An Exorcist’s Perspective on the Sex Abuse Scandal

“Scandals show us that rank does not mean holiness. Holiness happens only when we are personally committed to Christ.”

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), “Christus Consolator”
Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), “Christus Consolator” (photo: Public Domain)

The loyalties of those who have relentlessly defended the Church have been wearied. While we were defending and praying for the Church to rise above old sex scandals, it seems that leaders within the Church kept them going. So now, how do we muster the desire to stay the course?

The Pennsylvania grand jury report and multiple abuse charges against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick have cast a shadow of suspicion on the integrity of the entire Catholic hierarchy. The scandals open old wounds of betrayal and make a new gash into our trust in the moral authority of the Church. How can we trust leaders who gave entry to the devil impersonating a shepherd of Christ, all while violating his Church?

To shore up the faithful who are among the wounded, I turned to someone who was once a spiritual director to Saint Teresa of Calcutta—Msgr. John Esseff. He has been a priest for 65 years and an exorcist in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for over 40 years. Msgr. Esseff is a founder and president of the board of directors of the Pope Leo XIII Institute, which trains exorcists and is dedicated to bringing the healing of Christ to those afflicted by evil. He offered a simple personal reflection and reason for hope.


The Brand Has Been Damaged

“When I was ordained in 1953, no one would have feared placing their children in my care,” Msgr. Esseff said. “The priesthood was for the blessing and care of children. With the scandals in the Church, the brand has definitely been damaged.” However, he said that he is still filled with hope for the future of the Church, particularly after having just returned from spending time last month with 177 seminarians at the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska.

“I was really amazed listening to them sum up their experiences,” Msgr. Esseff said. “I thought: ‘Oh my goodness, these are men from all over the country of every nationality, so in love with God, charging into the Church.’” The scandals, he explained, reminded him of the Twin Towers being crashed on 9/11 then first responders fearlessly running in. “These sons of God are rushing into the Church with a tremendous dream of saving souls and spreading God’s kingdom,” he said. “We have these scandals, but we also have these magnificent men.”


Rank is Not Holiness

“There is only one Father in the family, and whatever rank we have is not what makes us a member of the body of Christ,” Msgr. Esseff said. “Scandals show us that rank does not mean holiness. Holiness happens only when we are personally committed to Christ, and that is open to everyone equally.”

“When we were baptized, the Holy Spirit united us to the Second Person of the Trinity, so that every baptized Christian is Christ and has a personal relationship with God the Father who loves the Son with an infinite love,” Msgr. Esseff said. “The love the Father has for me, a priest, is the same that he has for every person. And it will take the Father all of eternity to tell me of his love for me. It will always be new for 10,000 years, 100,000 years and forever.”

“Yes, there will be scandals and all kinds of corruption in the body, but when I hear of the scandals in the Vatican banks and the sexual scandals, I am not discouraged. I see these times that Pope John Paul II talked about as a new springtime and Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have talked about it. We are into a wonderful age.

“After 65 years in the priesthood, I can truly say that without Jesus, I can do nothing. I am Christ because of the Father and the Father called me to be his son. The relationship between the Father and Son is constantly connected by the Holy Spirit and that same Spirit is uniting me with not only the Father but with every brother and sister in the world.”


Little Ones, Strengthen the Church

As a spiritual director, Msgr. Esseff said he has found very many humble people in his life that fill him with awe and great hope. “These people know who they are called to be,” he said. “They hold no rank and are unknown by most people, but they pray and are the strength of our Church.”

Msgr. Esseff pointed out the example of the unknown nun, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who died at the age of 24 and ended up becoming famous around the world and a doctor of the Church. “We all have the same power,” he said, “the power to pray and be holy and to be united to God the Father in Christ through the Holy Spirit. And there is where the true strength is.”