Pope orders inquiry into abusive Catholic women's order

It's a life regimented in excruciating detail, down to the way they eat an orange. Silence is the norm; information is limited; email is screened; close friendships are discouraged and family members are kept at bay – all in the name of God's will. Known as consecrated women, they are lay Catholics affiliated with a conservative religious order who dedicate their lives to the church, making promises of chastity, poverty and obedience similar to the vows taken by nuns.

But the cult-like conditions they endure so alarmed Pope Benedict XVI that in May he ordered a rare full Vatican investigation of the obscure group, which operates in the US, Mexico, Spain and a dozen other countries. The inquiry is expected to begin in the coming weeks. Alleged abuses came to light during an eight-month Vatican investigation into the Legionaries of Christ, a secretive religious order beloved by Pope John Paul II but now discredited because of revelations that its charismatic founder sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.

The women belong to Regnum Christi, the order's lay wing of some 70,000 Catholics in more than 30 countries who have families and jobs. They give up possessions and ties to their former lives. In interviews with the Associated Press, eight former members from the US and Mexico told of emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse at the hands of superiors who told them they violate God's will if they break any rules.

These extended into every facet of life. Members were told how to eat a piece of bread (tear off small pieces) and an orange (with a knife and fork). They were told how many movies they could see a year (six); what television programmes they could watch (no drama or music); and to refrain from reading in the bathroom. Women who made mistakes were often publicly humiliated.

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