- German schoolgirl suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy and depression was “treated” solely with religious exorcism.
- The parents and the two priests were charged with negligent homicide.
Anneliese Michel was born 21 September 1952 in the community of Leiblfing in West Germany. She lived with her three sisters and her parents Josef and Anna. The family were devout Roman Catholics who attended Mass twice a week. Anna, as she was known, led a normal life until the age of 16 when she suffered a severe epileptic fit. Anna was soon diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy and depression. She was treated at a psychiatric hospital where she had to stay. She was put on a cocktail of anti-convulsive meds, anti-psychotics and mood stabilisers.
By the time Anna was 20 and studying at the University of Würzburg, her symptoms had significantly worsened. Religious objects such as crucifixes seemed to harm her, as did churches.
She heard voices telling her that she was damned and would rot in Hell. She saw devil faces. She became suicidal. Anna and her family believed that she was suffering demonic possession. A family friend arranged a pilgrimage to a sacred spring in San Damiano. This friend also became convinced that Anna was possessed due to her inability to walk past a crucifix and drink the holy water. Anna rapidly and steadily got worse. She became aggressive, she took to self-harming, and she would strip down to her birthday suit, take a big piss on the floor and then proceed to lap it up like a dog. She began feasting on bugs and insects. The family sought help from the Church.
In 1975 two priests (Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz) gained permission from their local bishop (Josef Strangl) to perform exorcism rites on Anna, though he stipulated that secrecy was of the utmost importance. The priests agreed that Anna was suffering demonic possession (or infestatio) and displayed supernatural powers.
Alt told Anna ‘There is no injection against the devil’.
Three days after Anna’s 22nd birthday the first secret exorcism session was performed according to the Rituale Romanum. The Michels had ceased medical treatment by this stage, relying solely upon a religious remedy. Over the next 10 months, 67 of these rituals were performed. Once or twice a week, for about 4 hours, Alt and Renz would attempt to drive the demons from Anna’s body whilst she would argue with them in demonic voices.
The sessions were audiotaped, some of which are available online. Toward the end Anna stopped eating altogether.
On 1 July 1976 she died at her home.
Anna’s body was autopsied. The official cause of death was malnutrition and dehydration. She had basically been starving herself for a year, with a little insect or pee here and there to keep her going. She weighed a tiny 30kg, her knees were broken due to prolonged and repetitive genuflections as part of the exorcisms and she was immobile and had pneumonia at the time of her death.
The death was investigated, with the state prosecutor finding that Anna’s death was preventable, even as late as one week prior to her death. Anna’s parents and the two priests were charged with negligent homicide. The trial began on 30 March 1978 and drew great public interest.
Doctors for the prosecution testified that Anna’s sickness was medical in nature, and that the religious aspects were hallucinated and invented by her disturbed mind due to her strict Catholic upbringing.
The Church-retained defence lawyers argued that the exorcisms were legal due to the German constitution protecting people practicing their religious beliefs. They played the court the audiotapes from the exorcisms which they maintained proved Anna was possessed due to the appearance of demonic vices on the tapes. The priests testified that Anna was possessed by several demons claiming to be Lucifer, Cain, Judas Iscariot, Hitler, Nero et al.
They also noted that the exorcisms apparently finally worked immediately prior to Anna’s death.
The accused were eventually found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment (later suspended) and 3 years of probation. More damaging was the criticism that the Church copped in the public and the media for allowing such an antiquated ritual to be performed.
Despite that fact that in 1984 the bishops declared Anneliese mentally ill, and not possessed, her grave still became a pilgrimage center for fringe believers.