Full-time deliverers from evil
By TUCKER McCORMACK

People meeting Bridgeport residents Larry and Debbie Elward for the first time are usually at their worst.

They're heavily depressed. They suffer headaches. They have the luck of someone hit by a truck three times in the same day. They're addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography.

They can't clean, pay their bills or work.

And they smell really bad.

Sometimes, they hear voices that tell them to do things like, "Eat a roll of quarters and wash it down with some bottle caps. Burn down the house. Carve a pentagram in your arms and chest. Kill yourself."

While conventional wisdom would direct these poor souls to the doorstep of a psychiatrist, Larry and Debbie Elward recommend an alternative therapeutic intervention: Find an exorcist it just might help.

Brian A. Pounds

Ghostbusters: Larry and Debbie Elward of Bridgeport show the tools of their trade, an antique Ethiopian cross and the Bible, which they use in the exorcism of demons. Behind them is a photograph of Padre Pio, a recent canonized Catholic saint who, according to the church, was attacked nightly by the devil and suffered from the stigmata.

 

Exorcism, for the uninitiated, is the medieval Catholic ritual of driving out the devil and his demons from possessed persons. Its practice has been relegated to the church's notorious past, along with indulgences and the Inquisition.

But a growing number of Protestant denominations including Pentecostals, Baptists and other charismatic groups are reviving interest in demon expulsion, forming the core of what is known nationally as the "deliverance movement."

A 'liberal' exorcism It is a religious subculture that emerged out of the New Age fascinations of the 1960s and has grown steadily over the decades, pushing out from small town middle America into mainstream culture.

Its proponents believe Christians regularly fall captive to indwelling demons that specialize in particular sins, geographic locations, objects and age groups. These groups' co-option of the Catholic ritual of exorcism and their liberal use of it say as much about the conflict between medicine and metaphysics as they do about belief in the supernatural and demonology.

"We felt there was a great need for this," says Debbie Elward, a practicing Roman Catholic and a eucharistic minister at a Bridgeport area church.

"People had been going to psychiatrists who couldn't find anything wrong them. Their symptoms would keep changing

one week it's bi-polar disorder, the next it's schizophrenia. People needed other avenues to investigate, to see what's wrong with them."

Says Larry Elward, "Exorcism was helping the vast majority of these people."

Phooey, say skeptics, who believe the Elwards and other exorcism groups are simply an offshoot of New England's historical infatuation with ghost-hunting and other worldly mysticism.

"What these groups do is they investigate people and places. Whatever they find there they deem a haunting or a possession," says Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist and founder of the New England Skeptical Society. "They find their anomalies and make no effort to explain them in simple or prosaic terms. It's the essence of pseudoscience."

Indeed, no body of scientific evidence exists to establish possession as a legitimate phenomenon or substantiate exorcism's merits. But the growth of deliverance ministries, believers say, shows science can explain only so much. As a result, people are more willing to entertain the spiritual.

"In this century, more people are open to more possibilities," Debbie Elward says. "In this crazy world more people are trying to get back to God."

The 'ghostbusters' Larry and Debbie Elward are paranormal investigators, or professional "ghostbusters," as they call themselves. Three years ago, they left behind their careers in health care and started the Aware Foundation, a deliverance ministry run out of their Edna Avenue home.

Debbie Elward, a Protestant convert to Catholicism, has what she calls the power of "spiritual discernment," the ability to sense entities in persons, places or objects. She also claims a talent for psychic photography, often capturing images of orbs and strange fogs that she says are otherwise invisible to the nonbeliever's naked eye.

Larry Elward, also a devoted Roman Catholic who earned his master's degree in theology, is studying to be a priest in an independent California-based church called the Home Temple, which ordains men and women, both married and single, to the priesthood. Under the guidance of the church's bishop, Lewis Keizer, Larry hopes to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a full-time exorcist in an organized ministry.

Perhaps, then, it is only fitting that the couple met during an exorcism five years ago before tying the knot and launching the Aware Foundation in July 2000. "Everybody else meets in bars," Larry Elward says. "Why can't we meet in exorcism?"

Their ministry, they say, is not-for-profit and survives entirely on the donations of the people they help.

Both now work strictly as paranormal investigators and are collaborating on a book. Their ghostbusting takes them all over the country at their own expense, from Alabama to California, though they do ask for donations.

Skeptics might expect the Elwards to look out of the ordinary. But to the casual observer, they appear to be anything but. They are polite and sunny, well mannered and educated, charming and articulate.

When they talk of exorcism and paranormal encounters, they exude authority, passion and reverence. What makes them different from everyone else, apparently, is that Debbie Elward sees ghosts and Larry Elward has tussled with demons.

No spinning heads Contrary to the popular view of exorcism spinning heads, levitating objects, guttural voices, superhuman strength and projectile vomiting most modern-day exorcisms, Larry Elward says, are nothing more than ecstatic prayer sessions, with bursts of growling, spasmodic movements and blasphemous remarks by the possessed person. Far fewer are violent, he says, though some possessed people have been known to strike at the minister performing the ritual.

People of all ages, ethnicities and religions are embracing exorcism, setting aside their personal beliefs, the Elwards say, to get rid of the evil entities that torment them.

Some of the Elwards' clients, they maintain, have included Muslims and Jews who were willing to embrace Jesus Christ to be cleansed of demonic influence. And many, not surprisingly, have diagnosed mental illnesses, which, they say, is exacerbated by a spiritual presence. "We're out to help people, not convert them," Larry Elward says.

Spiritually dangerous?

Some mental health experts and religious figures say people like the Elwards may be doing more harm than good. One Detroit clergyman who studied multiple personality disorder patients found exorcism harmed the vast majority of these people, especially those who endured sexual abuse at a young age.

"A popular culture has developed in which some Catholics, if confronted by phenomena that confuse or frighten them, will immediately diagnose the phenomena as demonic and begin a process of ordering an evil entity to leave the person," said the Rev. Joseph Mahoney in a self-published research paper entitled, "Exorcism and MPD from the Catholic Perspective."

"I believe it to be a situation that is spiritually dangerous, psychologically dangerous and abusive, and scandalous."

The motives of those who engage in such activities, Mahoney says, can vary. Some may believe they have the best intentions, he says, while others may be "motivated by grandiosity, a fascination with the dramatic or the attraction of having psychological control over another human being."

John McGann, a social worker and behavioral health program supervisor at Catholic Family Services in Ansonia, says the lure of exorcism groups is powerful for people with chronic mental illnesses, offering them a cure for what modern science cannot.

"These groups offer a support system for them and an answer. It's not the answer I think that's correct, but an answer nonetheless."

The power of faith To such critics, the Elwards defend their actions by saying exorcism is just prayer. "We make sure they don't stop taking their medications, or we won't touch them," Debbie Elward says. "Would a doctor stop a person from going to church on Sunday?"

For an exorcism to work, Larry Elward says, a person has to want it; the power of exorcism resides in the faith of the person submitting to it. For instance, he says, the sex abuse scandal that rocked the Bridgeport Diocese might have been averted had pedophile priests submitted to exorcism.

"I don't know if it would have helped them, but it sure as hell wouldn't have hurt," he says.

Whatever the motives of deliverance ministers, exorcism can be hard work. The Aware Foundation, the Elwards say, is a 24-hour endeavor. The couple often get calls in the middle of the night from people seeking spiritual guidance and God's intercession.

"We're like ambulance drivers," Debbie Elward says. "We act more as spiritual counselors, psychologists and mothers and fathers. We take them by the hand, and they become like family."

For many of these "family members," exorcism has worked miracles, the Elwards contend. The Aware Foundation's Web site [ www.angelfire.com/scifi/deliverances] lists a number of its successful battles in spiritual warfare, giving a blow-by-blow account of their clashes with demons.

The power of the film Arguably the country's foremost expert on the subject of exorcism is sociologist and Fordham University professor Michael Cuneo, who believes the rise of deliverance ministries and the broader phenomena of demonology can be credited almost entirely to the entertainment industry.

"Exorcism prior to the late 1960s was virtually dead and gone in the United States, a fading ghost long past its prime," says Cuneo in his 2001 book, "American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty."

"And then in the early to mid-'70s," he says, "untold numbers of Americans, many of them staunchly middle class, the kind of people you might chat with at the supermarket checkout counter became convinced that they or their loved ones were suffering from demonic affliction."

Not surprisingly, the hysteria that Cuneo describes and the subsequent demand for deliverance ministers coincided with the 1973 release of William Friedkin's classic horror film "The Exorcist," a fictitious portrayal of a little girl's struggle with demonic possession.

The influence of that film on the mass psyche cannot be denied. "I slept with a Bible for a week after that movie," Debbie Elward says. "It's both triggered fascination in exorcism and put a stigma on it."

Another factor in the renewed popularity of deliverance ministries, psychologists say, is the power of suggestion. Often, it is much easier for troubled people to believe their problems are the result of demonic infestation than weaknesses of character or chemical imbalance.

"Once the mind welcomes the suggestion of demonization, it falls into the open arms of another suitor: the desire for exoneration," reports Agnieszka Tennat in an August 2001 article in Christianity Today. "Many Christians would rather be known as objects of demonic harassment than struggling sinners."

For people with serious mental illness like schizophrenia, telling them the devil is to blame can have devastating consequences.

"If you validate and play into their delusion, that is very counterproductive," says Novella of the New England Skeptical Society. "It's like telling them, 'You're right, the CIA is out to get you.'"

Deliverance ministers, he adds, are "intervening in a way that conventional wisdom says is doing nothing at all or, at the very worst, is harming [these people]." The society has investigated a dozen exorcism cases since 1996, including one televised on ABC several years ago that involved a young girl who, Novella says, was clearly psychotic, at best.

Still, the Elwards and other deliverance ministers are quick to point out their success stories. Take, for instance, the time the couple performed an exorcism on a young schizophrenic child who heard voices telling her to eat rolls of quarters and bottle caps.

After the ritual, the voices dissipated and the girl stopped eating objects, they say, though her schizophrenia remained.

"Granted, we perform a lot of exorcisms on people who are mentally ill, but we tell them we're just going to pray, and it relaxes them and they feel better," Debbie Elward says.