An Auckland priest tells Cherie Howie how and why he drives out demons.

Unlike the possessed teenage girl in 1970s blockbuster The Exorcist, heads don't spin and he's never seen green vomit.

But screaming, name calling, spitting, increased physical strength and dramatic vocal changes — that can be all in a day's work for a Catholic priest who has, for more than a decade, performed exorcisms on those he believes are possessed.

"[One thing that happens] is the voices change and people will speak in, for want of a better word, a demonic voice ... sometimes we ask demons to name themselves. It can be death, lust. The seven deadly sins are frequent visitors."

The Auckland diocese priest agreed to be interviewed about the ritual under the condition he wasn't identified.

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The rite of exorcism is performed by priests appointed by the bishop of their diocese and only that person can reveal who they are, he said.

"It's a protective measure."

But he spoke at length about the rite of exorcism — his belief in it, how it's performed and what he's experienced.

It wasn't a role he sought, the priest said.

He was asked by his bishop and saw it as part of the job — in the gospels, Jesus cast out devils, he said.

'The devil doesn't want to blow his own trumpet'

The priest, who works with the assistance of two parishioners, partly because "you've got to have a lot of eyes and ears", said most legitimate referrals came from others.

"What we often find with the self-referral is, we are not dealing directly with the devil ... because the devil doesn't want to blow his own trumpet."

But all those needing help were treated with respect.

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"Very often, they're hurting."

Under church policy, an interview must take place first. He then used "the gift of discernment" to decide whether possession had occurred.

"How do you know whether it's demonic or mental health? Because many people with mental health issues hear voices and that's not necessarily demonic.

"One of the first answers we will look for is: Are you on medication? Have you got a diagnosed mental health illness? Nine out of 10 cases say yes."

Overseas churches had recruited doctors and psychologists to assist, something he was trying to do here.

Among requests for exorcism he'd turned down was one from the parents of a man aged in his late teens, later found to have a medical condition.

"They hadn't taken him to a doctor ... they wanted Jesus to fix it."

Full possession 'rare'

There were "many openings into the occult", the priest said.

"Drugs, alcohol, sexual abuse, indecency, sexual irresponsibility, various other addictions. I'm not saying these are necessarily demonic, but they are doors into a way of life ... into the demonic world."

Catholic theology described the potential outcomes as being three things — oppression, such as addiction, infestation, such as feeling as though someone is lying on you at night, or possession, when someone was possessed by the devil or demons.

"With the help of the Holy Spirit we try to discern where we are at ... full possession is rare. There's a lot more oppression and infestation."

Exorcisms, which were requested roughly every few months, and occasionally at the request of non-Catholics, could be over in a few minutes or take hours.

With a stole around his neck and a crucifix in his hand, the process could include the use of holy water or oil, dabbing salt on the tip of the recipient's tongue, and prayers read from a large, black clear file folder carrying perhaps 50 pages.

The moment of exorcism brought a feeling of peace, the priest said.

"That's the one thing Satan can't fabricate. And often the people will be quite emotional."

His own initial nerves while performing the rite, which can also be learned at a special course at the Vatican, quickly disappeared.

He was "exercising the authority of the bishop" and coming from a stronger place than the devil, he said.

"You don't have to be mad to do this."

He had this response to non-believers.

"If you can look at the world and see everything as good, then I'm a charlatan. Just use your eyes ... the whole abortion issue ... youth suicide, so many social issues that are obviously not of human making, there's something deeper behind it."

Almost every religion has had problems with exorcisms - expert

Freedom of religion and belief is protected in New Zealand under the Bill of Rights and no laws regulate rituals such as exorcisms.

Police were not immediately able to confirm whether they had a record of complaints against the ritual, as statistics were not collated that way.

Massey University religion expert Professor Peter Lineham said religions could infringe personal liberties because if a person was believed to be under the control of a demon, then they could be assumed to have lost the ability to control themselves.

"So, the things that secular people might regard as automatic, that people need to give consent etc, there's almost an argument against that from the belief in the devil. That's where it gets very messy."

For that reason the Catholic and Anglican churches, who were mostly called on to do exorcisms — in some cases by those from other faiths — were, by authorising people to conduct exorcisms, trying to control them and ensure safety, Lineham said.

Professor Peter Lineham from Massey University. Photo / File
Professor Peter Lineham from Massey University. Photo / File

"The rules the recognised Christian churches use are pretty tight. They would actually be restricted by the willingness of the person to consent."

Based on overseas literature, almost every religion had had problems with exorcisms going wrong, he said.

"Effectively for the Catholic use of exorcism [now] they would use candles, holy oils, and the cross ... increasingly those rules have been tightened up so there's not going to be the yelling, there's not going to be the endless use of things that could be dangerous."

Belief stronger in Polynesians, Pentecostals

Two years ago Auckland nurse Ketina Chivasa complained to police after alleging a travelling pastor punched her in the face to cleanse her of demons at a Te Atatu event targeted at the African community. Police spoke to others at the event but didn't find enough evidence "to warrant further investigation".

In 2007 Wainuiomata woman Janet Moses drowned when water was forced into her mouth during a ritualistic procedure to remove a mākutu (curse). Five relatives were convicted of manslaughter.

Wellington coroner Ian Smith later recommended families consult experts, such as a tohunga (healer), where mākutu is suspected so the correct expert advice was available, which would help ensure actions are lawful.

Belief in personal devils was more common in Polynesian environments, Lineham said.

"These days Europeans don't talk much about haunting, but a lot of Polynesians do."

The casting out of demons was also common in Pentecostal churches, where followers might believe a demon is to blame for something going wrong in their life.

"Pentecostals are inclined to find demons under just about every stone or every piece of bad behaviour."

But most people would "have no room" for the idea of devils, demons and exorcisms, Lineham said.

"It's important to understand that the common view in our society is that this is nonsense."

THE CATHOLIC EXORCISM RITUAL EXPLAINED

- Only a bishop or priests appointed by the bishop of their diocese can perform exorcisms for the Catholic Church.

- There is no charge for an exorcism to be performed.

- An interview, including questions about mental health, takes place before it is decided whether exorcism is needed.

- The Catholic ritual is called the rite of exorcism.

- The rite can include the use of holy water or oils, salt and prayers. A stole - a priestly garment like a scarf - is also worn and a crucifix held.

- Exorcisms can be performed on houses, as well as people.

- The Catholic church is sometimes asked by those from other faiths, or no faith, to perform an exorcism.

- The Vatican has held courses in exorcism for more than a decade - US media reported in 2015 that interest in the course was growing.