Critics warn exorcism can be a form of spiritual abuse as priests report jump in possession claims

The Vatican is to hold a training course for priests in exorcism next month amid claims that demands for deliverance from demonic possession have greatly increased across the the world.

The Vatican-backed International Association of Exorcists, which represents more than 200 Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox priests, said the increase represented a “pastoral emergency”.

According to a priest from Sicily, the number of people in Italy claiming to be possessed had tripled to 500,000 a year, and an Irish priest has said demand for exorcisms has “risen exponentially”.

Last year, the Christian thinktank Theos reported that exorcisms were a “booming industry” in the UK, particularly among Pentecostal churches.

But some warn that “deliverance ministry” can be a form of spiritual abuse. Critics also say LGBT people and those with mental health issues are targeted for deliverance in the belief that their sexuality or psychiatric problems are the result of demonic possession.

The Vatican training course, which will be held at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome between 16-21 April, will focus on exorcism and the prayer of liberation, a prayer commonly used for deliverance from possession.

“The fight against the evil one started at the origin of the world, and is destined to last until the end of the world,” Fr Cesare Truqui, one of the speakers, told Vatican News.

“But today we are at a stage crucial in history: many Christians no longer believe in [the devil’s] existence, few exorcists are appointed and there are no more young priests willing to learn the doctrine and practice of liberation of souls.”

Fr Benigno Palilla, an exorcist from Sicily who reported a tripling of demonic possession cases on the island, acknowledged the issue was controversial, but added: “The demoniacs … suffer a lot.”

Training in deliverance was essential, he told Vatican Radio. “A self-taught exorcist certainly makes errors. I will say more: it would also take a period of apprenticeship, as happens for many professionals.”

In Ireland, Fr Pat Collins said he had been inundated, almost daily, with people seeking help to deal with what they believed to be demonic possession and other evil, and called for more training in exorcism.

“It’s only in recent years that the demand has risen exponentially,” he told the Irish Catholic. “What I’m finding out desperately, is people who in their own minds believe – rightly or wrongly – that they’re afflicted by an evil spirit.

“I think in many cases they wrongly think it, but when they turn to the church, the church doesn’t know what to do with them.”

Pope Francis has said if a priest becomes aware of “genuine spiritual disturbances … he must not hesitate to refer the issue to those who, in the diocese, are charged with this delicate and necessary ministry, namely, exorcists”.

The Church of England offers guidelines on deliverance which say that for some people “going through times of suffering and anxiety, or when distressed by what seem to be continuing experiences of evil within or around them … it may be right to ask for God’s saving help through the church’s deliverance ministry”.

The guidelines, which were updated in 2012, say caution must be exercised and “the ministry of exorcism and deliverance may only be exercised by a priest authorised by the diocesan bishop”.

Such priests should be trained in deliverance and should not minister alone. They should be covered by adequate insurance, the document says.

“Language, body language and touch should be courteous and considerate … No one should receive ministry against their will.”

The guidelines say doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists should be consulted where appropriate, and that deliverance should be followed up with continuing pastoral care and “should be done with a minimum of publicity”.

According to Anne Richards, the C of E’s national adviser on such issues: “Exorcism in a technical sense is incredibly rare. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a case that’s been authorised.”

Each of the C of E’s 42 dioceses has at least one person experienced and trained in deliverance, she said.

The church was “extremely concerned” that deliverance and healing should be undertaken in collaboration with professionals, such as doctors, and in the context of good safeguarding practice, she said.

But, she added, “I accept in some cases people get together and do something ad hoc. It shouldn’t happen – it needs to be a proper process.”

According to Christianity and Mental Health, a report by Theos, demand in the UK is being partly “driven by immigrant communities and Pentecostal churches which are very open about their exorcism services”.

Ben Ryan, its author, said charismatic and Pentecostal churches, particularly in areas with large west African communities, were advertising “healings” and exorcism outside their premises.

But, he said, “some Christians are sometimes treating mental health issues as if everything is spiritual. So if someone tells a church leader they are suffering from depression, sometimes the response is that everything can be treated with prayer. The extreme end of that is exorcism.”

The report quoted one chaplain, who said he had “never seen anything I would say that looked like demonic possession, but I’ve seen plenty of people who have been told that’s what they’re experiencing by other Christians”.

Priests in the US have also reported a growing demand for exorcisms in recent years.

The shortage of clergy trained in exorcism has led to a growing number of independent operators in Europe, who will rid people and properties of demons for up to €500 a time, according to the Economist.