and different medical professionals to no avail. With nowhere else to go, Chris turns to the Catholic Church. She urges a younger Jesuit priest and psychiatrist, Father Damien Karras, to intervene. Solely after he determines that Regan’s scenario “meets the situations set forth within the Ritual” does he consent to an exorcism. Jesuit Father Lankester Merrin, the titular exorcist, arrives on the MacNeil residence proper within the nick of time to battle the demon and try to purge Regan of Evil.

Therefore we discover two clergymen alone in a room with a twelve-year-old woman. It makes good sense within the story. Absent this context, nevertheless, that is the stuff of real-life horror. Variations on this scene have performed out a whole bunch of hundreds of occasions (at the least) in nations the world over for the higher a part of the previous century. They nonetheless do. After we encounter The Exorcist with full information of Catholic clerical sexual abuse it’s exhausting to not discover resonances between Catholic horror as a style and Catholic horrors in historical past. As Jack Lee Downey notes within the inaugural essay on this sequence, “public attentiveness to clerical abuse” has sparked a resurgence of Catholic horror “with priest villains counterbalancing The Exorcist-style cosmic superheroes.”

(Picture: A scene from The Exorcist)

Nonetheless, hero clergymen (and their lay Catholic surrogates) stay central to the horror style at the moment. Catholics, and clergymen specifically, usually appear to be the one characters in horror films able to seeing Evil for what it really is and sending it again to Hell. Studying horror and historical past collectively, nevertheless, reveals one thing way more disturbing than any scary film: it’s not a coincidence that hundreds of precise clergymen preyed on and abused victims whereas crowds packed theaters to observe fictional clergymen ship them from the Satan. The exact same non secular energy that propels hero clergymen in horror enabled predator clergymen to abuse with impunity.

The Hero Clergymen of Horror

Fathers Merrin and Karras rank first and second on Screenrant’s “10 Most Badass Priests in Horror Movies.” This listicle offers survey of hero clergymen through the years. In fact, horror didn’t invent the priestly protagonist. As spiritual research scholar Anthony Smith illustrates in The Look of Catholics, the center a long time of the 20 th century have been a heyday for Catholics in American cinema. Bing Crosby gained an Oscar for his efficiency as Father O’Malley in Going My Method (1944), and was nominated once more when he reprised the function in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). However horror established a particular function for clergymen. The Exorcist was essential on this regard. As movie critic Steven D. Greydanus notes in an essay for Decent Films, it offered “a pivotal hyperlink from the Catholic-inflected piety of Golden Age Hollywood and the demonic world of latter-day horror.” Clergymen have been key for the style ever since, dealing with down ghosts, demons, vampires, and even the occasional interdimensional entity.

Right here’s how the hero priest works in horror. The story inevitably begins with bizarre issues occurring—scratching within the partitions, knockings on the door, unusual smells, pets dying—however our unsuspecting victims assume there have to be some cheap clarification. Rats within the attic, maybe. Or possibly it’s psychological sickness. The hero priest arrives to show, each to the fictional victims and to the viewers, that Evil with a capital E is at work. The issue isn’t your own home, he declares, neither is it in your head. Some Factor is right here! Skeptics aren’t so simply satisfied, and the hero priest should do his due diligence and examine. When the case is made past a shadow of a doubt, he springs into motion and deploys an arsenal of Catholic paraphernalia—crucifixes, holy water, rosaries, you identify it—to save lots of the day.

(Picture: A priest arriving at night time to carry out an exorcism in The Exorcist)

This narrative arc—from doubt to perception to heroic intervention—accommodates an argument concerning the Catholic Church within the fashionable world. It makes a case for the fact of the supernatural and, in doing so, reinforces the ability of the “one true Church” with entry to it. On this sense, the hero priest is an instrument towards (what’s perceived to be) an more and more disenchanted world and an embodiment of nostalgia for a world populated by angels and demons.

The Exorcist set the template for this trope, but it surely has performed out repeatedly over the previous fifty years. The hero priest in Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) overtly disdains his clerical contemporaries for whom true “EVIL” has been diminished to the social and political issues of the postmodern world. “The Catholic Church has been pressured to reinterpret its entire method to evil,” Father Callahan laments within the novel. “[B]ombers over Cambodia, the warfare in Eire and the Center East, cop-killings and ghetto riots, the billion smaller evils loosed on the world every day like a plague of gnats.” Callahan yearns to wage warfare towards the true forces of darkness. (His want will come true by the top, and fairly tragically.)

Extra lately, the Conjuring Universe presents a brand new iteration of this argument for the clear and current hazard of supernatural evil. The massively profitable horror franchise is constructed across the exploits of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a real-life husband-and-wife pair of paranormal detectives (portrayed within the films by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Right here the function of “hero priest” is taken up by a lay Catholic couple. The Conjuring (2013) identifies Lorraine as “a gifted clairvoyant” and her husband as “the one non-ordained Demonologist acknowledged by the Catholic church.” This primary movie makes the case for supernatural realness in basic based-on-a-true-story style, weaving historic images into the top credit sequence as “proof.” The film ends with an epigraph:

Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are everlasting, and so they exist at the moment. The fairy story is true. The satan exists. God exists. And for us, as a individuals, our very future hinges upon which one we elect to observe.” – Ed Warren

Whether or not one follows the satan or God, the movie appears to say, they exist and we ignore them at our personal peril.

Supernatural horror is interesting for thus many as a result of it blurs the boundaries of what’s actual. (Christina Pasqua explores this dimension of horror in her review of Rose Glass’s Saint Maud.) As soon as once more, The Exorcist set the usual on this regard. Blatty based mostly his novel on the true story of a boy who underwent a ritual exorcism. Friedkin directed the movie as if it was a documentary. That is what made it so terrifying. It additionally appalled many critics. As spiritual research scholar Colleen McDannell notes, some critics didn’t know what to do with a movie that didn’t use “demonic possession as a metaphor” however as a substitute “was truly about demonic possession.” This studying of The Exorcist as actual has been handed on from technology to technology. In her 2017 memoir Priestdaddy, author Patricia Lockwood remembers her father introducing the movie to her like this: “This story is totally true, it occurred proper in St. Louis, and it’ll in the future occur once more….This was not a psychological disturbance. This was not puberty. Don’t hearken to the shrinks. This was the presence of evil, pure and easy.”

Abuser Clergymen in Historical past

The premise that propels Catholic horror is that the Church and its clerics are the one forces with the ability to go toe to toe with true Evil. That concept runs parallel to the logic that allowed Catholic clerical intercourse abuse to run rampant: the Church and its clergymen stand within the place of God on Earth, actually. Studying The Exorcist alongside clerical abuse illuminates these mirror logics. It’s, due to this fact, crucial that we converse concretely. Non secular research scholar Brian Clites argues that that is one solution to maintain ourselves accountable to survivors: by attending “to the precise dynamics that fashioned every survivor and every abuser.”

There are tragically numerous survivors and abuser clergymen we might focus on. Since The Exorcist is ready within the shadow of Georgetown College and facilities Jesuits, we might learn it alongside the fourteen priests, most of them Jesuits, related to the college who’ve been credibly or plausibly accused of abuse. Or we might focus on the case of David Morrier, the previous friar whose abuse of a feminine scholar on the Franciscan College of Steubenville included acts termed “exorcism” beneath Church legislation. However I’d like to sit down with the specificity of what survivors revealed about Father Nicholas V. Cudemo. Terry McKiernan, founding father of, an internet site devoted to documenting the Roman Catholic abuse disaster, launched me to this abuser priest’s file. I’ll always remember what I learn there. It raises an important query for our consideration: what will we do when historical past reads like a horror story?

(A word to readers: The first sources linked under come courtesy of Pseudonyms correspond to these assigned within the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report. Tom Roberts’ and Michael Newall’s reporting on the trial and investigation supplies helpful context. These all for exploring the sources needs to be warned: a number of the particulars within the recordsdata, and in what follows, are graphic.)

Born in 1936, Nicholas Cudemo was ordained as a priest in 1963 by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. His historical past of reported abuse started in 1964. We all know this as a result of an anonymous parishioner wrote a letter informing then-archbishop John Joseph Krol “that certainly one of our younger clergymen, ordained just a few years, has been concerned in a love affair.” It appeared an open secret that this thirty-year-old assistant pastor had a sexual relationship with a teenage woman, “a junior at our Lansdale Catholic Excessive College.” He joined the college of St. John Neumann Excessive College in 1968 and was transferred to Archbishop Kennedy Excessive College earlier than the varsity yr ended. Round that point a fellow priest instructed Cudemo to be “extraordinarily cautious in his habits with ladies” after he witnessed Cudemo “attempting to calm an hysterical woman” who “had a ‘crush’ on him.” A month later Cudemo was caught taking a unique “younger girl to his room for a half hour with the door closed.” Just like the unexplained happenings firstly of a horror film, warning indicators have been scattered throughout his first decade of ministry. Like a haunting misattributed to creaky floorboards, abuse was categorized as a “love affair” and dismissed because the “crush” of a “hysterical woman.” Indicators of what was to come back have been filed away in an archdiocesan secret archive.

(Picture supply: Getty Photographs)

The yr The Exorcist opened in theaters Cudemo moved to Cardinal Dougherty Catholic Excessive College, his third faculty task in 5 years. “Explicit friendships” with feminine college students, as archdiocesan officers termed them, motivated these transfers. We all know this due to the bravery of the survivors and their supporters who tried to cease him. In 1977, a mother and daughter informed then-Chancellor Francis Statkus that Cudemo was having intercourse with a excessive schooler and probably two of his personal nieces. Over the subsequent fifteen years, cardinal archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua would make Cudemo pastor of a parish twice regardless of a minimum of 4 separate studies of sexual misconduct.

The total extent of the horrors Cudemo perpetrated got here to mild within the fall of 1991 when 5 girls got here ahead. As summarized by a 2005 grand jury report, between 1964 and 1989 “Father Cudemo raped an 11-year-old woman, molested a fifth grader within the confessional, invoked God to seduce and disgrace his victims, and maintained sexually abusive relationships concurrently with a number of ladies from the Catholic faculty the place he was a trainer.”

That is the place I wish to pause and take a breath, on the sting of the abyss. What these girls instructed archdiocesan officers was deeply upsetting. It was disgusting. It was additionally frighteningly acquainted for anybody who has seen a Catholic horror film. In The Exorcist, sexual violence is central to the portrayal of Regan MacNeil’s transformation from daughter to disfigured monster. It’s ostensibly a demon who harms this woman, but what audiences witness seems like self-violence. That is exactly what makes it so stunning. Probably the most notorious scene is when a possessed Regan masturbates with a crucifix, shouting “Sure, let Jesus fuck you, fuck you fuck you!”

Rather more stunning than this film clip is the way it echoes real-life abuse. Abuser clergymen, Cudemo amongst them, drew on their non secular authority to groom victims and assuage others. They used spiritual objects of their abuse. They relied on the institutional energy of their workplace to guard them. Cudemo first raped Ruth, one of the survivors who spoke out in 1991, when she was 11 years outdated. He would hear her confession afterward, insisting that “solely after confessing was she ‘worthy of God’s love.’” He invited different clergymen to rape her. He sometimes included the Eucharist into ritual acts of rape, telling her “she had ‘fucked God’ or ‘fucked Jesus.’” He known as her a “strolling desecration.” Cudemo abused Ruth from 1971 till 1977.

Cudemo resigned in 1996, however Cardinal Bevilacqua permitted him to minister and say Mass as a retired priest in “good standing.” Cudemo died in 2021. Ruth continues to stay with the traumatic penalties of those occasions at the moment, as do the opposite survivors of his abuse.

Once more, what will we do when historical past reads like horror? I don’t imply this as a euphemism, as a elaborate manner of claiming “one thing horrible occurred.” I imply, fairly severely, what will we do when historical past mirrors the horror style’s conventions? William Peter Blatty might not have drawn particulars from contemporaneous clerical abuse to characterize demonic possession, however even when the connection isn’t causal that doesn’t imply it’s unintended. Hero clergymen of horror and abuser clergymen in historical past emerge, partly, from a standard supply: the presumed supernatural energy of the priesthood. Within the 1973 movie, Fathers Merrin and Karras famously command the demon, saying “THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELLS YOU!” In Seventies Philadelphia, Father Cudemo invoked that very same energy as he coerced and abused a dozen ladies (that we all know of). The non secular authority that empowers hero clergymen on the silver display is intimately sure up with the spiritual authority that enabled abuser clergymen to prey on and violate their victims.


The general public’s consciousness of rampant clerical sexual abuse is one purpose why horror movies are beginning to subvert the trope of the hero priest—generally deconstructing it altogether. The Conjuring Universe recasts the archetypal priest as a married lay couple and caricatures the Church as a hamstrung forms. (Within the first movie, the Vatican “approves” an exorcism solely after Ed Warren has already taken issues into his personal palms and saved the day.) Within the 2021 Netflix sequence Midnight Mass, it’s the priest who brings residence a monster that devours his neighborhood and, as I’ve written elsewhere, there are scenes that dramatize deference to male clerical authority in terrifying style. And there’s no priest in any respect in arguably probably the most compelling Catholic horror movie of the previous decade, Saint Maud (2021).

The best and affecting takedowns of the hero priest fable, nevertheless, are these created by survivors of clerical intercourse abuse themselves. Whereas the 2021 collaborative documentary Procession isn’t horror per se, the tales survivors inform draw on its conventions and aesthetics. Right here, six survivors—Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano—work with director Robert Greene, their lawyer Rebecca Randles, and drama therapist Monica Phinney to supply brief movies that assist them course of their abuse and its influence on their lives.

For filmmaker Skip Shea, himself a survivor, the style serves as an excellent area to confront evils which might be usually too painful for audiences to interact in different settings. He performs on this powerfully within the 2019 brief movie Priest Hunter, whose title is relatively self-explanatory, in addition to within the feature-length 2016 psychological horror movie Trinity, wherein an artist’s probability encounter with the priest who abused him triggers a surreal, nightmarish journey into his previous.

Countering the conclusion to The Exorcist—wherein we’re instructed Regan “doesn’t keep in mind any of it”—these necessary movies compel a confrontation with the real-life horrors wrought by Catholics and their church. They refuse to allow us to neglect.

Go to to analysis the abuse disaster within the Roman Catholic Church.


Matthew J. Cressler is affiliate professor of spiritual research on the School of Charleston. He’s the creator of Authentically Black and Really Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism within the Nice Migrations (NYU Press, 2017) and has written for The Atlantic, Slate, America, Zocalo Public Sq., Faith Information Service, and The Revealer.

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