Dead or alive? An Opus Dei survivor speaks
Copyright: Eileen Johnson, April 2019
I don’t find it at all easy to speak the truth about Opus Dei as I see it, nearly 50 years after I left. The main reason for that is that I remember the wonderful women members I met as a numerary. It is hard to think that what I write may be hurtful, because one or two of them were my friends, at least before I left. However, I feel it is my duty to say what I know. Life in The Work suits many; but many others, having been been recruited too early in their lives, have suffered to varying degrees over time as a result. This was true in my case and in too many others. The outcome was deeply damaging for me. I hope this now happens less often. However if I knew that this were the case I would not be writing. There are many known examples to this day.
John Allen’s 2005 book, “Opus Dei, the truth about its rituals, secrets and power” was acclaimed by the Daily Telegraph: “Definitive, persuasive and absorbing.” I have to disagree. Allen skirts over some important points. For example, in listing Opus Dei customs of corporal mortification, he says that female numeraries generally sleep on thin boards on top of their mattresses. He goes on to explain that male numeraries sleep on the floor at least once a week. He leaves it at that, with no comment. Unlike me, Allen had no access to the “notes” that were distributed from Rome to all Opus Dei centres.
Escriva gave precise instructions about these sleeping arrangements. Women, he said, were more sensuous than men, so they should sleep on boards every night. (I don’t remember them being on top of mattresses!)
Allen visited many Opus Dei centres around the world. He mentions being impressed in a college in Nairobi, Kenya.
I quote from a letter I received from a Catholic priest in Kenya in December 1997 in response to a letter I had published: “your experience together with that of others who suffered like you is sure evidence that it (Opus Dei) is not a good organisation. Another friend of mine, who used to study in their college here in Nairobi, used to attend the prayer sessions. She told me that it is a real colonisation of the mind. They mould the type of God they want you to follow and not the God who reveals himself to each individual’s conscience.” He goes on: “The most suppressing thing with them is their conservatism. It doesn’t allow people to grow spiritually. They are not open. Our church needs to be directed towards charity, the Second Commandment of Christ, and equality or equal opportunity in worship and leadership. God has called all to help and love one another. My parish priest is a liberal and he doesn’t like Opus Dei but he fears to speak openly.”
A lady phoned me in spring 1992 to ask if she could call at my home and meet me. She said she was the wife of a GP who was concerned about Opus Dei’s use of drugs to treat members. I had spoken about my own experience of this on BBC Newsnight and in the Press. She didn’t give her name, either on the phone or during her visit to me. She asked me this question: “How do you see the future of the Catholic church?” I hesitated; needed to think for a minute! She replied for me: “Well, I’ll tell you what I think. When the rest of the church goes down the plug hole, Opus Dei will be there to pick up the pieces!” I had no answer for that. Anyway, I reluctantly accepted she might be right. She waxed lyrical about the interior décor of the Women’s house which she visited regularly. She was particularly taken with the cornicing in the chapel. Meeting her was the closest I had come to meeting anyone from Opus Dei since I had left 20 years earlier. Before I went public I offered in writing to meet with representatives of Opus Dei or other church authorities, and to be interviewed by a psychiatrist if anyone deemed it necessary. No response.
Anonymity is common amongst ex-members of Opus Dei and other critics. I had a letter from a former numerary who had witnesses an attempted suicide. I had to promise not to reveal their identity. Then a postcard from an unknown parish priest, thanking me for my courage in speaking out. A supportive priest at my local retreat centre was incensed by my story and said “they ruined your life”. Well, yes and no. I have a stubborn streak, which has led me to be determined to disprove what Saint Josemaria put in writing: “anyone who leaves Opus Dei should be considered dead. I would not give 5 centimes for their soul. They will go on to lead miserable lives.” I vividly remember where I was sitting, reading that, and the chill that entered me. I was still committed, and working my guts out for The Work, but supposing I were to want to leave one day..? As things turned out, I did eventually leave, and after a slow, long recovery I went on to lead a largely happy, purposeful life.
At sixteen, I was a bright and happy student, an all-rounder who loved singing, dancing and life in general. I wanted to become a language teacher and it seemed I was poised to move on to a successful adulthood. I had met my first love. This was one of the happiest times of my life. But I was unaware that I was being watched by an Opus Dei numerary, one of my school teachers, who proceeded to groom me through her friendship. I had never heard of Opus Dei and did not know she was a member.
After I left Opus Dei twelve years later, I was a shadow of my former self. I became suicidal and my doctor said that the only cases he had seen of this level of distress were former prisoners of war. Why? Well, for one thing I had been on medication prescribed by Opus Dei numeraries (doctors and psychiatrists) for four years before I was able to leave. I was one of many treated in such a way. This was unethical; had I been able to consult an objective doctor I may well have left four years sooner than I did. Independent diagnosis after I left concluded that my problems arose due to the regime I had been subjected to and the cocktail of drugs prescribed. I had over time been given librium,tofranil, lithium, valium and mogadon. As well as coming clean about the extent of such practices, Opus Dei should be obliged to show that they have been discontinued. John Allen’s “definitive” book is very inadequate in its coverage of this serious issue.
Opus Dei generates a great amount of fear. It is said that fear is mentioned more often in the Bible than any other word. Fear is a limiting and negative human emotion. According to Christian scripture, perfect love casts out fear. There should be no problem about speaking out ones opinion, offering constructive criticism. In fact, such criticism is a responsible, helpful attitude, though difficult to express and often not well accepted. In Opus Dei, to criticise the perfect Work of God was deemed to be down to pride. The day I left, I spoke to the Prelate of Opus Dei in Britain in the confessional. I told him that I thought my depressive illness had been wrongly handled (by members of Opus Dei prescribing me drugs and Opus Dei psychiatrists becoming involved, and my spiritual directors going along with the process). Again, he said I was proud to criticise the Work. With hindsight, I see I was right. In fact I knew at the time that I was right, though I was too broken to state my case. It took me some twenty years to be able to speak out. First I needed to recover and live as normal a life as possible. When I did “go public” prior to the beatification of Josemaria Escriva, I felt very fearful but nonetheless I was quite convinced that I had to speak out.
There is something wrong when so many individuals need to remain anonymous and are afraid to speak out. Not that I am saying that wounded former members should speak out; the big priority is recovery, and to make available whatever caring support each one may need. However, Opus Dei generates a great deal of fear. The Prelature should be obliged to acknowledge serious damage done to many people, so often as a result of irresponsible proselytism that fails to consider the good of the individual. Their tactics are systematic, described by Josemaria Escriva in The Way and in many internal documents and in his various talks to members. Again, Allen’s book touches on this but not at all adequately. Former Prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarria, is quoted asking forgiveness of those hurt by Opus Dei. However, this is akin to merely apologising to former victims of sexual abuse whilst not offering compassion and retribution, and a radical change of behaviour.
The only time I might have spoken personally to any representative of the Prelature in the nearly fifty years since I left Opus Dei was after I had gone public in the 1990’s. I had to decline an invitation to meet the directress of an Opus Dei student’s residence in London. A young film maker had met us both and wanted to bring us together. I said I would be happy to meet, but in a neutral venue. The numerary refused, saying she was too busy to leave the house so we would have to meet there. I felt resistant to entering an Opus Dei centre and I knew that a neutral venue would help me to be more relaxed and the dialogue would be on a more equal level.
It has been said by defendants of Opus Dei that those who join do so willingly, and have no right to criticise the organisation after they leave. Such a judgment overlooks the fact that Opus Dei is considered by a variety of specialists to be cult-like, using various tactic name="_GoBack"s including “love-bombing.” People, specially young impressionable people, do not join cults. They are recruited, often after being groomed. That process can erode their ability to make informed decisions of their own or use their free will. The targeted individuals, usually teenagers, are normally intelligent and gifted, and good leaders. They are made to feel cared for and special. They develop a great sense of belonging to a spiritual family that claims to be destined to transform society by winning people over to the teachings of founder, Josemaria Escriva (since 2002 Saint Josemaria).
Pope Francis is currently addressing the huge spectre of sexual abuse, particularly of children. Spiritual abuse is not such a familiar term but it is a reality, within Opus Dei and other Catholic organisations as well as in other denominations. A book that clearly challenges the Church to clean up this scene is currently available in French: “De l’Emprise a la Liberté” (Editions Mols, 2015). It is co-authored by a number of distinguished Catholic specialists of different disciplines (a theologian, a canon lawyer, a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst, a sociologist, and a cult specialist) under the leadership of sociopsychologist Vincent Hanssens, Emeritus Professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. The book focusses on three Catholic movements and concludes that they all bear the marks of sects. The three are Opus Dei, Focolare and the Legionaries of Christ. Former members of each of these three were interviewed by each pf the specialists and their testimonies found to be valid and important. The project had the enthusiastic backing of the late Cardinal Martini of Milan.
For me personally, an important effect of reading this book has been to relieve me of a physical feeling of stress in my chest which has affected me regularly since going public in the early 1990’s. It took a leap of faith, and strength that came from heaven knows where, to go in front of the BBC Newsnight cameras. That was the hardest thing I ever did, to expose myself in such a way. But I had to do it. Something about the truth was driving me. I am from Yorkshire, where we call a spade a spade and not a …… shovel; but as well as that, I believed that my experience of Opus Dei should be exposed, for the good of the Church.
Spiritual abuse, like sexual abuse, inflicts long lasting damage. Opus Dei should be made accountable and compassion should take the place of defensiveness.
The following words, which are on the back of “De l’Emprise a la Liberté” (From Imprisonment to Freedom), are so consoling to me:
- “This book is based on testimonies.
- Of people who have suffered at the hands of sect-like movements within the Catholic Church...
- Carried along by a spiritual thirst, a desire for holiness, a need to come closer to Christ, they joined these movements and when they discovered unchristian practices they felt deeply betrayed.
- It is clearly apparent from their testimonies that their feelings are justified.”
Pope Francis and Cardinal Martini have both regularly recommended the practice of parrhesia. I had never heard of this word until recently. Freebase says that parrhesia "implies not only freedom of speech, but the obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk.” In fact, various individuals have exercised parrhesia regarding Opus Dei in the past, to no avail. Former members are maybe the only people able to expose the inner realities because they have experienced them first hand. So far, we have been ignored and in some cases denigrated.
There is urgent need for truthfulness, accountability and compassion. As the Kenyan priest said in 1997, and as I understand Pope Francis to be saying now, “the Church needs to be directed towards Charity, the Second Commandment of Christ”