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Dr. Richard Gallagher is a board-certified psychiatrist in New York, a professor at the New York Medical College in psychiatry, and is on Columbia University’s faculty.
He also has a unique side job – for more than two and a half decades, he’s been the clergy’s go-to doctor for cases of demonic possession.
In this week’s episode of Yahoo News’ Unfiltered, we take a look at one psychiatrist’s mission to provide his patients with the help they need, even if it’s an exorcism. By assigning what some may call a controversial diagnosis of demonic possession, Gallagher confronts the oft-held notion that religion and science are like oil and water, stating that what is religious is not exactly anti-scientific and that society should accept that “there may be something more here.”
Gallagher’s journey into the world of exorcisms began by accident: More than 25 years ago, a priest reached out for his psychiatric opinion about a woman who said she was assaulted by invisible forces. The woman and her husband were devout Catholics, and they believed they were being attacked by evil spirits. At the time, although Gallagher was a practicing Catholic, he approached the priest with skepticism. To his surprise, the priest liked that. “Well, if we didn’t think you were skeptical, Dr. Gallagher,” the priest told him, “we wouldn’t have wanted to use you.”
When Gallagher examined the woman, he found multiple bruises that would spontaneously appear. “It didn’t seem to be explainable on the basis of any medical or psychiatric pathology,” he recalls. “She appeared to me to be completely sane. I had never seen a case like that before.” Gallagher had determined that there was no medical cause for her injuries.
She was, he came to conclude, attacked by an evil spirit.
Ever since then, Gallagher has been approached by many leaders from different faiths, including Muslim and Hindu clergy members, to give scientific advice about whether a patient is mentally ill or under demonic possession. He has also spent many years as the scientific advisor on the governing board for the International Association of Exorcists, an organization that was formally recognized by Pope Francis in 2014. Of his many thousands of consultations, however, he has concluded only around 100 cases were related to demonic activity.
Gallagher said that to determine whether or not a person is possessed, he looks at whether he or she exhibits “certain strict criteria.” He explains, “The essence of a possession is a person going into a trance and a demonic sounding voice coming out of them, attacking the people, attacking religion, usually using very crude and violent language, like, ‘Leave her alone. She’s ours’ — this type of thing.” Other behaviors include superhuman strength, speaking ancient languages, and knowing secrets of people that a person would never know otherwise. Gallagher said he himself experienced the last phenomenon: A woman he examined, who turned out to be one of his biggest cases, knew personal information about him. “I know your mother died of ovarian cancer,” she said. “Which was true,” said Gallagher. “It was pretty creepy, but also pretty remarkable.”
At least 60% of Americans believe there is a hell and the devil, and 57% believe in demonic possession, according to a 2016 Gallup poll and a 2012 Public Policy Polling survey. Believing in the existence of the devil and of demonic possessions is common in many other countries as well; recently, exorcisms have been on the rise in Mexico, and at the beginning of 2018, more than 200 priests traveled to Rome for an annual Vatican training on performing exorcisms. “There are countries around the world, Haiti, Madagascar– Throughout history, most cultures, certainly most major religions, they’ve always had a belief,” he said. “In fact, they have an official belief in evil spirits and the ability of evil spirits occasionally, on rare situations, to attack people.”
“There are definite criteria; there’s definite evidence, although the evidence – while massive throughout history – is of an historical nature,” he added.
Gallagher believes he has seen more cases of possession than any other psychiatrist in the world. After having been asked by people — including a former president of the American Psychiatric Association — to record his experiences, Gallagher decided to write his upcoming book, “Demonic Foes.” Using pseudonyms to protect the patients’ identities, he goes into detail about the demonic cases he consulted on. “That’s really where I present the fruits of my research over many years,” he said.
Suffice to say, Gallagher has faced his fair share of criticism in light of his religious psychiatric consultations while also being an academic scientist, with some calling his diagnoses controversial. “There is nothing in what I’m saying that is in any way anti-scientific. I believe in science. I trained at an American medical school. I use the results of scientific studies every day of my life,” he asserts. “I just have had a rare window or rare opportunity to study these things a little more rigorously than most doctors would have.”
And, in Gallagher’s opinion, many critics ask for impossible levels of proof instead of conducting research themselves. “A lot of people will say to me, ‘Well why don’t you videotape this stuff?’ As if an evil spirit is going to parade before the camera for YouTube,” he says. “Many critics — they’ve never seen a genuine case. They’ve never even spoken to an official exorcist. I don’t think that’s very scientific of them.”
Gallagher thinks of himself as first and foremost a doctor. “I didn’t go into this field volunteering. I was asked to help suffering people,” he said. “I don’t want to prevent people who need psychiatric help from getting it.”
“But then,” he added, “there are these rare cases no amount of medical help is going to deliver them of an evil spirit.”