Hundreds of Germans, tortured by inner voices, are on the search for priests who can free them from what they believe to be the grip of the Devil, according to an extraordinary radio documentary that has stirred an awkward debate about exorcism in the Catholic Church.

“Over the past year alone I have received requests from around 350 people who think they are possessed by an evil spirit,” says Father Joerg Mueller, who heads a group of priests, doctors and therapists to deal with the problem. “Therapy hasn’t worked for them; they want exorcism — a prayer that can free them.”

Father Mueller, who is based in a Bavarian monastery, was talking to a team from WDR, the state radio network, which was allowed to record extracts from eight exorcisms.

A Polish exorcist, named only as Father Wiktor, suggested that this was only a fraction of the actual number seeking help

“I would say that every day at least one person is undergoing a full-scale exorcism,” he told WDR.

This has come as a shock to the Catholic Church in Germany, which has shied away from exorcism since the tragic case of Anneliese Michel in 1973.

Ms Michel, 23, from a strongly Catholic Bavarian village, had epilepsy and suffered from hallucinations. Two priests were authorised to perform an exorcism. They performed the ritual 67 times until she died, having starved herself to 31kg (68lb).

After her death the priests and her parents were sentenced to six-months’ suspended jail sentences for not referring her for medical treatment.

That verdict and the publicity — two films were made about the case including The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005 — scared the Church hierarchy. Permission for a full exorcism now has to be granted by a bishop, but few permits have been given. In a poll of German dioceses, only Paderborn admitted to having authorised three exorcisms.

Frustrated by the lack of exorcists in their own country, disturbed Germans are turning to esoteric spiritual healers and priests in Switzerland and Poland. Andrzej Trojanowski, a Polish priest, even has plans to set up an exorcism centre in Poczernin, on the Polish-German border.

WDR broadcast some of the sessions of the exorcists with Ms Michel. She is heard growling and barking. “Tell the truth in the name of the Holy Trinity and the Blessed Virgin Mary!” commands Father Arnold Renz. The answer comes in the form of a long, terrifying scream.

The recording is making the Church leadership more reluctant to address the needs of the supposedly possessed. Yet by doing so the bishops are flying in the face of the Pope, who urged a convention of exorcists to “carry on your important work in the service of the Church”.

Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican exorcist-in-chief, has performed the ritual more than 40,000 times.

The Vatican aim appears to be to place at least one exorcist in each diocese to ensure that the distressed do not drift away from the Church. In Germany, however, that drift is already happening.

“I would say that 90 per cent of those who think they are posessed by the Devil are mentally ill,” said Father Mueller. A large number of them have suffered sexual abuse as children. Some think that an exorcism is easier than long years of psychotherapy.

He added: “But about ten per cent of the people who approach us have some sign of demonic possession and then you have to turn to special, charismatic men and women who have the gift of being able to feel and recognise if demons have entered someone.”

Only a handful qualify for exorcism. He gave the example of a widow who was convinced that her late husband had returned, in demonic form, to taunt her. She was offered psychotherapy.

Counting the Devil

• 300 Estimated number of trained exorcists in Italy

• 70 Estimated number of exorcists in Poland

• 84 Pages in the Vatican’s 1999 Latin “rule book” on exorcism