It says a lot about the evolution in popular attitudes toward religion that the term “Catholic priest” will likely summon up notions of sexual abuse and cover-ups today, whereas forty years ago the same words would have been associated with demonic possession and poltergeists. Both images are unfortunate; only one, unfortunately, is inaccurate. Perhaps, in a strange way, the currency of one stereotype led indirectly to the prevalence of the other.
For some time, William Peter Blatty’s bestselling 1971 novel The Exorcist and William Friedkin’s top-grossing 1973 cinematic adaptation codified the role of Catholic clergy as frontline soldiers in battle with supernatural forces. Subsequent classics of occult mayhem, like The Omen, The Amityville Horror, Salem’s Lot, and other fiction and films likewise cast men of the cloth in saintly roles taking on various malign paranormal phenomena. Exorcist author Blatty, whose influential tale was inspired by a modern-day exorcism performed on a fourteen-year-old-boy, was himself a strong Catholic educated by Jesuits at Georgetown University, and wanted his book to promote the religion. “In my youth I had thought about entering the priesthood,” he later wrote. “[A] novel of demonic possession, I believed…might be token fulfillment of deflected vocation.” In a 2001 study, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons In the Land of Plenty, Michael Cuneo noted how The Exorcist showed a wide and deeply impressed readership that “[t]he priest was still potentially a heroic figure…armed with nothing but faith and love and the mysterious powers conferred…by priestly ordination.”
Yet though The Exorcist‘s Catholic characters are portrayed with tragic human flaws – aged Father Merrin struggles with the sin of pride, and Blatty’s autobiographical Father Karras faces a crisis of belief – one weakness they definitely don’t have is an unnatural interest in children. They are in fact entrusted with the metaphysical deliverance of little Regan MacNeil, a girl of twelve, granted assumptions of domestic privacy and personal honor which seem almost unthinkable in the present. Indeed, some passages of the narrative hint at Father Karras’s attractiveness to adult women, like Regan’s mother, Chris: “She darted a furtive, embarrassed glance to a nearby Jesuit…Dark, rugged face. Like a boxer’s. Chipped. In his forties. Something sad about the eyes; something pained; and yet warm and reassuring as they fastened on hers.”
This picture of Catholic priests as strong, manly people, taking on far weightier responsibilities than leading mass and hearing confession, was at odds with the ordinary lives experienced by most Catholic officials. We know now, too, that horrific cases of pedophilia occurred in otherwise unremarkable parishes where mass and confession were priests’ chief duties; dealing with vampires or haunted houses never came up. A rare modern case of exorcism, in West Germany in 1976, actually saw two priests convicted of negligent manslaughter when the alleged victim died under their care. In The Exorcist, Father Karras works as a seminary psychiatrist and sees evidence of “the terrible loneliness of priests…Cut off from their families as well as from women, many of the Jesuits were also fearful of expressing affection for fellow priests; of forming deep and loving friendships.” Later, Karras’s friend Father Dyer jokes that “faggots” are quitting the order. The imagined scenes are designed to convey the hipness and relevance of the contemporary priesthood circa 1971, but they unintentionally reveal serious problems lurking within church culture, which would later explode into the full-on scandals of today.
It’s doubtful that William Peter Blatty meant The Exorcist to distract audiences from a secret corruption which might threaten Catholic consciences if it was to be exposed – like most laity, he probably never knew of anything untoward in church governance, and in any case there could well have been less actual abuse taking place in his time. Yet by positing Catholic priests as noble, self-sacrificing characters charged with rescuing children from diabolical evil, the writer might have unwittingly accommodated a climate of misplaced respectability in which children would need rescuing from the diabolical evil perpetrated by priests themselves.