Police have used the word “exorcism” to describe the ritualistic death of two toddlers in Germantown this month, allegedly at the hand of their mother and her roommate.
The mother, Zakieya Avery, 28, and Monifa Sanford, 21, are accused of killing two of Avery’s children — 2-year-old Zyana Harris and 1-year-old Norell N. Harris.
The women also stabbed Avery’s two other children — a 5-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy — but those children are expected to survive, according to police.
Police said Avery and Sanford appear to have genuinely believed in demons. They met at a Germantown church, and were part of a group that called itself the “Demon Assassins” and had held exorcisms in the past, according to police.
Darryl Joyce, the pastor of the church, Exousia Ministries, said in a sermon Sunday Avery and Sanford had not been members of the church for several months. He said all of his members were grieving the women’s alleged actions, and that they had not been sanctioned in any form and were not in accordance with the teachings of his church.
Local experts say the actions the women are accused of committing in the toddlers’ deaths are far outside the rites or traditions in religious institutions today.
According to Philip Soergel, a history of religious studies professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, exorcisms played a prominent role in Catholic and Protestant faiths in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the rites used in the two Christian branches differed widely.
In the Catholic tradition, for example, the rite of exorcism was codified in the “Rituale Romanum,” or Roman Rite. Priests used salt, a crucifix, the eucharist (bread believed to become Jesus’s body), oil and holy water, along with a recitation of prayers, he said.
“Then, they would just keep repeating these prayers,” Soergel said.
He explained that priests were warned not to argue or converse with demons, but command them to submit to God’s authority and to leave the body of the person they had possessed or attacked.
Protestant rites were more fluid and more centered on the faith of the congregation as a means to expel a Satanic force, he said. In their exorcisms, they used prayer, Bible readings and hymns to to expel demons from a person manifesting signs of being “possessed.” In the past, demonic possession was blamed for physical ailments or behaviors like speaking in unrecognizable languages, eating glass, levitating, performing self-mutilation, depression, and other psychological ailments.
“These beliefs derive from the notion that evil is a tangible force and has real power over people’s lives,” Soergel said.
The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. declined to talk to The Gazette about exorcisms, saying that Sanford and Avery were not Catholics.
“Religion, including exorcisms, are functional, intended to help people deal with problems of everyday life,” said William Stuart, a University of Maryland, College Park, professor who has taught about the anthropology of good and evil and attended exorcisms performed locally for his research.
His research was based off of a pastor who came from the south and performed exorcisms at a Baptist church in Montgomery County, Stuart said. Stuart observed about a dozen such rituals in Montgomery County from 1995 to 2005, he said.
“Some of the exorcisms were very functional,” he said, of the ones he observed. “They worked — I don’t mean they saw spirits of any sort, but many of them — concluded they had been released from a possessing spirit,” he said.
“In principal, major religions have a place for soul possessions and the minions of the devil coming against you. ... It’s part and parcel of the grand cosmic battle of good and evil,” he said.
On Jan. 17, police found the bodies of two toddlers washed and wrapped in blankets.
The women believed the children had been possessed by demons that they tried to expel. First, they tried to snap the children’s necks, then they choked them, and finally stabbed them, authorities said. The women told police the children’s eyes turned black and they saw the demon “skipping from child to child,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said at Avery’s bail review on Jan. 21.
According to Stuart, there is a historical basis for exorcisms that cured an afflicted person and exorcisms that killed them.
“Epidemic” or lethal exorcisms have historical precedent in cases like the Salem witch trials or the Inquisition, he said. The people in those situations “were much more inclined to be violent and to kill rather than to cure,” he said.
In the Salem witch trials, for example, people who killed women they believed of being witches or heretics felt they were experiencing something “very, very traumatic,” he said.
“There were number of social dislocations — they felt they couldn’t control lives or get a fair deal. They concluded ominous and malevolent spirits possessing people... it was considered so ominous, that once identified, witches were killed, not cured,” he said.
In his research in Montgomery County, he saw “endemic” exorcisms. “The upshot would be to cure, rather than kill,” he explained.
Today, many religious groups believe exorcisms are a defunct tool that was used in a spiritual battle that took place hundreds — if not thousands — of years ago, he said. Others — particularly some Protestant churches, like those that believe in “gifts of the spirit,” like speaking in tongues or “faith healings” or other spiritual elements — still perform various versions of the rite.
Stuart said that the exorcisms he saw in Montgomery County were all ones where the goal was to cure the afflicted person.
Soergel, the professor of religious history, said weapons play no part in current rites.
“I’ve never heard of someone bringing a knife to an exorcism,” he said.