Help for Exorcists: How a New York Psychiatrist Battles Demons

Dr. Richard Gallagher is called upon by priests to evaluate and advise on cases.

Dr. Richard Gallagher
Dr. Richard Gallagher (photo: Courtesy of the subject)

Dr. Richard Gallagher was greeted with an unusual question: “How did you like those cats?” The middle-aged woman with black eye shadow and dark flowing clothing had a smirk on her face as she waited for the psychiatrist to respond.

“The night before, in my bedroom with my wife, our two cats had gone wild in the middle of the night,” Gallagher explained.

A Catholic exorcist had referred Julia (a pseudonym he gave her) for evaluation. She referred to herself as the queen or high priestess of the Satanic cult she was in.

The patient’s question was more than just unnerving, according to Gallagher. “It was very irritating,” he said. “I told her if she was ever involved in doing anything like that again, I would refuse to assess her for her exorcist.”

She and all others in such situations are not actually patients of Gallagher’s, but individuals suspected of demonic attack that various clergy send to him to render an opinion.

Gallagher said that having his own home “invaded” was the most disturbing aspect of the Julia incident, which happened about 20 years ago.

Gallagher is an Ivy League-trained — at Princeton and Yale — psychiatrist now working in Westchester County, New York. He has a private practice and is also on the faculty at Columbia University and New York Medical College. 


Becoming an Adviser

Today, Gallagher is regularly called upon to help a network of exorcists across the country. He is brought in to evaluate and advise on cases, as well as to speak on the topic and even occasionally to be present at exorcisms. Gallagher has been the longest-standing American attendee at the meetings of the now Rome-based International Association of Exorcists in Italy and for a time the only psychiatrist on its governing board. 

He is quoted many times by author Matt Baglio in the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, based on the training of American priest Father Gary Thomas in Rome in 2005.

“I was overseas at the time for a meeting of the association, and he bought me dinner at a restaurant in Rome and picked my brain,” Gallagher said of Baglio. He was on the board as a scientific adviser at the time.

The movie by the same name took Father Thomas’ character and made him a young seminarian and substantially changed the true story.

The problem with Hollywood exorcist movies, according to Gallagher, is that they don’t get it right. Thus far, he has not cooperated with moviemakers.

“I get calls from Hollywood all the time,” he said. “I don’t get the sense that they want to do anything but sensationalize.”

Father Thomas explained to the Register that he did not personally meet Gallagher until a few years after his training at a conference.

“It’s because of Dr. Gallagher that I’ve been able to put people in contact with someone who is an authority when I don’t necessarily have a priest available in the New York area,” the priest said. “He’s very, very competent.”

Father Thomas, who is pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Saratoga, California, explained that since he is well-known as an exorcist, he gets calls from across the country. “They should be helped by someone in their own area,” he said. “There are around 125 exorcists in the country now, which is a big increase from when I started, but it is still not enough. If someone calls me from the New York area, I refer them to Dr. Gallagher. The exorcist is going to want an evaluation to be done anyway, and then Dr. Gallagher can refer them.”

According to Gallagher, an exorcist will have a psychiatric evaluation done to rule out mental illness. Most bishops, especially in America, require it. Becoming an adviser to exorcists is not something medical schools include in psychiatric training. “I never signed up for this,” Gallagher said. “It just happened that, 25 years ago, two of the busiest exorcists in the country asked me to help on a few cases. I became friends with each of them, and other priests started asking my opinion.”

Much of his training, he said, was learned from talking with exorcists. Gallagher also occasionally consults with non-Catholic ministers and sees people of other faiths who often turn to Catholic exorcists when seemingly demonic things occur in people’s lives.

“One woman I evaluated was brought up Lutheran so she went to see a Lutheran minister,” he explained.

“When a [Lutheran] deacon said some prayers over her, the demon manifested, and she took the guy and threw him across the room — even though he was more than twice her weight.”

At that point, the woman’s husband sought out a Catholic priest, who asked Gallagher to evaluate the situation.

The Roman ritual instructs exorcists to use “extreme circumspection and prudence” before performing the rite until they know with “moral certainty” that a person is possessed. It also cautions against mistaking mental illness for demonic influence. A wrong diagnosis is harmful. If a true demonic influence is overlooked, treating a patient with counseling and medicine is ineffective. Yet labeling a patient demonically attacked when he or she is not can make matters worse.


Irish-Catholic Background

Growing up in an Irish-Catholic home, Gallagher was familiar with the Gospel stories.

“I thought the stories of demonic possession were real," he said, "but I never thought that I would ever come in contact with one or ever be asked to see anyone possessed.”

In his psychiatric practice, Gallagher said it is not unusual for people with mental problems to imagine they are being attacked by the devil. However, he started seeing cases that could not be scientifically explained when the two aforementioned exorcists began asking for his scientific opinion on cases of suspected demonic possession or oppression.

How does Gallagher discern when the devil and not mental illness is to blame? “When there is a pattern of symptoms that don’t fit a psychiatric profile and it often includes the paranormal,” he said. “Once I get the whole story, I can usually discern the clear difference between the medical and spiritual cases. The more severe ones pretty much all have prominent paranormal features.”

Gallagher explained that, with possession, a devil takes over a person’s body; and with oppression, the person might experiences physical attacks, which may include the inexplicable appearance of bruises and scratches and reports of being choked by invisible forces. Although skeptics will try to explain such things away, Gallagher said that alternative explanations are usually far more implausible.

Some of the things that Gallagher has witnessed time and again in possessed patients are enormous strength, having hidden knowledge, speaking or understanding previously unknown foreign languages, and a revulsion of blessed objects.

He said that he does not rely on just his own observation, but takes into account eyewitness statements from family, friends and priests.

Gallagher has been present at many exorcisms. He has seen people slip into trances and speak in multiple voices and not react to plain water but react violently to holy water.

In the case of Julia, he said that she had eight total exorcisms and actually levitated during an exorcism. “I was not there at the time, but seven people told me about it, including two nurses and a nun.”

Sadly, she ended up declining further help without getting “delivered.”


Thousands of Cases

Most exorcists work through their dioceses and see only localized activity, but Gallagher gets calls from across the country and even from other countries. He has seen several thousand patients in 25 years. Of those, he said only around 100 were actually “fully” possessed, although a much larger number than that were oppressed, the more common phenomenon.

“But there were still many more than either of those spiritual conditions that thought they were [possessed or oppressed], but were neither,” he said.

Gallagher often hears how cases turn out. For possessions, he said that usually there are a series of exorcisms, not just one. “True possession can sometimes be taken care of in one exorcism, which happens, but is rare. Other times, it may take years,” Gallagher said. “It can depend on the willingness of the persons to help themselves.” He explained that victims generally need to cooperate by developing their own spiritual resources and strengths. “The exorcism makes the demonic hold on the person weaker,” he said, “but the person’s response influences the ultimate outcome.”

Contrary to Hollywood myth, Gallagher said exorcisms are a spiritual journey, not a quick fix. “It’s a challenge for that person to turn to Christ,” he said. “I don’t mean to say every lengthy exorcism happens because the victim has not turned to Christ, but it is a common denominator in success. Exorcism is not a magical process, as every experienced exorcist advises the suffering person; it is in a different moral universe than the incantations of a pagan witch doctor. The victim’s own inner spiritual effort is generally critical to the process, so in the end, the suffering individual’s cooperation is ultimately essential,” according to Gallagher. “That is a big part of the liberation process itself,” he said. “If they don’t turn to Our Lord, those cases last a long time, and sometimes they are not ever delivered.”

Just as developing a spiritual life can help free a person from the devil, so, too, is it an important protection against evil to begin with.

Gallagher doesn’t worry about his own physical and spiritual protection.

“I feel like I’m on the winning side,” he said. “I’ve helped out a lot of religious orders in my day, so many consecrated religious are praying for me every day. I count myself blessed.”

He also prays the St. Michael Prayer a lot and asks people to pray for him.

Gallagher added: “You can even ask for prayers from your readers.”

Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.