Leaders at San Jose church confirm they conducted ritual to rid 3-year-old of ‘evil spirits,’ leading to her death

© The Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Faith leaders at a tiny church in San Jose where a three-year-old girl perished last fall have confirmed that they performed a ceremony on the child to “liberate her of her evil spirits” but say what happened was “the will of God,” not the consequence of an exorcism.

“If you read the Bible, you’ll see that Jesus casts away demons and made sick people healthy again,” said Rene Huezo, pastor of Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas and grandfather of the victim. “It’s not when I want to do it, it’s when God, in his will, wants to heal the person. The preacher is like an instrument of God; what we do is what God says.”

Arely Naomi Proctor’s death by asphyxiation has been ruled a homicide by the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner’s office. Her mother, Claudia Hernandez, who authorities say withheld food from the girl and squeezed her neck during the exorcism, has been arrested and charged with assault on a child resulting in death. But neither Huezo nor the victim’s uncle, both of whom allegedly held the girl down as the ceremony continued, have been charged in the incident at the church on the 1000 block of South Second Street in San Jose.

The church was also attended by at least one of the suspects in the kidnapping of an infant boy in San Jose last month, but church members said they knew nothing about that crime.

Looking visibly anxious and upset after a Sunday evening church service, Huezo, who performed the exorcism on Proctor in September, said that he feels a lot of pain at the death of his grandchild. It’s difficult for people to understand what happened, he said, but “it’s the stuff of God, and everything is in the will of God no matter how small or big.”

Though he did not want to discuss details of the exorcism, Huezo said Arely was asleep when she got to the church, and the whole ceremony took about two hours. He said the girl was not screaming or showing any signs of distress.

“What happened is what … well, what we know,” Huezo said.

Still, Oscar Ayala, a preacher at the church who was not present during the exorcism, conceded that those who were there should have sought medical assistance sooner. Court documents say Hernandez waited an hour or two after the girl’s death to call 911.

“We know we haven’t done anything dark, and we know that we have a clean conscience, that we haven’t done any harm, that we haven’t provoked the death of the girl,” Ayala said. “As I say, precautions and actions weren’t taken to deal with that case. That was something natural that happened.”

But Ayala continued, “Maybe, I don’t know, we didn’t take the most logical approach, and we should’ve taken precautions that should’ve been taken to, like, take her to a hospital to make sure she’s okay.”

Ayala disagreed with the use of the term “exorcism” in relation to Arely’s death but said that demonic possession is real. “If you read the word of the Lord, you know that Jesus cast away demons.”

Experts and faith leaders familiar with the highly charismatic type of pentecostal evangelicalism practiced by Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas were stunned by the practice of exorcism on a child as young as Arely. Pastor Rafael Escobar, who leads a sister church in Reseda, said the San Jose congregation no longer belongs to their alliance and expressed dismay at the church’s use of exorcism, calling it a “dark practice.”

Timothy Wadkins, a theology professor at Canisius University, said that while pentecostal churches in El Salvador are known to practice exorcism — and that fasting is often part of the ritual — using exorcism on a three-year-old is unusual.

“It’s certainly true that the sort of radical fringe of Pentecostals believe in exorcisms and practice them and believe people can be possessed by the devil,” Wadkins said. “They believe that laying your hands on people and calling the devil out in the name of Jesus is a way to rid them of their possessions. You don’t see that too often in Pentecostal circles today, but you do see them in the radical fringe.”

On Sunday night, after a week of their church being at the center of a news cycle that brought scrutiny to the congregation, only five people sat in pews at the small one-room church watching as Huezo delivered an impassioned sermon from a raised pulpit.

The traditional symbols of Christianity are absent in the small church, which meets in the back of a house south of downtown and serves about 25 members of the local Salvadoran and Mexican community. The worshipers divided themselves down a main aisle, three women wearing white lace veils covering their hair on the left, and a two men — one holding a sleeping girl — on the right, all of them affirming Huezo’s sermon with “hallelujahs.”

After about two and a half hours, the group sat together at a long plastic table and ate together from plates of boiled yucca, fried plantains and cabbage salad — common Salvadoran staples. As they ate, congregants and church leaders said they were shocked when they found out the woman suspected of kidnapping a three-month-old boy last month was a member of their small congregation.

“It was incredible. We didn’t believe it,” Ayala said, adding that he was “consternated” when he realized the connection between his church and the kidnapping.

“We know that this person came here, but outside, like in her private life, we didn’t know. We never suspected anything, and we never imagined that this would happen.”

Eliza Melendez, a member of the congregation, said she didn’t see the kidnapping coming.

“Who can know the heart of a person? Only God,” Melendez said.

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