Satanism is being reported as a possible cause of the theft at the weekend of a relic containing the blood of Blessed John Paul II.

The relic was stolen along with a crucifix from a small mountain church of San Pietro della Ienca where the late Pope used to pray on his many trips to the mountainous region.

But not all agree with the Satanism theory, and one of those is Professor Massimo Introvigne, a respected Catholic sociologist, expert on the occult and founder of the Center for Studies on New Religions. He shared his thoughts on the theft with me earlier today, and discussed the current state of Satanism and demonic possession in Italy.

What is your take on this case?

Some people in my Center for Studies on New Religions have been interviewed about this and they tell me that, from the information given yesterday, there’s no evidence of this incident being in any way related to Satanism. It’s just speculation, there is no hard evidence. Also, sometimes beware of Italian journalists because they like to connect Satanism to a lot of stuff. To give you my gut feeling: it’s more to do with groups of what we call in sociology “fringe Catholics” – marginal groups of Catholics who want to perhaps steal in order to furnish their private chapels, and follow non-authorised private revelations, or something similar. It seems more their style. Satanists aren’t interested in stealing these kinds of things. They steal consecrated hosts. I’ve never heard of Satanists stealing relics. Unless I see any evidence, I think it’s extremely unlikely.

So what would be their motives for stealing such a holy relic?

In Italy we have scores of groups of Catholics who are half in, half outside the Catholic Church and they normally follow apocalyptic private revelations not recognised by the Church and they have chapels which, from a canonical point of view, are illegal chapels. They are not authorised by a bishop and some of these groups might be enthusiastic for such important relics and to have them in their private chapels. Some of these groups are well hidden. They may await the end of the world, not believe Pope Francis is the real Pope, follow this and that ‘revelation’ of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. But there are probably several hundred such semi-clandestine groups in Italy and if I had to bet, I’d put my money on one of these groups and not on the Satanists, because Satanists, as I said, take hosts [and] I’ve never heard about any Satanist group abusing relics.

Do you think there might be a financial motive behind this?

It’s a possibility, somebody can buy and sell from stealing but he or she must have in mind a prospective buyer. And in terms of buyers, again ‘fringe Catholics’ are the most likely possibility. That said, we do have Satanist groups in Italy, but official Satanism is declining. By official I mean groups with a website, perhaps incorporated groups which are perfectly legal in Italy as they are in the United States. Perhaps they publish a bulletin or magazine. These groups are actually declining. There’s only one in Bologna surviving.

What we have in Italy which is not declining are juvenile groups – groups of teenagers, people in their 20s, and they don’t have a website or magazines. They certainly don’t gather as an association, but have self-organised rituals in cemeteries, private homes, perhaps downloading rituals on the internet. It’s difficult to find statistics, but there seems to be a growing juvenile phenomenon. Of course, the police only take an interest if there’s a crime, such as happened in 2004 [the so-called ‘Beasts of Satan’ group of young Satanists committed three notorious ritual murders over six years], or sometimes animals are sacrificed which is illegal, or places are desecrated which is also illegal. But these groups of teenagers and young adults don’t have money to commission a theft, and they perhaps don’t even know who John Paul II was. But the real problem is juvenile Satanism, not organised groups.

There have been reports of an increase in diabolical possession in some parts of Italy and exorcisms. How true is this?

I would say statistics are conflicting from diocese to diocese, but normally it’s a completely different phenomenon and should not be confused with Satanism. Those who are possessed, or claiming to be possessed, are generally good Catholics. Satanists don’t go to get exorcists. Those who claim they are bound by Satan are good Catholic church-going people claiming that Satan is taking an interest in them rather than vice-versa. But the two phenomena are completely different.

Are exorcisms increasing in Italy, as some reports suggest?

It’s difficult to say. Some dioceses claim record numbers but others in some other parts of Italy, like central Italy, say they’re decreasing. In Italy, and in Spain, it’s always been a phenomenon with very high numbers, and I think they have stayed the same. But again, people who go to exorcists are not people who go to Satanists. Satan is looking for them. It’s the other way round. 

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UPDATE - 1/31/14

Police have caught the thieves and found the relic. Prof. Introvigne was merely speculating in good faith, based on his expertise and the limited information he knew at the time (he was speaking by phone while on a trip to the US). I therefore have no reason to believe his suspicion of "fringe" Catholics was in any way malicious, and certainly neither was my decision to report his opinion. One or two bloggers demanding an apology are therefore being unjust.