Updated: Vatican steps back from Discovery's 'Exorcist Files'
Why would the Roman Catholic Church take part in a TV show about exorcisms when much of the public, even religious people, find the practice controversial at best, hokum at worst? Or did the Vatican ever really bless the upcoming cable project called "The Exorcist Files" in the first place?
News broke last week that Discovery Channel plans to launch the 10-episode series sometime this spring through an unprecedented partnership with the church. An initial report, confirmed by Discovery executives, said the Vatican was cooperating with the production and allowing access into its investigations of demonic possession.
[For the record: This post previously incorrectly gave the show's title as "The Exorcism Files."]
A Fox News story on Monday, quoting a Vatican communications source, now questions the church's involvement. But producers of "The Exorcist Files" insist that church officials gave the go-ahead because, without it, the ordained priests who work as exorcists would not have been able to participate in the project, which has been two years in the making.
"The stories we're telling come from the actual priests who have made this their life's work," said show creator and executive producer Gary Auerbach. "Each one had to get permission from his bishop to participate, so it was sanctioned at the local level."
He also met personally with several cardinals and bishops at the Vatican, whom he briefed on the show, "as a courtesy," but there was no formal deal, nor did he need to secure Vatican approval to go forward with the series, said Auerbach, whose GoGo Luckey Productions has churned out supernatural-themed shows before, along with the soapy "Laguna Beach."
In other words, the Vatican-based officials that Auerbach met with didn’t disapprove, which could have derailed the program, but they didn't actively partner on the series. The Vatican has its own branded and carefully controlled media outlets.
UPDATED: (Later Monday evening, Discovery officials released the following statement: "To ensure the accuracy and integrity of our content, we did meet in an unofficial capacity with individual members of the Vatican staff. We didn't intend to imply that we had a 'sanctioned' partnership.")
It sounds more forceful for a TV series to have backing from the Vatican, the Catholic Church's powerful administrative body, but network and production executives said they didn't purposely overstate that involvement. Auerbach wondered if it could be sensitivity to media coverage of a hot-button issue that prompted the church statements on Monday, though he said "The Exorcist Files" should come as no surprise to the church hierarchy.
Discovery issued this statement: "'The Exorcist Files' centers on the first person accounts of individual Catholic priests who have performed exorcisms and other religious experts. Many of these stories are being told for the first time."
More than a dozen Roman Catholic exorcists from the U.S., Spain, Italy and other countries will be featured in "The Exorcist Files," which will contain dramatic reenactments of exorcisms and personal stories of the men and their work. (It was erroneously reported in other media that there could be live exorcisms, but it was correctly noted in the Los Angeles Times that that's verboten with the church and isn't part of the series.)
People who claim they'd been possessed by satanic spirits also will be part of the show, talking about their experiences before, during and after the purging process.
Though it might seem a bit far-fetched, particularly in a secular culture like the U.S., Catholic officials that Auerbach has been working with told him the show could serve as a recruiting tool. There aren't enough trained exorcists to combat the current wave of evil in the world, Auerbach said, and that's why the priests agreed to discuss their work on camera.
"The church officials I spoke to said they think evil might be winning," Auerbach said. "The priests who do this work travel constantly all over the world, but there aren't enough of them. The church wants people to understand the need for more exorcists."
Even so, Auerbach said the show isn't "preachy" and does not tell the audience what to believe. Yet, "it is a show about faith," he said.
Though the Fox News report said the Vatican denied that it has a team of exorcists, Auerbach said the priests are well known within church circles and some have written books about their experiences, such as "Interview With an Exorcist" by Father Jose Antonio Fortea. (The priests are not based at the Vatican but rather at parishes around the world. Fortea will appear on "The Exorcist Files.") The priests belong to a professional group called the International Assn. of Exorcists, which, like other trade groups, holds conventions to share information and case details.
Meanwhile, the Vatican revised the rules for exorcisms in 1999 for the first time in hundreds of years, mostly to deal with the conditions under which exorcisms can be performed. "The Exorcist Files" includes a peek into that process, where the afflicted are put through medical and psychological testing to make sure they aren't otherwise ill or unbalanced.
It's a world that many TV viewers may not be familiar with, and Auerbach admits that it can be difficult to grasp, especially given all the fictional entertainment that springs from the ancient ritual of exorcism. There's a new movie opening this week, "The Rite" starring Anthony Hopkins, that centers on just such subject matter.
"There's no empirical way to prove this stuff," Auerbach said, "but science can't explain everything."
Aside from the priests, experts like Richard Gallagher, a faculty member at Columbia University's Psychoanalytic Institute, will be part of "The Exorcist Files." So will psychiatrists, theologians and New York Police Department experts on occult crimes. The series doesn't have a host, per se, but Adam Blai, who identifies himself as a Roman Catholic demonologist, is a guide through the episodes.
— T.L. Stanley
Photo: Linda Blair, in bed, as the young girl possessed in the 1973 film "The Exorcist." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.