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02.02.11

The Shame of an Exorcist Admitting Violation of Chastity

Thomas Euteneuer is a priest, anti-abortion activist—and confessed violator of "chastity" with a woman he was performing an exorcism on. Michelle Goldberg on the Catholic Church’s latest disaster.

Until last year, Thomas Euteneuer was president of Human Life International, a group that has worked successfully to limit abortion and family planning all over the world. In August, he abruptly left his job, and now we know why. Earlier this week, Euteneuer, a Catholic priest, confessed to "violations of chastity" with a woman he was performing an exorcism on. When it comes to clerical abuse of vulnerable people, this may be a new frontier.

Euteneuer was a major figure in the anti-abortion movement. Though not well known in the United States, his organization has had a profound effect on women's rights around the world. It was founded in 1981 by Paul Marx, an anti-Semitic priest who blamed Jews for abortion. "If you have read my book The Death Peddlers, notice how many Jews helped lead the infamous 1971 abortion planning meeting in Los Angeles," wrote Marx, continuing, "Also, note the large number of abortionists (consult the Yellow Pages) and pro-abortion medical professors who are Jewish." He was a bigot, but he understood, correctly, that reproductive issues are often global. The United States and the United Nations play major roles in distributing family planning worldwide, while feminist movements regularly collaborate across borders. Human Life International aimed to work on the international stage as well.

It was and is a radical organization; its spokesman, Don Treshman, once praised the shooting of a Canadian abortion doctor as a "superb tactic." Such rhetoric made it hard for the group to work on Capitol Hill or in international forums, so in the late 1990s, it created two spin-off organizations. One, The Population Research Institute, is devoted to dogging international family planning organizations like the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA. The other, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, or C-FAM, lobbies inside the United Nations.

These groups have had some notable successes. During the Bush administration, for example, the Population Research Institute accused the UNFPA of complicity with forced abortion in China. Even though a State Department investigation found the charges baseless, Bush nevertheless used them as a pretext to defund the U.N. group, which plays a major role in supporting women's health initiatives around the world. (Obama restored its funding shortly after taking office.)

Meanwhile, Human Life International, which Euteneuer took over in 2000, has built itself into a powerful force in the increasingly globalized anti-abortion movement. Abortion is broadly illegal in much of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and botched abortions account for tens of thousands of maternal deaths annually. Human Life International has offices and affiliates worldwide to fight against abortion liberalization, and, where possible, to make the law even more restrictive.

When it comes to clerical abuse of vulnerable people, this may be a new frontier.

In 2006, for example, Nicaragua removed all exemptions to its already strict abortion law, making the procedure illegal in all circumstances, even when a woman's life is at stake. The man who led the charge for the ban, a conservative gynecologist named Rafael Cabrera, was the president of Human Life International's Nicaraguan affiliate. When I interviewed him in 2006, he gave me Spanish-language versions of Human Life International literature.

The year after his group's victory, maternal mortality in Nicaragua doubled, and Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which women had died after being refused treatment for pregnancy complications.

So to people involved in international women's rights work, Euteneuer's organization is well known. He regularly circled the globe, visiting 58 countries over the last decade. He's also occasionally made news in the United States, particularly in 2007, after he said that Fox News host Sean Hannity should be denied communion because of his support for birth control. A Florida crisis pregnancy center that he established was featured in the HBO documentary " 12th and Delaware".

More controversially, in 2003, Euteneuer started "ministering to those possessed by demons," in the words of Deal W. Hudson, who interviewed the priest for the ultraconservative website InsideCatholic.com. "Father Euteneuer told me possession is almost always a result of someone getting involved in some sort of occult practices, such as witchcraft, Wicca, tarot cards, and Ouiji [sic] boards," Hudson wrote. The admiring article did little to refute Hollywood notions of what exorcisms look like. According to Eutenuer, Hudson wrote, the more powerful demons "have biblical names, and he often runs into demons with the same name, as if they had a kind of demonic family name." When they're being cast out, he said, they exclaim, "It burns."

Euteneuer regularly traveled around the country performing exorcisms and giving a speech titled, "An Evening With An Exorcist." Last June, he published a book, Exorcism and the Church Militant, arguing that the ancient rite is more necessary than ever in the demon-haunted modern world. "Satan is normally 'hidden'… but nowadays he is walking tall in powerful structures of sin like abortion, pornography, sex slavery, rapacious greed and terrorism," he wrote.

Then, in August, he abruptly left his position at Human Life International and canceled his speaking engagements. His book was pulled from shelves, and is now rare enough that it sells for hundreds of dollars online. His admirers were baffled. Just last month, The Palm Beach Post ran a story headlined, "Exorcist priest exits public spotlight, mystifying many."

Yesterday, Human Life International released a statement about what happened to Euteneuer. In August, the group received a complaint "involving a young adult woman, which occurred within the context of his exorcism ministry." After an inquiry, the priest admitted "inappropriate conduct" and was forced to resign his job. His bishop, Gerald Barbarito, recalled him to the Diocese of Palm Beach, where, according to a memo obtained by The Palm Beach Post, he's been undergoing evaluation and counseling.

Euteneuer has issued his own statement. "[O]ne particularly complex situation clouded my judgment and led me to imprudent decisions with harmful consequences," he wrote, "the worst of which was violating the boundaries of chastity with an adult female who was under my spiritual care." But it seems possible that there was more than just one victim. "Since the time of Rev. Euteneuer's resignation, the Board subsequently learned of additional allegations in connection with his exorcism ministry," said Human Life International.

Given all of this, perhaps Euteneuer wasn't entirely wrong. Maybe there really are demons in this world.

Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.