The guardian ad litem assigned to a disturbed girl questioned the use of a religious ceremony described as an exorcism in an attempt to allay some of her fears. The teenage girl, A, from eastern Europe, was in HSE care in a residential centre where she was receiving treatment for her mental health problems, and when the case came before the District Court for review the GAL raised the issue of the religious ceremony.
The GAL’s solicitor said the GAL was seeking an external inquiry into how the ceremony came to be carried out, the decision-making process and the potential impact the ceremony had on the girl.
The girl’s social worker said this was a very religious girl. She was a Catholic and had a lot of religious artefacts in her room. Previous psychological social work reports showed she had a lot of problems. There was a consultation with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).
The girl herself wanted this religious ceremony. It was suggested a religious blessing would take place to ensure she felt safe in her residence. She saw images of a man in her room, and this man encouraged her to self-harm. The staff asked her would she like to have the room blessed. A priest with a lot of experience with adolescents was contacted.
“The word ‘exorcism’ has been bandied about. It is not really accurate,” said the social worker. “Holy water and salt was used. This child has a very strong religious belief. That’s life for her. There was nothing overly fundamentalist about it. A child-in-care review identified her holistic needs, including her spiritual needs. There was nothing really sinister about it. It was a simple ceremony. Holy water and salt were used. Prayers were said. The child said she felt safer afterwards. She is a very troubled young person with a history of self-harm.
“This kind of ceremony would not take place on a regular basis. This child has a unique strength of faith, so it was specific to her.”
Asked by the GAL solicitor who authorised the ceremony, the social worker said there had been a discussion with the psychiatrist in charge of the CAMHS team. The head of the social work team was told it was being considered.
Solicitor: “Was there a meeting to discuss the auditory hallucinations she was having?”
Social worker: “I’m not sure if there was a meeting to discuss this specifically.”
Solicitor: “So there are no minutes of the meeting?”
Social worker: “I don’t know.”
The GAL solicitor asked if there was an account of happened in the ceremony available.
The social worker said there had been salt placed in the corners of the room, holy water, medals, the four archangels of the Catholic faith were asked for protection, the girl felt safer for a while, unfortunately her hallucinations re-occurred.
“I appreciate it’s not the norm in modern Ireland. It is not so long ago we blessed cars etc. She has a very strong faith. We outlined what happened. There’s no need for an inquiry. We never expected it to cure the girl of her psychiatric issue. It was to make her feel safer, something that arose in the context of on-going work,” he said.
Solicitor: “The GAL asked what was the relevance of the ceremony in her care plan.”
Social worker: “It was discussed at a child-in-care review as a measure to make her feel safer in her room.”
The guardian ad litem told the court a significant amount of work had gone into the girl’s care plan, and unfortunately this issue had arisen. “A is a very troubled young lady. She had been attending the psychological services and a number of decisions were made regarding her needs. Part of that was she had a spiritual side and might need contact with a local priest.
“My understanding was that she was to see a priest and say a few prayers. She [told me] a Mass had taken place in her room for about an hour. There was holy water and a circumference of salt. There were holy medals in each corner. I decided to make enquiries. It was the manager of the centre who used the word ‘exorcism’ to describe the ceremony. She said the priest had listened to A’s concerns and on this basis had conducted the ceremony.
“A described it in quite dramatic terms. She said it was to get rid of the demon who came from the local graveyard at night. It is still coming after the ceremony. She was quite frightened by the ceremony.
“She is from the Romany culture. She has a mixture of Catholicism with a lot of symbolic elements. If pictures fell off a wall she would see that as a symbol of something.
“I would be suggesting an inquiry. This is a very unusual intervention, that such a ritualistic ceremony would be carried out in a child’s home, in the room of a vulnerable child, and [the inquiry should] consider whether it was an adequate or suitable response professionally. I have had an account that is not particularly clear.”
The HSE solicitor asked him if the child was not prone to exaggeration.
“Yes,” replied the GAL, “that is why I am looking for an inquiry. But it was the manager of the centre who used the word ‘exorcism’, which worried me. I don’t think the ceremony was to deal with the apparition, but to provide some comfort, but I don’t think the worries about A needed to be dealt with through a religious ceremony. This was meant to be a simple meeting with a priest and a few simple prayers.”
HSE solicitor: “You said, ‘this does not have a place in an enlightened modern culture.’ But people bless cars and houses.”
GAL: “That is not an appropriate comparison. I never came across it in any social work intervention with a vulnerable child in the child’s home, who suffered significant neglect and abuse in her life. It’s the scale of the ceremony I’m concerned about. I don’t know if the psychologists knew this would happen – the use of salt, holy water, miraculous medals in the bedroom. I don’t think there was any malice in the arrangement for A to see a priest. The problem arose when the priest arrived. It grew on the day.”
Asked what an external review would achieve, he said it needed to answer whether what happened on the day in her bedroom was acceptable practice.
Asked by the judge what his attitude would have been if such a ceremony had been suggested at the child-in-care meeting, he said he would have had serious reservations. “She is very unwell. Hallucination was part of her mental health. It was not part of her religious belief. I feel it would be the wrong intervention to deal with that. A lot of children see manifestations. This is the first time I ever heard of such a ceremony in the bedroom of a child.”
The GAL said he wanted an inquiry to find out how the decision was reached and whether it was an appropriate intervention in current child care practice.
The HSE solicitor said an inquiry was not necessary. An explanation had been given. The ceremony was intended to give comfort to a very troubled child.
The judge said: “It seems it was extremely well-intended. Those in the room on the day decided to escalate the intervention and everyone went along. In future a programme should be agreed with a priest and he should not step outside it. The HSE should check out how that should be done.
“There are questions for the HSE when they bring in outside agencies, like priests. There are other denominations where this might arise and we want to guard against that.”
The head of social work in the area said he was on annual leave when the matter arose, and it was fair that the GAL should raise it. One of the outcomes was that the girl realised this ceremony was not going to solve her problems and she needed psychiatric intervention, which she was getting.
“I can give an undertaking to this court about being careful about such ceremonies in the future,” he said. “I accept on behalf of the service that more could have been done to inquire into what was involved in the ceremony.”