When a troubled Virginia woman became convinced she was possessed by the devil, she turned to a Catholic priest in Front Royal for help.
He was the Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer, the telegenic head of one of the country’s largest antiabortion groups, and he appeared regularly on cable news shows. He had put his regular priestly duties on hold to come to Virginia to lead Human Life International in 2000, but he still dabbled in the occasional exorcism.
When they met in 2008, Euteneuer told the woman that he thought her case was “severe” but that he was sure he could help rid her body of a “demonic infestation” of “unclean spirits,” according to a lawsuit filed in Arlington County Circuit Court.
Over the next two years, the suit alleges, Euteneuer sexually molested the woman repeatedly during purported “exorcism” sessions, often conducted in offices on the Human Life International campus, near Interstate 66 about an hour west of Washington.
The rite of exorcism begins with a priest sprinkling holy water and saying prayers. In some cases, it is described as ending with the subject shaking violently, screaming or speaking in tongues. What the lawsuit alleges goes well beyond the rituals prescribed by the Catholic Church.
“He kissed the corners of her mouth; stroked her legs, breasts and thighs; caressed her face; laid his body on top of hers; and frequently explained full, passionate kisses as ‘blowing the Holy Spirit into’ her,” the lawsuit alleges. Once, at a conference, the suit alleges, Euteneuer invited the woman to his hotel room to “pray over” her, then removed her clothes and assaulted her.
The lawsuit, filed last week in Circuit Court, does not name Euteneuer as a defendant. It seeks $5.3 million in damages from his former employer, HLI, and from the Catholic Diocese of Arlington and its bishop, Paul S. Loverde, who the woman’s attorneys say gave Euteneuer permission to perform the rite.
“He was not authorized to perform an exorcism on this woman. He may have lied to her and said he was, but he was not,” said Michael J. Donohue, a spokesman for the diocese. Donohue said Euteneuer worked for a private company and has never been a priest of the Arlington diocese.
The Arlington diocese already has an exorcist, Donohue said, one of about 50 who perform the solemn rite in Catholic parishes across the country. In 1999, the Vatican formally revised and upheld the practice of exorcism for the first time in nearly 400 years.
Donohue said the Warren County woman — identified in court papers as “Jane Doe” — eventually sought help from the diocese’s victim-assistance office in 2010. After hearing her story, the office reported the allegations to church officials in Palm Beach, Fla., Euteneuer’s home diocese, where he was ordained in 1988.
The Arlington diocese also provided the woman with counseling and spiritual assistance, Donohue said.
Meanwhile, Euteneuer was recalled to Florida to undergo counseling. His “priestly faculties” were removed, meaning that he can no longer perform Mass or other sacraments, according to Dianne Laubert, a spokesman for the Palm Beach diocese.
Last year, Euteneuer issued an official statement apologizing for his actions and saying that he was motivated only to help people in “great spiritual distress.”
“One particularly complex situation clouded my judgment and led me to imprudent decisions with harmful consequences, the worst of which was violating the boundaries of chastity with an adult female who was under my spiritual care,” he said in his statement. “I take full responsibility for my own poor judgment, my weakness and my sinful conduct that resulted from it.”
He is not named as a defendant in the current lawsuit because he reached a settlement with the woman out of court, the woman’s attorneys said. Euteneuer’s attorney did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Euteneuer served as president of Human Life International for 10 years before he abruptly stepped down in August of 2010. The nonprofit missionary group, formed in 1981 by a Benedictine monk, advocates for families and against abortion and population control. It has affiliates in 80 countries.
“To the extent Father Euteneuer has already admitted to engaging in highly inappropriate conduct with a young adult woman, we can only emphasize that such behavior was never within the scope of his employment with HLI,” Stephen Phelan, the organization’s director of communications, said in a statement.
According to the lawsuit, which was first reported by the Associated Press, the woman signed a document pledging her “complete cooperation” in spiritual work with Euteneuer in February 2008.
Over time, the lawsuit says, Euteneuer began touching the woman in inappropriate ways, activity that culminated one evening when he slept in the same bed with her all night. The abuse was paired with “exorcism sessions” that left the victim with a “distorted and damaging belief that exorcism was tied to sexual activity,” the lawsuit says.
According to the lawsuit, he later began giving the woman money, arranged for her to move her home from Sterling to a place closer to his offices and hired her as an employee of HLI. When he learned that she had kept a diary of their encounters, he allegedly asked to have it for safekeeping and then burned it.
The woman’s attorney, Demetrios C. Pikrallidas, said that she has suffered severe emotional distress as a result of the abuse and that she remains “upset and distraught.”
“She placed her trust in a man of faith,” he said.