What in the name of God is going on here?

Opus Dei is one of the most influential organisations in the Catholic Church, but its secretive, cult-like ways have also made it one of the most controversial. Paul Vallely reports
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It is not unknown for nervous types to ask to see the questions before granting an interview to a journalist. It is considerably more unusual for the subject then to fax back the answers, thus avoiding the necessity - and risk - of making personal contact.

It is odd that this is what Fr Richard Stork chose to do. Particularly as he is so keen to insist that there is nothing at all secretive about his organisation. Fr Stork is the new regional vicar of Opus Dei, the most controversial organisation in the Catholic Church today, which was recently described in a leading Jesuit magazine as "a powerful, even dangerous, cult-like organisation that uses secrecy and manipulation to advance its agenda".

Not so, faxes Fr Stork: "The origin of this `secretive' business was the mistake made by some (very few) churchmen in the first two decades of Opus Dei's existence, who thought that because its members did not wear a habit or some ins-ignia, that they were acting surreptitiously."

There is, however, more to it than that. Secrecy is built into the organisation, according to the non-Opus Dei historian Michael Walsh. It is embedded into its 1950 Constitution, which has never been published and is still in force, according to one of the movement's most prominent defectors, Fr Vladimir Felzmann.

There is no doubt that Opus Dei grows from a fairly sinister past. Almost all the ministers in Franco's cabinet were members. It was embroiled with the Vatican in the shadowy dealings surrounding the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano. Under previous popes it was regarded with suspicion, but John Paul II, who associated with it when he was a bishop and archbishop, shares its views on women, on authority and on hierarchy.

Today it has 16 bishops, 1,500 priests, and 77,000 lay men and women working in 80 countries. It is particularly strong in Spain, the United States and Latin America - where one of its members has, to the outrage of many local people, just been made an archbishop in El Salvador, in the diocese of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot by the military for championing the cause of the poor (Opus Dei is vehemently opposed to liberation theology). But it is perhaps most powerful in Rome, where it has worked itself into positions in which it has considerable influence over canon law and the appointment of bishops. From there it contrived to have its founder, Monsignor Josemaria Escriva, beatified - the first step in canonisation - in 1992, less than two decades after his death.

Not that you get a hint of any of this from Fr Stork. Like all of Opus Dei's public statements, his pronouncements are non-controversial to the average Christian. "Western civilisation is faced with the problems that are the result of abandoning the Christian ethos in all aspects of human behaviour," he faxes. "God is not now being honoured as he should, children are not being properly educated to love and respect God's laws, to obey those in authority, to be law-abiding and truthful, to be strong enough to resist the pressures of pornography, violence, dishonesty and so on."

But many are concerned by what lies behind these statements. For a start there are Opus Dei's methods of recruitment. The accounts of defectors reveal a common approach. The young, impressionable and sexually inexperienced were targeted by young recruiters who were instructed to use friendship as a bait. They were enticed to social activities which were not publicised as Opus Dei ventures. They were invited to its houses, which were usually expensively appointed and in the best parts of the city. There, in the words of one former Opus Dei director, John Roche, now of Linacre College, Oxford, they found "laughter, whistling, macho behaviour and good-humoured raillery all [of which was] intended to delight the visitors with the atmosphere of the house".

The selling point is that Opus Dei - the Work of God, known to its adherents simply as "The Work" - is a movement which enables ordinary lay people to dedicate their entire lives to God without having to leave the secular world of work. But those of a religious disposition who are idealistic enough to be attracted by the notion soon find themselves placed "under tremendous emotional, moral and religious pressure", according to Fr Felzmann, who is now an ordinary priest in the Westminster diocese. It is often accompanied by fear. "They are told that this is their one summons from God and that if they say `No', they risk losing eternal salvation."

The recruiters are encouraged to lie if necessary, to induce the potential recruit. "The truth is subject to the greater truth," says Fr Felzmann, recalling how he was instructed to lie to the father of Fr Stork's predecessor, Mgr Philip Sherrington, at the time of his recruitment. "When I once complained to a priest of Opus Dei that these were the tactics of notorious sects and political groups," says John Roche, "he replied: `But it works'!"

Such sentiments came from the top. The Blessed Escriva himself wrote: "Holy coercion is necessary, compellare intrare, the Lord tells us." Twenty years after his death, the sway of Escriva is undiminished; indeed it is enhanced, for Opus Dei, its former members claim, is a personality cult that elevates Escriva to an unseemly status. Known by initiates as "The Father", he has been, since his death, referred to as "Our Father Who is in Heaven", a formulation which to the outsider sounds not far short of blasphemous.

Once inside, the new recruits discover the harsher core of Opus Dei, with its total obedience, its physical mortifications and an inner logic that, John Roche says, makes it increasingly difficult for them to break free.

Apologists for Opus say the reports of disgruntled defectors are not to be relied upon. Yet the claims of former members who held senior positions, such as Fr Felzmann, Dr Roche and Maria del Carmen Tapia, who was director of the Opus Dei printing service in Rome, are too disturbing to be ignored.

Dr Roche talks of desperate parents who regularly seek his advice on children who have undergone personality changes, becoming secretive and alienated from their families. Maria Tapia speaks of women members who slept on boards while men had mattresses, on the grounds that women were more sensuous; and of how, as director of the organisation's printing service, she had to print new pages for old books for the rewriting of The Work's history. "It was like 1984," says Fr Felzmann, whose job it was to remove the old pages and insert the new. "I also had to cut pictures out of the Radio Times, if they showed too much cleavage or thigh."

All three, and others like them, concluded that none of this worked. "I used to think that when I saw the numeraries' serviette pigeon-holes full of pills for constipation, insomnia, nerves and so on," Fr Felzmann says. "Or when one of the numeraries confessed: `I got up and whipped myself in the night, but I still masturbated two hours later'."

As a rule, such self-abuse - the whipping rather than the masturbation - was required weekly, though it was permitted twice weekly in Lent. "You did it with a cat-o'-nine-tails made of string. You whipped yourself on the bare bum for three minutes, about as long as it took to recite the Memorare. The blood on the founder's bathroom walls was held up as an example to us. There was also a chain with spikes on it, which you could wear for two hours every day. But in the end it doesn't achieve spirituality; it achieves pride."

And Opus Dei has a lot to be proud about. Fr Stork speaks of "an increased awareness of the poor and marginalised, and the generosity of many of today's young people". Opus Dei members are at work, he says, in inner- city areas of London and Manchester.

"The rank and file can be extremely impressive people," says John Wilkins, editor of the leading Catholic weekly the Tablet, and no supporter of Opus Dei. "They are totally dedicated troops. It has its pluses - it does some good work and it is less secretive than it was, but everything it does has a hidden agenda."

Indeed, the main source of their pride gives cold comfort to many Catholics. "Though they have produced no major philosophers or creative theologians, they have first-class experts in canon law," says Michael Walsh, the librarian at Heythrop College. Many of these are in Rome, where Opus Dei even dominates the press office of the Vatican.

All of this worries members of the Opus Dei Awareness Network, formed recently in the United States. "It's rarely highly visible, but the influence is growing," says Diane DiNicola, one of its directors, whose daughter is an Opus refugee. "An Opus Dei bishop has just been appointed to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. We are contacted by concerned parents several times a week. Lately it's been every day. Reports come from all over the world and wherever Opus Dei operates the concerns are the same."

The movement is on the books at the Cult Information Centre in London. "It's not what the group believes - it is its methods which concern us. They remove a person's ability to think freely and critically. It is a form of psychological coercion," says Ian Haworth of the centre. Accounts of Opus Dei recruits from their parents resemble "a typical victim of mind control with a change in personality and a reduced ability to evaluate critically. Those who break away suffer for at least a year from symptoms typical of drug addicts in withdrawal - amnesia, insomnia, violent emotional outbursts."

Reports from university chaplains, student groups, defectors and cult information groups indicate that Opus Dei is not making enormous progress in Britain. Perhaps there is something about the British temperament which is not susceptible to the authoritarian attraction of The Work. It may be significant, says Fr Felzmann, that Richard Stork took over the organisation when Philip Sherrington died recently in a climbing accident. "Dick Stork was the top man before Phil Sherrington," he says. "The fact that they have had to go back to him may indicate that they're not getting enough of the younger generation who they think are reliable enough to take over."

Ian Haworth remains cautious: "I haven't seen anything which means that we should be less concerned. A cult doesn't have to be big to be dangerous. The most dangerous cult is the one that's after you or your children."

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