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You may have seen the headlines: A 3-year-old girl was killed in an “exorcism.”

The actual story is so much worse than that, though.

At the risk of depressing you, I think there’s value in talking about what happened to her because it says a lot about the power of religion to override any kind of common sense and basic human decency.

On September 24, 2021, a woman called the San Jose (California) Police department saying her daughter died. Police found the girl, Arely Naomi Proctor, on the floor of Iglesia Evangelica Apostoles y Profetas church and she was later declared deceased at a hospital. The cause was officially “homicide with a cause of death of asphyxia due to suffocation due to mechanical asphyxia and smothering.”

The mother, Claudia Hernandez, said that they were at the church run by her father because they believed the girl was “possessed by a demon.”

[Hernandez] stated she attempted to stick her finger down the victim’s throat and squeezed the victim’s neck to induce vomiting. The victim fell asleep several times while [Hernandez] pushed down on the victim’s throat with her hand. [Hernandez] described the victim sustaining bruising around her eyes, throat/neck, and chest.

Why did she think her daughter was demon-possessed? According to the police report, it’s because the girl “would wake up and scream or cry periodically.” (Any parent could probably tell you that’s just a normal thing that some kids do.)

All three adults — Hernandez, her brother Rene Hernandez-Santos, and her father Rene Trigueros-Hernandez (a.k.a. Rene Huezo) — apparently held the girl down and took turns trying to get her to vomit up the demon they believed was inside her.

They didn’t call 911 until about two hours after the girl stopped moving.

Days after that attempted exorcism, Hernandez set up a GoFundMe page for the girl, raising nearly $3,000.

Hernandez also made a video in honor (?) of her daughter in January, though she never explained how her daughter died. She just shrugged off the situation, repeatedly saying, “It is what it is.”

It was days after that video was released that Hernandez was charged with assault. She now faces between 25 years to life in prison.

The plot thickened a week ago when Rene Huezo (the grandfather and pastor) admitted to the Mercury News they had performed an exorcism on the girl. But her death, he said, was simply “the will of God.”

“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.”

In the article, he said the girl was sleeping when she arrived at the church. She didn’t scream or show any signs of distress, he added, details that contradicted what he later told police.

This past week, Huezo and Hernandez-Santos were both arrested in connection with the girl’s murder, charged with child abuse leading to the girl’s death. They also face at least 25 years behind bars.

It’s not clear why police waited so long to arrest the two men.

Despite the contradicting details in their stories, the basic story here isn’t in doubt. A bunch of people were convinced that a three-year-old girl could be possessed by a devil, was possessed by a devil, and there was a procedure to eject that devil from her body. All three assumptions were utterly wrong, but they believed them because their faith told them it was plausible. Not only did they believe that nonsense, they committed actions against a child that, outside the context of faith, would easily be considered abuse. They continued abusing her because they believed they were helping her, ignoring any obvious signs of pain and distress.

There are always people who write these tragedies off as results of mental illness. But there’s no sign any of these people suffered that. They just believed in God and surrounded themselves with other people who supported their delusions. It’s no different from the churches in Oregon that preach faith-healing only to end up with multiple members who murder their kids.

Was there anything that could have been done to save the girl? Or were her family’s religious beliefs so set in stone that any sign of disobedience or “demon-possession” would lead to her eventual death?

I don’t know how these avoidable deaths can be prevented unless more Christians have the courage to condemn churches that preach this nonsense. They won’t do that, though, because it would require acknowledging that the devil is a figment of their imagination, that people acting in the name of God may actually be criminals in waiting, and that the voices in your head urging you to act a certain way aren’t coming from some supernatural place.

The people in the best position to criticize this church can’t do it without denouncing some of their own beliefs. Which means they’ll ultimately say nothing. Which means this won’t be the last time we hear a horrific story like this one.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.