WCPO originally published this story in 2014 and has brought it back as part of our special coverage of local legends leading up to Halloween. For more real-life stories of the "paranormal," go to wcpo.com/haunted.
Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
The Rev. Bob Rottgers clutched his crucifix as he read the prayer aloud.
He had recited it countless times before, but on this day in 2010, it was more than a prayer: It was his weapon.
A woman sat in front of him, her eyes darting from side to side. She was becoming agitated, Rottgers recounted.
He continued praying.
Depart seducer, full of lies and cunning, foe of virtue, persecutor of the innocent.
Give place, abominable creature.
Give way, you monster.
Give way to Christ.
Her eyes became fixated on him now, he recalled. He placed his right hand on her head and raised his voice.
Strike terror, Lord, into the beast now laying waste your vineyard… Let your mighty hand cast him out of your servant, so he may no longer hold captive this person.
Rottgers said he met the woman weeks earlier through a psychologist desperate for help and unable to treat his patient. He said she was troubled, tormented and had bizarre strength no one could explain. The more he said he spoke with her, the more he realized he was dealing with something demonic.
Rottgers, now 58, said her case sent him on a path that would change his career. Because of her, he was appointed to a position few have attempted.
He became an exorcist.
"I'm the one who handles the demon problems in the diocese of Covington," Rottgers said, a trained and church sanctioned remover of demons.
To skeptics, demon possessions are nonsense invented by movies, books and popular culture. To Rottgers, they're real – and they're happening in our region more often than most realize, he said.
So real, in fact, that the Catholic Church trains and appoints exorcists across the world.
The ‘Surging Demand' for Demon Fighters
Only a priest authorized by a bishop can perform an exorcism, and canon law specifies the exorcist must be "endowed with piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life."
By most accounts, there are about 500 to 600 church-appointed exorcists in the world. Of the 194 Catholic dioceses in the U.S., about 50 have an exorcist. Rottgers – the pastor of St. Philip Parish in Melbourne, Ky. – is one of them.
Covington Bishop Roger Joseph Foys gave the job to Rottgers in 2010.
"I had only been a priest for six months, but we knew this woman needed the church's help," he said. "I went to the bishop and asked him, ‘Who do we send her to?' and he replied, ‘Well, we don't have anybody.'
"Then he decided it would be me."
That November, there was a two-day gathering of the nation's exorcists in Baltimore. Rottgers said Foys told him to go.
The purpose of the conference, he said, was to educate the clergy members of a rising need for exorcisms in the U.S. and around the world.
Cardinals in Milan; Turin, Italy; and Madrid, for instance, recently moved to expand the number of exorcists in their dioceses to cope with what they categorized as "surging demand," the Washington Post reports.
Even Pope Francis was recorded on video last year performing what many Italian bishops claimed was an exorcism on a man in St. Peter's Square.
A few months later, Francis officially recognized under canon law the International Catholic Association of Exorcists, a group of about 250 priests across 30 countries that claim to fight demons. The decision gave exorcisms legal recognition to meet rising demands within the church.
Belief in the devil is not going away, Rottgers said.
"There are good angels and there are fallen angels, and that hasn't changed," he said. "Just because we have modern technology doesn't mean that the spiritual aspect of all creation has disappeared."
After arriving in Baltimore for his first exorcism conference, Rottgers met the Rev. Vince Lampert of Indianapolis. From there, he said everything changed.
Demonic Rules of Engagement
Rottgers defines an exorcism as "breaking the legal ties a demon has on a person or place so the host can exercise free will."
He said Lampert, the pastor of St. Francis and Clare in Greenwood, Ind., taught him that.
Lampert, 51, became the exorcist of Indianapolis in 2005 after the priest who held the position before him died. Lampert said he was flown to Vatican City to train for three months with an experienced exorcist so he could take over.
Five years later, it was Lampert's turn to teach Rottgers the sacred practice of vanquishing demons.
"I mentored him, gave him counsel and advice, so he knew what he was dealing with," Lampert said. "I let him observe several exorcisms."
Lampert said he showed him the "Rite of Exorcism," a Vatican-endorsed collection of texts consisting of blessings and prayers used to cast out evil.
Rottgers also became well-versed in "Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications," an exorcism manual approved by Pope John Paul II in 1998 that details a specific formula and rules Roman Catholic priests must follow.
Its 84 pages describe elaborate, carefully planned rituals that can involve holy water, crucifixes and sacred ruins. It states the subject of the exorcism must be conscious and often restrained.
The manual describes four different ways a demon can enter someone's life, requiring some form of an exorcism:
- Infestation or haunting: This refers to demonic activity to a building or home.
- Vexation or torment: An individual is harassed by a demon that has targeted the person for some reason.
- Obsession or preoccupation: A person has constant evil thoughts, impulses of self-destruction or unrelenting depression.
- Possession: A person is completely overcome by the demonic. This individual will have erased memories and new personalities, speak different languages, levitate and suffer convulsions. To the Catholic Church, this level of possession is the most rare.
Lampert and Rottgers claim only about one in every 5,000 cases involves "complete demonic possession."
"To have a full possession, the person has to be in such a point of despair or so overcome by torment, that they give their will over to the demonic," Rottgers said. "For that to happen is extremely, extremely rare, but it happens."
From Quiet Prayer to Vomit and Razor Blades
Rottgers said it's hard to explain the devil to someone who has never met him.
Exorcisms aren't like Hollywood movies, he said. They aren't always finished in one hour or one day. Sometimes they take years to complete.
Rottgers said there are a few things Hollywood did get right.
"People regurgitate a lot of fluid and vomit. They'll produce nails and razor blades. Where they come from, I don't know. Just all of a sudden, out they come," he said. "No one has ever really seen a head spin totally around, but it'll go farther than you expect."
He said it's common for subjects to dislocate their joints and bend their bodies to extremes due to "abnormal strength." He claims he has even seen scars appear on skin and then disappear.
Rottgers would not disclose whether he has experienced a case like this locally. He denied WCPO access to an exorcism due to privacy concerns.
Rottgers said he took on exorcisms for the church out of necessity and to help others. He said it's not something he does for fun.
"Anybody who wants to do this is crazy," Rottgers said. "If you want to get into this, you're probably in it for the wrong reasons. It's not a glamorous or glorious thing. It's really heartbreaking and saddening."
Last year, Latoya Ammons – a mother in Gary, Ind. – reported to police and the Department of Child Services that she and her three children were possessed by demons.
What authorities found in their investigation made headlines around the world.
The social service case manager and a hospital nurse both reported seeing Ammons' 9-year-old son walking backward up a wall. Gary Police Capt. Charles Austin – a 36-year veteran of the department – told the Indianapolis Star he witnessed levitation and since then has become "a believer."
Though recent Nielsen Company stats show a majority of Americans believe in God, not everyone is willing to believe in the devil.
Vito Mancuso, a Catholic theologian and writer, told the Washington Post earlier this year he is disappointed by Pope Francis' acceptance of exorcisms.
"He is opening the door to superstition," Mancuso said.
Possession or Mental Illness?
Rottgers said 99 percent of the people who approach him and claim they're possessed by a demon are not.
Then there's the 1 percent.
"For those dealing with the demonic, their medications won't work," Rottgers said. "They reach a point where they just don't care anymore. They say, ‘I'm not savable. I'm not fixable. This is my life and I'm done fighting.' When you see someone in that state, you know they're in trouble."
Before he can help them, Rottgers said he must follow specific guidelines outlined by the church.
Step 1: Consult a medical professional – especially one who doesn't believe in demons.
"I'd always rather have a skeptic examine (the subject) because they're not going to want to buy into the demonic stuff," Rottgers said. "They're going to try to find something to explain what's happening. That makes them thorough."
Rottgers said Covington's diocese has a deacon who is a licensed psychologist. The deacon will carefully examine a subject's mental health before an exorcism is ordered, he said.
"We kind of have to be the ultimate skeptics because if people are suffering from mental illness, we don't want them to put all their trust in (the church)," Rottgers said. "Then they quit their medications and they quit their therapy and they wind up in a worse situation than they were before."
University of Cincinnati Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience Professor Dr. Cal Adler, a skeptic of demonic possession, said he understands why some patients would turn to exorcisms to solve their problems.
He has seen patients choose religion over medication, he said.
"Discontinuing medications… can make symptoms of depression or even psychosis worse," Adler said. "Some medications can be physically dangerous if stopped too abruptly, as well."
He said there is an unfortunate stigma surrounding psychiatric disorders that often leads patients to look for other explanations for their illnesses.
A more "palatable" reason for being unwell can sometimes be demonic possession, Adler said.
"It makes sense for people to place symptoms into a framework with which they're familiar, and in some cases that might be an exclusively religious one," he said. "And I suspect it says something about the nature of the stigma that demonic possession can be a more acceptable explanation."
The Church Ups Its Game
Lampert said he's performed "thousands" of exorcisms. He even advertises himself as an exorcist on Twitter – sharing musings about demons, demonic influences and exorcisms.
Rottgers said he is called weekly from people asking him to remove demons from their home.
"Houses are probably 80 percent of what people have problems with," Rottgers said. "People that do the Ouija boards and do séances and all that crazy stuff, they're the ones who start having problems in their home."
Cincinnati has not appointed an exorcist, but that could change if its diocese determines one is needed – and that need is rising, Lampert said.
"I don't believe the devil has upped his game, but more people today are willing to play his game," he said. "More than ever, the church believes if it doesn't address the issue of the demonic, then people in need will turn elsewhere for answers. They'll go to sources not really rooted in faith, and that can be dangerous."
"Do-it-yourself" style exorcisms have caused a number of tragedies over the years, including several deaths, Lampert said.
- In 1997, a Korean Christian woman was stomped to death in Glendale, Calif., during a "demon cleansing," according to the Los Angeles Times.
- In the Bronx section of New York City that same year, a 5-year-old girl died after being forced to swallow a mixture containing ammonia and vinegar and having her mouth taped shut during an exorcism, according to the New York Times.
- One year later, a mother in Sayville, N.Y., suffocated her 17-year-old daughter with a plastic bag in what she claimed was an effort to destroy a demon inside her, the New York Times also reported.
Rottgers said it's important to remember exorcisms are serious business. The Catholic Church, he said, doesn't charge for the service and is very careful before approving it.
He said an exorcist doesn't have special powers or abilities; he's just a priest trying to "bring his subject back into their relationship with God."
If you don't open yourself up to the devil, you'll never have to deal with an exorcist, he said.
"You're not going to walk into Walmart and have a demon jump over and attack you," he said. "If you lead a holy life and stay away from Ouija boards and cults and weird stuff like that, you should be just fine."