From Bill Tilley in West Germany
Almost in the shadow of one of West Germany's finest cathedrals, two Catholic priests stand accused in a criminal court at Aschaffenburg of the manslaughter of a young woman who died during a long and exhaustive exorcism.
The exorcism, conducted according to the Rituale Romanum rites of 1614, began on September 24, 1975. Sixtyseven times the rites were administered before 23-year-old Anneliese Michel died, from hunger and exhaustion, on June 30, 1976.
Her parents — Josef Michel, a well-to-do sawmill owner, and his wife Anna, both devout Catholics — are accused, with the two priests, of causing Anneliese's death by neglect.
When she died, Anneliese — a .normally active student teacher and former theology student at Wuerzburg University — weighed only 68 lbs, after refusing food and drink during the advanced stages of the exorcism.
This week doctors told the court she could have been saved as late as one week before her death if medical attention had been summoned.
One of the accused priests, 67year-old Fr Wilhelm Rena, told the court, however, that the Rituale Romanum did not provide for the officiating priest to deal in the medical aspects of the case.
The second accused priest, Fr Ernst Alt, said he had never considered Anneliese to be dangerously ill. He testified that he last saw the girl five weeks before her death and thought she was fasting "normally" as she did for Lent.
Both told the court they were convinced the young woman was possessed by devils, and their defence counsel submitted that she had died of her own free will. "I believed at the time, and I do still believe, that Anneliese Michel had been possessed by evil spirits," said Fr Alt.
But Anna Michel, the girl's mother, broke down in tears as doctors told the court that Anneliese was not possessed by demons but suffered epileptic fits every three months from the age of 16, five years after suffering a head injury.
The exorcism was undertaken with the approval of Bishop Josef Stangl of Wuerzburg, who ordered total secrecy. Bishop Stangl was questioned by the police when the case became public, but no charges were brought against him.
When public attention was drawn to the Anneliese Michel case the Church conceded it was not unique. and said the Rituale Romanum was still being applied. But the 350-yearold rites were then suspended while police investigated the circumstances of Anneliese's death.
The Aschaffenburg court was told this week she died the morning after receiving absolution from Fr Rena. Fr Alt said that she died a "death of atonement. She consciously atoned for Catholic priests who quit their posts for Germany, for politicians and for German youth in particular."
Fr Rent described to a hushed courtroom how he and two Strong men had fought with Anneliese to free her of "six
devils." The presiding judge interjected: "But how do you know there were six. You didn't see them, did you?"
Fr Rena: "No, but they named themselves. There were Judas, Lucifer, Cain, Nero, Hitler and a Fr Fleischmann, who lived some time ago."
Fr Renz said that during the exorcism sessions Anneliese spat at him and at a religious picture, shrieked obscenities and destroyed a rosary. On one occasion she ran straight through a glass door. Photographs, and 43 tape recordings made by Fr Rena during the exorcisms, are to be presented to the court in evidence.
Adding to the public sensation surrounding the case, Anneliese's body was exhumed last February amid rumours that it was supernaturally preserved.
Fr Rent recited prayers for the dead at the graveside while a crowd looked on many praying the rosary. Medical authorities later announced that the body was in an advanced stage of decomposition. The body was reburied in a metal container enclosed in an oak coffin.
Tremendous secrecy surrounds the performance of exorcism rituals. Fr Joseph Crehan, the official Jesuit exorcist in England, explained this week that such events were not made public because of the danger that unscrupulous or misguided people might try to imitate them.
Consequently it has not been revealed when the last officially sanctioned exorcism took place in Britain, but Fr Crehan said that exorcism was still part of the modern Church and that such occurrences did not drag the Church back to the Dark Ages as has been alleged.
"If you want a modern example you only have to go back to 1949 in America, where there was an exorcism which eventually formed the basis of the book and films The Exorcist'," he said. "There was a lot of public discussion and thought given to the matter then."
The German case is due to end this week, and whatever the outcome the Catholic Church in Bavaria will need a long time to recover from the public animosity and even ridicule unleashed by the bizarre evidence being heard in the court at Aschaffenburg. Even conservative newspapers, in their reports of the trial, scarcely disguise their incredulity.