Exorcism and the law: faith groups need robust procedures to protect children

(Photo: Unsplash/MichaƂ Parzuchowski)

Many Christians have understandably been deeply disturbed by reports of an Arizona father being charged with brutally murdering his six-year-old son in the course of an exorcism ritual. Could such a thing happen here, and do we need better regulation in place?

The short and tragic answer is that such an event could indeed happen in the United Kingdom, and it would not be the first of its kind. Many people remember the harrowing photos of little Victoria Climbie, whose life was cruelly cut short by exorcism-related abuse, and unfortunately she was not the first or the last victim.

It is important to remember the context in which such horrible events have unfolded. They demonstrate that children can be harmed, fatally or otherwise, not as a result of exorcisms during public (or even private) worship, nor with the direct involvement of a minister or church representatives, but as a consequence of events in their own homes, perpetrated by the very family members who should have been there to love and protect them.

This is a common pattern, which makes tackling the problem of exorcism-related abuse very challenging. Subjecting faith groups to greater regulation will not save children in these circumstances, because the crimes committed against them happen on the very periphery of church life.

Many Christians denominations already have robust guidelines in place about who may carry out an exorcism and in what circumstances. They recognise the importance of personal accountability for individuals exercising this ministry, and also the need to collaborate with doctors and other professionals when it comes to seeking comfort and healing for a person of any age.

Furthermore, to be effective, policies and initiatives must come from within faith communities. Secular law is neither able nor inclined to tell churches who may say what kind of prayers and when. For instance, it is sometimes suggested that there should be a complete ban on child exorcism, but this would entail removing traditional prayers from Anglican and Roman Catholic baptism services.

Those words have a spiritual function, and there is no reason to suggest that they pose any sort of threat to a baby at the font. But they would either have to be removed to comply with a blanket prohibition, or courts would be faced with weighing up whether they were appropriate and suitable, taking into account the wider picture.

It would be utterly impractical in terms of time and resources to have judges or Parliament writing the script for worship, and how this would work for the many Christian traditions with embrace extemporary prayer is anybody's guess. Even if the logistical problems could somehow be overcome, it would still be an intolerable attack on religious freedom.

This does not mean, however, that it is acceptable for churches to ignore the plight of children suffering in these circumstances. Exorcism-related child abuse is child abuse, plain and simple. All faith groups should have robust procedures in place to ensure that child abuse in any form is detected and reported. Congregations should be educated about what to look out for, and know to whom they should speak if they have a concern.

In addition, those with leadership positions should be consistent and responsible about the messages which are being sent to the faithful. It needs to be made crystal clear that violence in the context of exorcism (i.e. use of enough force to leave a mark) is not lawful in the UK, even if the recipient is a consenting adult.

Furthermore, it is not Biblical; there are no accounts of Jesus using physical force to beat out demons.  Those who came to him were delivered through faith and words.

We have to play our part in ensuring that no children within our communities are subjected to this kind of treatment.

Rev Dr Helen Hall is a Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Law School.