Opus Dei Tactics - Testimony of Eileen Johnson

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A contribution to the “Encuentro Nacional sobre Sectas” (National Cult conference, Spain)

Bilbao March 6 2020.

Pope Francis says one should use parrhesia to expose lies and injustice in the Church.

(Parrhesia: “The obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at risk to oneself”).

Well, quite a few people have risked themselves, over decades, attempting to expose Opus Dei, but church authorities have chosen to take no notice. We former members have had a bad press, because Opus Dei has insisted that we should not be heard because we were presumed to bear grudges or we were unbalanced (this without evidence and without interviewing us). A number of former members had once occupied responsible positions within Opus Dei…

I am telling my story once again, nearly 50 years after leaving Opus Dei, simply because I and so many other former members have not been given a hearing until now. What is more: the damage done by Opus Dei to very many people over decades has not been acknowledged and it is still going on. There are very many testimonies on Opuslibros and other websites, and I personally have been contacted by various damaged former members. For example, I have been told by a young American former numerary that currently Opus Dei doctors and psychiatrists still treat members. Maybe some things have changed since my time in Opus Dei; for example, female numeraries are now allowed to wear trousers…but the basics of the “Spirit of the Work”, laid down by the founder from the beginning, don’t change. Control, recruitment of adolescents, appointing young members to positions of leadership when they lack the maturity to guide or care for their subordinates…all this remains systematic and damaging.

Basically, those who govern in The Work remain convinced that Opus Dei is divine in origin; a perfect Work of God revealed to the founder in 1928. Criticism is not allowed. Any member offering criticism is deemed proud. You obey or you get out, as Alvaro del Portillo said to a numerary priest who had serious reservations and attempted to suggest changes. Outside critics also have to be kept in their place. The Opus Dei line is that the Work is perfect, always right, and criticism is out of the question.

Well that’s not the case. It’s time for truth and justice to see the light of day.

My own experience of the Tactics of Opus Dei began when I was sixteen:

Proselytism; brainwashing

“The Way”, by Josemaria Escrivá, has been used from the early days of Opus Dei as a tool for proselytism, and I began to be ensnared by one of my teachers at my Yorkshire Catholic Grammar School, by her citing a few key points from The Way. (Unbeknown to me she was an Opus Dei numerary member).

Point 851, the last point in the Chapter entitled Tactics, says: Let’s channel the providential imprudences of youth.” I was an ideal candidate: a clever girl, idealistic, and not as mature as I thought I was. I had been thinking about becoming a nun. I had a boyfriend, who was also Catholic, serious, very clever. His mother had been telling him from childhood that he was born to be a priest.

We were both attracted to Opus Dei, though at first we each joined as a supernumerary, because we were very much in love and we planned to marry after we graduated at Manchester University. But the men and women of Opus Dei would not leave us in peace. The Directors claimed to have the “Grace of State” to see that we both had vocations to be numeraries.

They read me point 23: “You say you can’t do more? Couldn’t it be… that you can’t do less?”

And point 28: “Marriage is for the rank and file and not for the leaders of Christ’s army. Whilst eating is a need for each individual, procreation is necessary only for the species, and individuals can dispense with it.

A desire to have children? Behind us we shall leave children – many children…and a lasting trail of light, if we sacrifice the selfishness of the flesh.”

So they systematically encouraged me to feel guilty about not responding to God’s call. My boyfriend was in a parallel situation, in the Men’s section University residence.

They created a “vocational crisis” for us both, and step by step they managed to come between us. I eventually learned that my boyfriend had asked to become a numerary, when I was called to the confessional for the priest who knew us both to tell me, and to instruct me not to contact my boyfriend, and not to attempt to influence him. I never saw him again.

I was heartbroken but there was no sympathy. Quite the contrary; the women numeraries blamed me for not having yielded sooner to the clear call for me to join them:

The Way 166: You write me: “Father, I have a…. ‘toothache’ in my heart. I won’t laugh because I realise that you need a good dentist to make a few extractions.

If only you’d let him!...”

My boyfriend and I had both been caught by the head, with no regard for our immaturity. We had come to believe what they repeated to us constantly: that Opus Dei was a perfect Work of God, revealed to The Father, who was an exceptional Saint. That in the Work we would achieve sainthood, that in the Work one lived like the first Christians, and that the work had been revealed to the Father to reform the Church.

We were not mature enough, and lacked the discernment and knowledge of Scripture to know that Monsignor Escriva used Scripture to justify his own methods:

The Way, 978: “Venite post me, et faciam fieri piscatores hominum – Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Not without reason does our Lord use these words; men – like fish -have to be caught by the head.

What an evangelical depth there is in the intellectual apostolate!”

(I have now lived a long life outside of Opus Dei, and have studied Scripture, so I would say two things about the above quote: first, in Gospel times fish were caught in nets, not by the head. Secondly, Jesus taught that we should love God with our heart, soul, mind and all our strength. Also, the first followers of Jesus were largely simple folk, not intellectuals.)

Manipulation and Lies:

I was admitted as a numerary three months after losing my boyfriend. I was given the cilice and the discipline a few days after “whistling” (internal jargon for writing the letter to request admission). I had not been aware of these means of mortification before asking for admission. My directress suggested I would make a good journalist, because she thought I had a good way with people and had good results in the studies of English language and literature. (I had been told from the start that in Opus Dei members were free to pursue the career of their choice. I loved foreign languages and had wanted to become a French teacher). A few years later, my internal work for Opus Dei led me to read an instruction from Rome: directors should look out for members with journalistic potential. In my case, the suggestion had sown a seed in my mind, so that I began to identify my vocation as a numerary with a possible professional vocation as a journalist, for the sake of Opus Dei.

Washing dirty linen at home:

We went to confession with priests of the Work. Escriva insisted that we should not wash our dirty linen outside home.

I was appointed sub directress of the University residence where I lived, when I was 20, still an undergraduate. I had previously been an applied student but I now had difficulty concentrating. However, I excelled in organising cultural activities to attract high school students (for the opportunities of apostolate and proselytism this offered). A year after I graduated, I was appointed Secretary of Saint Raphael, with the Advisory in London.

One of my tasks as a member of the Advisory was to “teach” Cosmology to the young numeraries in the Centre of Studies. I had no experience or knowledge to do this. The responsibility alarmed me. This is an example of something very common in the Work: directors/directresses often lacked the appropriate age, experience or maturity required to be in charge of subordinates. Immaturity in Opus Dei is alarming.

My father died of cancer in July a967. I had begun to suffer depressions and was treated by the secretary to the Advisory, who had been a General Practitioner and looked after the women numeraries. At first she prescribed Tofranil and Librium, with Mogadon to help me sleep. Later on she gave me Lithium. Eventually she decided on Valium. The depressions continued. I was unable to work. They decided to send me to Pamplona, to the Institute of Journalism, to see whether an outside profession, instead of internal work, would help restore my health. I spent a postgraduate year in Pamplona, still taking Valium, which was prescribed by my spiritual directress, who was a doctor.

Inducing fear; maintaining the image of the Work through deception

While I was in the Advisory, I was obliged to read “the notes”, the instructions which arrived very regularly from Rome. My directress told me that reading them could take the place of the norm of spiritual reading. I was stunned to read that “anyone who abandons his/her vocation should be considered dead. I would not give five centimes for their soul. They will go on to lead a miserable life.” The instructions were presumably from Josemaria Escriva, endorsed by Alvaro del Portillo and Javier Echevarria.

In fact, many of us who have left the Work have been considered dead. Many have been maligned in one way or another. Miguel Fisac had been one of the first numerary members of Opus Dei. He was a prestigious architect, and for years he was the only early member bringing in a salary. He was also chauffer to Monsignor Escriva and knew him quite well.

Fisac left the Work after 19 years. He married and the couple had three children. The third, a daughter, died in infancy. On the day of the funeral, the Fisacs were visited by two Opus Dei priests who came to tell them that the death of their daughter was God’s punishment for Miguel leaving the Work. Miguel Fisac told me this personally during an interview I had with him in 1994. I cited this in a letter to the Scottish newspaper, The Scottish Catholic Observer. The Opus Dei Information Office in London replied, saying that according to their Madrid Information Office, such a visit never took place. I sent a copy of their letter to Miguel Fisac. The newspaper published his response, which confirmed the day and the hour of the visit and named the two priests. Miguel Fisac was excluded from giving evidence (on grounds of “psychological imbalance”) before the beatification of Josemaria Escriva.

The tactics of Opus Dei must be exposed. They are many and systematic. For the Work, the end justifies the means. The founder taught us to use “holy craftiness”. Well, I’m sorry, no. We need to “call a spade a spade and not a bloody shovel” (If you’ll excuse the language..I am from Yorkshire!). Or as the Bible teaches:“Let your yes be yes, and your no, no.”

I hope the moment of truth has arrived. The book “De l’Emprise a la Liberté”, published in Belgium in 2017, addressed the matter of ex members, concluding that they must be heard. A group of 10 specialists from different disciplines, most of them Catholic, concluded, after interviewing a variety of former member of Opus Dei, the Legion of Christ and Focolare, that all of these movements displayed sectarian characteristics. The coordinator of the project was Vincent Hanssens, Emeritus Professor of the Catholic University of Louvain.

The Spanish psychologist and cult expert Miguel Perlado was one of the contributors. He writes, on page 175 of the book:

“In general, these movements are fascinated by statistics, they believe their convictions should be spread everywhere, and since they consider themselves to be the true Church, that justifies all their activities, even the most abnormal. “

It is now 49 years since I left Opus Dei, and 28 years since I went pubic to object to the beatification of Josemaria in 1992. The fact that I said in front of the BBC cameras that I was treated by Opus Dei doctors and psychiatrists for four years before I managed to leave achieved nothing. At least, that’s how it seemed. But another former numerary, a very wise woman, reminded me that the truth would prevail one day, even if after our death. It is still important to go on speaking the truth. That’s why I go on telling of my experiences. Because I care about the Church, the truth matters to me, and so does society in general. I care about Liberation Theology in South America. I think that the power and influence of Opus Dei is a very grave matter, not just in Spain but in the whole world.

It took me several years to recover, and I eventually went back to my original intention to be a language teacher. I did translations and taught. I also went back to my former hobby of Scottish country Dancing. The exercise and joyful music were great, and it was a wonderful therapy, as well as a good social stimulus. I spent a couple of years working in Madrid, where I founded a Scottish dance group which still meets today, over forty years later. I think I have always wanted to show that Escriva was very mistaken when he said that anyone who left Opus Dei should be considered dead, that he would not give 5 centimes for their soul, and they would lead a miserable life. Not so! I would reply, to Escriva and his followers, with these words from the New Testament (because before I joined Opus Dei I was a Christian, as I still am now):

First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, verses one to three:

1. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

2. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

3. I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version)

I heard recently about a former numerary, who having served Opus Dei for 45 years, including various internal jobs with responsibility, was told by her Directress that she was “no longer of any use” to them. She left aged 67, to live alone, rejected by her Opus Dei “sisters”. Whilst a numerary she had loved to reach out tothe marginalised, and continues to do so in a voluntary capacity. This sort of person (and there have been many) is not in their element in Opus Dei, which from its beginnings has had a goal of attracting “the aristocracy of blood, money and talent”, to quote founder Josemaria Escriva.

In fact, I can’t help noticing that many former members identify with the marginalised, and are involved in causes promoting justice and peace. They are very good people who always wanted to dedicate their lives to the service of God and humanity. They were duped by Opus Dei.