Two people have been arrested in connection with the death of a three-year-old girl at a northern California church during what has been described as an “exorcism”.
The child, Arely Naomi Proctor, died last September after family members performed a ceremony at the Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas, a tiny Pentecostal church in San Jose, because they believed she was “possessed by an evil spirit”, court documents show.
The local medical examiner’s office ruled the death a homicide as a result of asphyxia due to suffocation and smothering.
The toddler’s grandfather, Rene Trigueros-Hernandez, and uncle, Rene Hernandez-Santos, were arrested this week on charges of child abuse leading to the death of the victim, the San Jose police department said in a statement.
The girl’s mother, Claudia Hernandez-Santos, was arrested in January and charged with assault on a child resulting in death.
It was not immediately known if the girl’s grandfather and uncle have an attorney who can speak on their behalf. The Santa Clara public defender’s office, which is representing Claudia Hernandez-Santos, did not immediately return a message on Friday from the Associated Press.
According to court records, Claudia Hernandez-Santos told police she believed her daughter was possessed because she would “wake up and scream or cry periodically”. She and her brother brought the child to the church on 24 September 2021 in the early morning to perform an exorcism.
Claudia Hernandez-Santos told police she attempted to stick her finger down her daughter’s throat to induce vomiting and that the child “fell asleep several times” while she pushed down on her throat with her hand, court documents show.
The child’s mother is accused of depriving the girl of food and of holding her neck and squeezing it while the grandfather and uncle held the child down. The force on the girl’s throat appeared to leave multiple bruises.
Claudia Hernandez-Santos told police that the family waited two hours before calling police after the child became unresponsive.
The grandfather told the Mercury News last week that he had performed the ceremony on the child to “liberate her of her evil spirits”.
“If you read the Bible, you’ll see that Jesus casts away demons and made sick people healthy again,” he told the newspaper. “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.”
Santiago Garcia, the owner of the home where the church operates, told the Mercury News that he was outside the house while the exorcism was being performed and did not know what was going on until the police arrived.
“The grandpa told me they were praying and they think that by praying, the Holy Ghost will come and save her … The mom said she was trying to squeeze her body to bring her demons out,” said Garcia. “It’s very awful. Very, very awful.”
According to various members of churches that are associated with the San Jose church, it is considered an outlier due to differences in doctrines and practices.
Speaking to the Mercury News, Pastor Rafael Escobar, who heads a sister church in the area, described the incident as “shocking” and sought to distance his organization from it.
“Church rooted in God has nothing to do with exorcisms at all, you can’t mix that stuff with God … Those are satanic things,” Escobar told the Mercury News. “It’s not common at all in our church and we don’t practice it … it really shocks me a lot.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting