Anna Elisabeth Michel, more popularly known as Anneliese Michel, was born on September 21, 1952, and passed away on July 1, 1976; she was a German girl who underwent a staggering total of 67 Catholic exorcism rituals in the year preceding her death.
It is important to note that Anneliese Michel had been previously diagnosed with epileptic psychosis, specifically stemming from temporal lobe epilepsy, and her history encompassed a series of psychiatric treatments that regrettably proved ineffective.
At 16, Anneliese Michel endured a severe seizure that culminated in a diagnosis of psychosis attributed to temporal lobe epilepsy. In subsequent months that followed, she was also diagnosed with depression, subsequently receiving treatment at a psychiatric institution.
Her condition deteriorated as she reached age 20, marked by an increasing intolerance to various religious objects and the onset of auditory hallucinations. Despite consistent medication, her mental health continued to decline, leading to suicidal tendencies and the manifestation of additional distressing symptoms that necessitated further medication.
Frustratingly, the administration of psychiatric medications over five years yielded no tangible improvement.
At this juncture, despairing at the lack of progress, Anneliese Michel and her family grew convinced that she was under the influence of demonic possession. Consequently, they sought intervention from the Catholic Church, initially facing rejection.
However, after the intervention of two priests who secured permission from the local bishop in 1975, a series of exorcism sessions were initiated. Regrettably, medical consultation ceased, and Anneliese Michel progressively refrained from consuming food, ultimately succumbing to malnourishment and dehydration following 67 lengthy exorcism sessions.
Legal consequences ensued, with Anneliese Michel’s parents and the two Roman Catholic priests being found guilty of negligent homicide and sentenced to six months in jail (commuted to three years of probation) and a monetary fine.
In the following years, German bishops publicly retracted their assertion of her possession during a conference in a last-ditch attempt to clear their name.
The Disturbing Early Life and Episodes of Anneliese Michel
Anna Elisabeth Michel, born on September 21, 1952, in Leiblfing, Bavaria, West Germany, hailed from a devout Roman Catholic family. Her upbringing transpired alongside her three sisters under the guardianship of her parents, Joseph and Anna.
Anneliese’s faith was deeply ingrained, leading her to attend Mass twice weekly. However, her life took a significant turn at 16 when she experienced a severe convulsion, culminating in a diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy.
In 1973, Anneliese enrolled at the University of Würzburg. Her peers later characterized her as introverted and devout in her religious convictions.
June 1970 marked a pivotal moment in Anneliese’s life as she suffered her third seizure at a psychiatric facility. Medical professionals prescribed anti-convulsive medications, including Dilantin, which regrettably failed to mitigate her condition. She began experiencing unsettling visual hallucinations, often perceiving unsettling “devil faces” throughout the day.
During this period, she was also prescribed Aolept, a medication akin to chlorpromazine, employed in treating various psychoses, including schizophrenia, behavioral disturbances, and delusions.
By 1973, she grappled with depression, prayed while experiencing hallucinations, and expressed distress over hearing voices that condemned her to damnation. Anneliese’s sojourn in the psychiatric hospital yielded no respite; her depression deepened.
Prolonged treatment did little to alleviate her suffering, and she grew increasingly disillusioned with the pharmacological regimen she had adhered to for five years.
Additionally, she developed an aversion to Christian sacred artifacts, including the crucifix.
Anneliese embarked on a pilgrimage to San Damiano in the company of a family friend renowned for organizing Christian pilgrimages. During this visit, it became evident to her escort that she was grappling with what they perceived as demonic possession.
Her inability to approach a crucifix and refusal to partake of water from a Christian holy spring was among the telltale signs.
Her companion recounted her struggles:
“Anneliese told me—and Frau Hein confirmed this—that she could not enter the church. She approached it with the greatest hesitation, then said that the soil burned like fire, and she could not stand it. She then walked around the shrine in a wide arc and tried to approach it from the back. She looked at the people kneeling in the area surrounding the little garden, and it seemed that they were gnashing their teeth while praying.
She got as far as the edge of the little garden; then, she had to turn back. Coming from the front again, she had to avert her glance from the picture of Christ [in the chapel of the house]. She made it several times to the garden but could not get past it. She also noted that she could no longer look at medals or pictures of saints; they sparkled so immensely that she could not stand it.”
Anneliese’s family and community reached a conviction that she was possessed and sought multiple priests’ counsel, petitioning for an exorcism. Initially met with reluctance, the priests advised the continuation of medical treatment and emphasized that exorcisms necessitated the bishop’s approval.
In the Catholic Church, exorcism warrants official consent when stringent criteria are met, and the subject is deemed afflicted by possession (infestatio) and under demonic influence.
A pronounced aversion to religious paraphernalia and the manifestation of supernatural phenomena often serve as the initial indicators.
Tragically, Anneliese’s physical and mental condition continued to deteriorate, leading to acts of self-aggression, the consumption of her urine, and even the ingestion of insects. In November 1973, she commenced treatment with Tegretol, an anti-seizure medication and mood stabilizer.
Concurrently, she was administered antipsychotic drugs throughout the religious rituals, although her symptoms persisted and escalated, marked by growling, demonic apparitions, and episodes of destructive behavior.
The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel
The esteemed priest Father Ernst Alt made an observation that departed from the conventional view of epilepsy, remarking that Anneliese Michel did not exhibit the typical characteristics associated with this condition.
In his keen observations, he did not witness any seizures during his interactions with her. Instead, Father Alt was inclined to believe that Anneliese was grappling with a far more profound affliction – demonic possession.
Driven by this conviction, he implored the local bishop to grant permission for an exorcism to be conducted. In a poignant letter penned by Michel in 1975 to Father Alt, she expressed her sense of unworthiness and the deep need for improvement, seeking his prayers on her behalf.
She also confided in him, uttering her desire to endure suffering for the sake of others, albeit acknowledging the cruel nature of her ordeal.
The pivotal moment arrived in September 1975 when Bishop Josef Stangl extended Father Arnold Renz’s authorization to perform an exorcism, adhering to the Rituale Romanum, the prescribed Roman Catholic ritual. This marked the commencement of a series of exorcism sessions, with the first occurring on September 24.
Anneliese Michel increasingly vocalized her fervent desire to atone for the transgressions of contemporary youth and the perceived apostasy among modern church clergy. At her behest, her parents discontinued consultations with medical practitioners and relied solely on the exorcism rituals.
Over approximately ten months in 1975 and 1976, 67 exorcism sessions unfolded, typically held weekly and extending up to four hours each. Tragically, as her ordeal unfolded, Anneliese Michel began to reject food.
On July 1, 1976, she died in her home. The autopsy report attributed her demise to malnutrition and dehydration, the dire consequences of nearly a year of near-starvation while the exorcism rites were administered.
Her emaciated state weighed a mere 30 kilograms (66 pounds), her knees had sustained fractures from continuous genuflections, rendering her incapable of independent mobility, and she was reported to have succumbed to pneumonia.
Following a thorough investigation, the state prosecutor contended that Anneliese Michel’s death could have been averted as late as one week before her tragic passing. Subsequently, in 1976, charges of negligent homicide were levied against Michel’s parents and the priests Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz.
The renowned Nuremberg trials defense attorney, Erich Schmidt-Leichner, represented the parents, while the church assumed responsibility for the legal fees of the priests. Astonishingly, the state recommended against imprisonment for any of the accused parties. Instead, the suggested penalty for the priests was a monetary fine.
At the same time, the prosecution posited that the parents should be absolved of punishment, considering the tremendous suffering they had already endured – a legal provision in German penal law.
On July 14, 1977, a newspaper article reported that two Roman Catholic priests were formally charged with negligent homicide concerning Anneliese Michel’s exorcism-related death.
The subsequent trial, which commenced on March 30, 1978, at the district court, garnered considerable attention. Medical experts testified that Michel was not afflicted by possession, asserting that the manifestations attributed to demonic influence were, in fact, psychological repercussions stemming from her strict religious upbringing and epilepsy.
In a significant statement, Dr. Richard Roth, whom Father Alt had consulted for medical guidance, purportedly conveyed to Michel during the exorcism that “there is no injection against the devil, Anneliese.”
The defense counsel, Schmidt-Leichner, argued the legality of the exorcism, emphasizing that the German constitution safeguarded citizens’ unrestricted exercise of their religious beliefs. To bolster their position, the defense presented recordings of the exorcism sessions, some featuring what was claimed to be “demonic arguments,” underscoring their assertion that Anneliese Michel was genuinely possessed.
Both priests contended that the demons had explicitly identified themselves as Lucifer, Cain, Judas Iscariot, Belial, Legion, Hitler, and Nero, among other notorious figures. They further asserted that Michel had been liberated from demonic influence through the exorcism just before her demise.
Bishop Stangl, who had approved the exorcism, did not testify in court and professed to be unaware of the alarming deterioration in Michel’s health. In April 1978, the Michels and the two priests were convicted of negligent homicide, albeit receiving suspended prison sentences.
They were also directed to share the financial burdens associated with the legal proceedings. The severity of these sentences surpassed the prosecutor’s recommendations, as the priests were only expected to incur fines, and the parents, though found guilty, were suggested to be exempt from penalties due to the aforementioned mitigating factor.
The church’s sanction of the age-old exorcism rite thrust the case into the public and media spotlight. Author John M. Duffey contends that the case misidentified mental illness. Subsequently, during a conference held several years later, German bishops officially retracted the claim that Anneliese Michel had been possessed.
The Exhumation and Reburial of Anneliese Michel
In the aftermath of the trial, the Michel family sought permission from the authorities to exhume their daughter’s remains due to concerns regarding her hasty burial in a modest coffin. Nearly two years after her initial interment, on February 25, 1978, Anneliese Michel’s remains were reverently placed in a new oak casket, thoughtfully lined with tin.
Official reports from this somber occasion documented that the body’s condition was consistent with the natural decomposition expected for a corpse of her age. The family and the involved priests were dissuaded from viewing Anneliese Michel’s remains. Father Arnold Renz later recounted that he had been prevented from accessing the mortuary.
Anneliese Michel’s gravesite continues to hold significance as a pilgrimage destination, where she is venerated by small groups of Catholics who believe that she made a profound atonement for the transgressions of errant priests and wayward youth.
Following the harrowing ordeal, the number of officially sanctioned exorcisms in Germany experienced a decline, despite Pope Benedict XVI expressing a more permissive stance than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
In 1999, Pope John Paul II instituted stricter guidelines, permitting exorcisms only in rare cases.
Tragically, on June 6, 2013, a fire engulfed the house that had once been Anneliese Michel’s residence. Local law enforcement concluded that this incident was an arson case. However, it is worth noting that some residents attributed the fire to the lingering memories and controversies surrounding the exorcism case.
What We Can Learn from The Story of Anneliese Michel
The case of Anneliese Michel is deeply tragic and complex, steeped in questions surrounding faith, mental health, and the consequences of belief. Anneliese’s suffering and ultimate demise were profoundly disturbing, marked by the interplay of religious convictions, medical conditions, and the fervent belief in demonic possession.
The tragedy raises crucial ethical and moral dilemmas. It prompts us to reflect on the responsibility of religious and medical authorities in situations where faith intersects with severe mental health issues. Anneliese’s story is a stark reminder of the potential dangers when belief in the supernatural overshadows rational medical intervention.
Anneliese Michel’s gravesite, now a dark tourism destination, continues to draw those who believe in her profound atonement for perceived wrongs. Her story remains a deeply contentious and poignant chapter in the annals of faith, medicine, and the quest to understand the human mind. It has been made into several films, the most famous being The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
Ultimately, the case of Anneliese Michel serves as a somber reminder of the complexities surrounding mental health, religious fervor, and the responsibilities of both individuals and institutions in providing care and support for those in need.
RIP Anneliese Michel
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