Why I can´t talk to Opus Dei

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By Eileen Johnson, 6/05/2024

Opus Dei spokespeople are in denial about the extent of the harm they have done to many of us worldwide. They have said publicly that they would like to hear from me, and from other women who have spoken out recently about their experiences. We are of one mind, that we will not speak to our abusers. I will attempt to explain why, based on my own experiences.

Opus Dei and its defenders regularly raise the objection that complaints about events in the past are not relevant, because things have changed, and are much improved today. There are two points here. First, historical abuse is still relevant, requiring remorse, conviction and retribution. Second, Opus Dei´s grooming and recruitment tactics persist to this day, influencing children from a young age, through their schools, clubs and large families.

When I left in 1971, I had the Founder´s words ringing in my ears: "anyone who abandons his or her vocation shall be considered dead. I would not give 5 centimes for their soul. They will live their life in disgrace." Yet I personally did not expect to be cast out. Being of an affectionate, trusting nature, I presumed I would maintain contact with at least some of my former ¨sisters.¨ I was ill, and needed their support, having sacrificed personal friendships to the cause of The Work over 11 years. It came as a shock to find that the Founder´s words applied to me too. My first experience of this was in Manchester Piccadilly station, a few days after I left, when a fellow numerary, whom I had known well, looked through me as I smiled at her on the platform.

On the day I left, I had asked to speak to Father Richard Stork, the Counsellor in the UK at that time. We spoke in the confessional, as we were not allowed to speak face to face unless accompanied by another numerary. I told Father Stork that my drug treatment by Opus Dei doctors and psychiatrists over four years had been very damaging and wrong, and that I hoped lessons would be learned so that others would not be treated in that way. He replied angrily, saying I was proud to criticize the Work of God. I now know, with hindsight, that such unethical medical practice was not limited to the few cases I was aware of at that time. Our “GP”, Hyacinth Hickey, who on her arrival in the UK from Ireland in the 60´s was put in charge of the health of all of us numeraries and assistant numeraries, had prescribed a variety of drugs to several of us. In my case, she tried me on Librium, Tofranil, Mogadon and Lithium, before settling on Valium. When I was sent to Pamplona for a year to study journalism at Opus Dei´s University of Navarre, the treatment was handed over to my “spiritual directress”, a Spanish woman doctor who continued to prescribe valium to me and medication to another English numerary who accompanied me.

I have heard of numbers of former assistant numeraries and numeraries who were drugged in-house by fellow members of Opus Dei, in The UK, Spain, North and South America. Many, like myself, were referred to Opus Dei psychiatrists. This was totally unethical, involving clear conflicts of interest. It happened to Teena Fogarty, former Irish Assistant Numerary, also at the hands of Hyacinth Hickey in the UK. Teena was put on Amitriptiline over a period of seven years. Physical symptoms requiring specialist advice were overlooked, and she was not examined physically. Rather, she was told by Hickey that her physical pain was related to her depression.

When I was eventually able to consult a doctor in the outside world, after leaving Opus Dei, he said that the only comparable case in his experience was that of a former prisoner of war. I have heard similar reports from other former members, particularly those who spent many years in Opus Dei, and/or were of a sensitive disposition. A major criticism of Opus Dei in my experience is that we were recruited with scant regard for our individuality, or for our well being or personal development. We were, quite simply, used. The recruitment and treatment of the Assistant Numeraries was a particularly obvious and stark example of this. Yet the systematic exploitation, coercion and brainwashing of numeraries, specially in the Women´s Section, was also appalling. For me, the worst thing was the use of “friendship” as a tool for proselitism. As someone who values friendship greatly, to be without friends over many years was a form of social starvation, so that when I left I felt dangerously alone in the world.

My doctor, very concerned about the degree of my isolation as I approached my 30th birthday, suggested that I contact Opus Dei to see if one or other of my former “sisters” might come to see me. My mother phoned and spoke to a numerary who had formerly been a close friend of her and our family. She agreed to come, and arrived the following day for a brief visit. The next day, she phoned to say she had been instructed not to contact me again. She said she was phoning from a coin box in the street, to avoid being overheard. That lady was genuinely fond of me, of my mother and my family, particularly my young nephews. She was the same age as me, had joined Opus Dei at the age of 14, and was popping Valium with alarming frequency.

Soon after this, I took an overdose. I remember facing the probability of death, but the prospect of going on existing in such despair, isolation and rejection was too bleak. After I came round in hospital my doctor took me off the valium I had become dependent on. A week later he commented “Ah, now I see the real Eileen! Your eyes have come alive!”

It took another year or so before I was able to hold down a job. The tendency to depression has haunted me over the years, but I did manage to reclaim the “real Eileen” perceived by the doctor. This Eileen is a woman who loves song, dance and people. The Scottish Country Dancing I had thrived on before joining Opus Dei became a major therapy and passion after I left. I qualified to teach it, and have taken great satisfaction from years of organizing Family Ceilidhs to bring together all ages in friendship and fun. I have also read widely, and particularly enjoy some of the ideas of Carl Jung, whom I discovered at more than one Catholic retreat centre after I left. Jung is forbidden reading in Opus Dei. I have crossed paths with many inspiring individuals, including Dr Steven Hassan, the American cult specialist. His book, Combating Cult Mind Control, is valuable reference material. Dr Hassan has no hesitation in classifying Opus Dei as a cult.

One thing that contributed to my “going public” was the fact that I can´t stomach Opus Dei´s way of distorting the truth to save its image. I had watched Mgr Philip Sherrington, Opus Dei Vicar, lying on TV in the 80´s, when questioned about the case of a young Irishwoman who had been recruited as an Assistant Numerary at Lakefield catering college in London. She had left, and her parents complained about her treatment. She had been given the cilis and discipline, only after she joined, having not been aware of such mortifications before signing up to Opus Dei. Mgr Sherrington responded by saying that this must have been an isolated case of bad practice. “You liar!” I shouted at the screen, as I watched with my family and our parish priest. “They did exactly the same to you, and me, and all of us!” I had known Mgr Sherrington well before we both joined Opus Dei. It was very distressing to see how conditioned he had become, lying in such a way. I resolved to confront Opus Dei´s lies.

My time to speak out came in 1991, when I heard of the impending beatification of Josemaria Escriva. Individuals who have been abused are typically unable to talk about their trauma until enough time has gone by. The spiritual abuse I had suffered at the hands of Opus Dei is known to cause as real and damaging trauma as sexual abuse. Twenty years had gone by since I left. I felt strong, and ready to speak out, despite my nerves.

It is not easy to “go public”. It takes conviction, guts and staying power, as well as Faith if one has any left! So, before posting a letter to The Tablet in September 1991, I tried to achieve some form of dialogue with Opus Dei. I didn´t want confrontation with fellow Catholics, least of all in the media. Mgr Phlip Sherrington was still the Regional Vicar of Opus Dei in the UK, so I thought my chances of getting through to him were good, given our former close relationship. I wrote to him, explaining the manner of my leaving, after 4 years on drugs administered by Opus Dei medics. He was naturally surprised to hear from me after 30 years, but his reply infuriated me. He offered to put me in touch with Fr Gonzalo Gonzalez, who had been heavily involved in recruiting both Philip and myself as teenagers. This overlooked my point, and implied that I was in need of some form of counseling by Opus Dei when in fact Opus Dei itself was refusing to acknowledge unethical practices and serious harm done by themselves. So Philip left me no option but to go public.

My letter to The Tablet led to an appearance on BBC2´s Newsnight prior to the beatification of Escriva. After this, no other English speaking women ex members came forward in the UK, so feeling too alone with my story I went to Spain to meet a variety of former numeraries, male and female, who had protested publicly about the beatification. It was a privilege to meet Alberto Moncada, Miguel Fisac, and Maria Angustias Moreno. Moncada and Moreno had already published books about Opus Dei. I was also introduced to a psychiatrist, a former member of Opus Dei, who insisted on remaining anonymous. However, he did assure me that I had certainly not been the only victim of Opus Dei´s systematic medicating and psychiatric treatment of its members.

I was a joy to spend a couple of hours with Miguel Fisac, one of the most prestigious Spanish architects of the 20th century, who had been a founder member of Opus Dei. He knew Escriva well. He left after 17 years, married, and had four children. The youngest, a girl, died in infancy. Sr Fisac told me that on the day of the funeral, he was visited by two Opus Dei priests, who told him that this was God´s punishment for his leaving Opus Dei.

I stayed in touch with my new Spanish friends and soon managed to expose one of Opus Dei´s lies. In a letter to the Scottish Catholic Observer I recounted Fisac´s story about the Opus Dei priests´ visit at his daughter´s funeral. Yves Mascarenhas of the Opus Dei London information office replied, saying that according to the Madrid information office such a visit never took place. I faxed this reply to Miguel Fisac, whose response was printed the next week, naming the two priests, the time and the place of the visit. There were witnesses.

I realize that many Opus Dei members and supporters will be enraged by criticism or condemnation of The Work which they so admire and love, and which for them is a bulwark of traditional Catholicism. I believe that due to the power structure and pyramid nature of Opus Dei, the majority of members have been and still will be unaware of the inner workings of the organization. None of us were shown the Constitutions when we joined. Even as a member of the London advisory, I was ignorant about where the funds came from to acquire impressive projects such as Wickenden Manor in Sussex. Promotion to posts of internal responsibility gives access to some awareness of the different aspects of the “Spirit of the Work” but only those at the top of the pyramid are privy to the total reality. Many Catholics have never heard of Opus Dei, despite the fact that as Sarah Macdonald wrote recently in the Irish Independent, it is “still a major player in the Church”. It is imperative that the truth be acknowledged from within the Church as well as from outside, if the Church is to have credibility. It was a big mistake to canonize Escriva. That happened not least due to Opus Dei´s influence, power and wealth, and its efficient PR machine. What on earth has any of this to do with the message of Jesus?

Copyright: Eileen Johnson, May 1, 2024