By Karen S. Schneider
April 22, 1991 12:00 PM

In a small chapel at a convent in Wellington, Fla., a 16-year-old girl named Gina retchs and flails her arms, spewing strange sounds—words in tongues from a demon she calls Minga—while priests and nuns strap her down and invoke the power of the Holy Spirit. “Get away from me!” she screams, her eyes bulging in a mad frenzy. “Get away! I don’t want to burn. Sinners!”

It was the stuff of the 1973 film The Exorcist—eerie, frightening, fascinating. But this was no Hollywood fantasy. On April 5, 29 million viewers tuned in to ABC’s 20/20 to hear cohost Barbara Walters ask portentously, “Is the Devil real?” Then they watched in astonishment as a Roman Catholic priest performed the country’s first-ever televised exorcism. Surrounded by fellow clergy, a Christian psychotherapist and Gina’s mother, Felisa, Father “A” (for anonymous) pressed a silver cross against the teenager’s head. “In the name of Jesus Christ,” he said, “I command the spirit of evil to leave now.”

Whatever its effect on Gina, the televised ritual sparked a nationwide debate: Was this entire affair spooky of silly? Educational or exploitive? Was Gina possessed or simply psychotic? “The public reaction has been incredible,” says Rob Wallace, who produced the segment, which, he notes, brought 20/20 its highest ratings in 10 years. “People had exorcism parties all over the place.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the segment was that the exorcism happened at all. Recently many Catholic theologians have discounted the medieval ritual as more hocus-pocus than religion. Then last March, John Cardinal O’Connor of New York claimed that two “successful” exorcisms had been performed in his archdiocese the previous year.

Before long the archdiocese was deluged with requests. “We received more than 70 pleas for help from all over the country,” says Rev. James LeBar, the consultant on cults for the New York diocese who had handled the two exorcisms and would oversee Gina’s as well. Among those who took notice was 20/20’s Wallace, who contacted LeBar about televising the ritual. LeBar was initially dubious. “I was concerned the show could be sensational,” he says. Wallace confirms that LeBar and Father A, the priest who performs exorcisms for the New York archdiocese, “were very, very slow to trust us.” But after months of discussions, LeBar, with the knowledge of both Cardinal O’Connor and the Vatican, agreed to go public. “We thought it was important for people to understand that the Devil does exist and, most important, that the church has a means to help,” he explains.

After gaining the consent of Felisa, who was convinced her daughter had been possessed, LeBar brought her and Wallace together. From Felisa, Wallace learned that Gina had been physically abused as a child by an acquaintance and had been traumatized by her parents’ divorce. According to her mother, Gina began behaving oddly, throwing tantrums, spitting and speaking in the low gurgle of Minga, whom Gina described as a short female, and the screeching of an “African from the jungle” whom Gina called Zion. Two years ago Felisa took her daughter to a professed psychic. But when the visit didn’t help, she checked Gina into the Miami Children’s Hospital psychiatric ward, where she was diagnosed as psychotic. She remained two months, but still there was no improvement. “I was sick with all these evil things,” said Gina, who, like her mother, believes the problem was not psychological but demonic. Finally, Felisa turned to the church and, last year, to LeBar. The priest approached Gina with the caution he exercises in all such cases. “We always ask the medical and psychiatric community to investigate every possibility that there may be a natural cause for the disorders,” he explains. His colleagues spent six months interviewing Gina and reviewing psychiatric evaluations. The conclusion: exorcise.

During the six-hour ritual that took place last October—26 minutes of which were televised—the 20/20 crew looked for the four signs that the church believes are indicative of possession: abnormal strength, levitation, clairvoyance and the ability to speak in languages the subject has not studied. As Zion, Gina babbled in what LeBar supposes to be an African dialect, though that was not confirmed. And Father A said that “she possessed knowledge of things and people that no way she should have.” But to Wallace’s mind, nothing extraordinary happened. “I did see compassionate people trying to help in a serious, honest way,” he says. But, he notes, “they were desperate to believe.” In the end, viewers saw a writhing, disturbed young girl being tied down, shouted at and filmed—a sight some found objectionable. “Many in the Catholic Church feel exorcism is a private ritual,” says Rev. James J. Gill, a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist from Hartford. Televising Gina, he says, was like “the way it used to be in Europe, when psychiatric patients were displayed on Sundays for the entertainment of the spectators.”

Both LeBar and Gina, who agreed to be taped, are satisfied that the exorcism worked. And yet, the following night, Gina claimed to hear the voices again, and days later she returned to Miami Children’s Hospital, where she was treated with haloperidol, a powerful tranquilizer. Today, with the help of the drugs and therapy, she is reportedly attending high school and moving toward a normal life. “I called back a couple of months after the exorcism took place to find out if Minga or Zion would answer the phone, and they didn’t,” says Wallace, only half-facetiously. “I don’t know if [Gina] was possessed, but she believed she was, and she believes that the priest removed the demons from her. So whether it’s in her head or not, it was successful.”

—Karen S. Schneider, Mary Huzinec in New York City