Religious leaders and other observers were divided on whether the depiction of an exorcism ritual on ABC-TV's "20/20" program last week did more harm than good, with defenders saying that it demonstrated the reality of Satan in the world today and critics saying that it could create anxieties in some viewers and divert attention from large-scale problems.
The program, which featured highlights of an exorcism performed on a 16-year-old Florida girl identified only as Gina, was apparently the first time such a ritual was shown on network television other than in fictional presentations.
The filming had the express approval of Bishop J. Keith Symons of Palm Beach, in whose diocese it took place. In a statement, Symons said he hoped that the broadcast would help "counteract diabolical activities around us."
Father Richard McBrien, head of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, voiced fears that an emphasis on exorcisms could detract from concerns of more consequence, such as hunger, homelessness and war.
Speaking on the ABC "Nightline" program after the "20/20" broadcast, McBrien said portrayal of the church as being caught up in what he called a "sideshow" in the face of much greater problems could severely damage its credibility.
But Father James LeBar of the Hudson River Psychiatric Center, the New York priest who helped to arrange the filming, said in an interview that he believes "it was a good thing that we were able to show what possession is and how the church is able to take care of it."
He said the program as aired was done with "great sensitivity and accuracy" and "can clear up a lot of misconceptions." Among other things, LeBar noted, the program mentioned that there are several procedures that must be followed before someone can receive a church-authorized exorcism, including psychiatric consultations, so that "you can't just walk in the door and say, 'I want an exorcism.' "
Skipp Porteous of Housatonic, Mass., a former Assemblies of God minister who says he has performed dozens of such ceremonies, said that "over time these people that we treated reverted back."
Porteous, who now calls himself a secular humanist and who heads the Great Barrington Institute for First Amendment Studies, said: "You're simply dealing with mental problems, and they need professional help. The church should not be doing this kind of thing. I've witnessed people who have died because of it."