When I was in Regnum Christi — the lay movement of the now-disgraced but somehow still not suppressed Legionaries of Christ — it wasn’t long before it became clear to me that Opus Dei was seen as a direct rival organization. When I attended the Highlands School in Irving, Texas, for my senior year, one of the college-aged “co-workers” (full time lay volunteers essentially aping Mormon Missionary program) who lived with me would sometimes speak about the challenges he was facing trying to recruit college students from the University of Dallas. It was right next door to our campus, but there was an active Opus Dei group there as well, and he saw them as competition.
After participating in a handful of their missions in several countries, I became a mission director for Youth For the Third Millennium (YTM). YTM was one of the LC/RC front organizations set up for recruitment purposes — although I didn’t realize it at the time. The way YTM worked was by hosting superficial efforts to revitalize parishes run by Legion-friendly diocesan priests. The method of operation was to come in for a week and engage in a program of door-to-door evangelization efforts in the neighborhoods surrounding the parish, with young Catholics doing the evangelizing. The kind of people YTM attracted — zealous, knowledgeable, outgoing, and usually between high school age up to about 35 or so — were exactly the kind the LC/RC wanted to recruit into their organization. I’d done missions in Dallas, the Bahamas, Mexico, New York City, and Canada, before I was selected to run the Miami mission. And somehow, during all that time, I hadn’t realized that it wasn’t actually about the missionary work. Nevertheless, I was placed in charge of their January, 1997 mission in Miami, Florida — a mission effort that would last two weeks, with two different sets of missionaries for each week.
One night during that mission, I found myself in a room with only those other missionaries who were “co-workers” or active members of Regnum Christi. I already knew I was on my way out, though not everyone else in the room did. I had notified my superior in Atlanta the previous month that I was done with the program. I had to get away from the vocational pressure. And to be honest, I didn’t want to be at that meeting. I was irritated and chafing to leave. The Legionary priests on site — men I’d been friendly with for years — were already beginning to distance themselves from me in what appeared to be a purposeful attempt to make me feel excluded. But it was fortunate that I was there, or I would never have heard the truth.
At one point, the priest leading the meeting declared, “If you’re not here to recruit people into the Regnum Christi, there’s something wrong with you.” When he said it, something inside me snapped. I was angry. I was there to help bring people back to Mass and the Sacraments, not to recruit members into their little spiritual Ponzi scheme. It was a harder-than-expected shove out the door.
And of course, I, too, had been recruited and written my “intent letter” for the “vocation” of Regnum Christi on the first big YTM mission I had gone on exactly one year previously. I had been a sucker for this multilevel marketing effort, and here I was watching it repeat its viral iteration right in front of me.
I bring up this story here for two reasons: one, to give an example of my personal experience with duplicitous recruitment techniques by groups of this nature. Two, because my preparatory scouting visit to Miami in the fall of 1996 helped cement my awareness of the competition between LC/RC and Opus Dei.
I recall, on that trip, stopping into a particular parish. In the narthex, I saw a brochure about the then-pending canonization of Josemaria Escriva. I didn’t know anything about his story, just who he was, but I was aware that Opus Dei were seen as rivals, so I was curious. I grabbed a copy. When one of the Legionary priests I lived and worked with later saw the brochure fall out of my folder onto the table, he admonished me, “Brother, don’t let anyone see you with that!”
But why were they rivals? And why have they always felt so similar to me? I still know precious little about Opus Dei, but as I gained more distance from the LC/RC apparatus and saw more indications of the damage it had done, I became increasingly wary of the Opus Dei as well. When, a few years ago, my wife was considering sending our girls to an Opus Dei school, I tried to be open to it, but after visiting, warning bells went off in my head. I had to put my foot down. I was not going to send my girls into another lion’s den like the one I’d been in. It was more of a feeling of unease than an empirical decision, but over the years I’ve learned to trust those instincts, and they’ve served me well.
All of this is prelude to a testimony I want to share with you from the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN). I do not have a means of verifying the following information, but it disturbs me. I am not an investigative journalist, but I wonder if there are any who are looking into claims of this nature. I see a couple of books on Amazon on the topic, but these have only a small number of reviews. There’s a Wikipedia page about OD controversies, but only a scant few articles. There’s a Washington Post story about the million dollar sexual misconduct settlement of Fr. John McCloskey, an influential Opus Dei priest in the Washington, D.C. area who ran the Catholic Information Center for years.
It all feels very unfocused, even though claims of troubling practices within Opus Dei have been made public for years.
Is it just that they don’t attract attention? Are efforts to look into the claims unsuccessful? Do powerful forces within the Opus Dei shut such inquiries down? I half-expect to get a cease and desist letter for merely raising the questions I am about to raise. (If this article disappears for no apparent reason, you should assume that this is why.)
What I do know is that had it not been for Jason Berry and Gerald Renner’s courageous, relentless investigation into the Legionaries of Christ, the systematic abuse within that order might never have been revealed.
What is described below struck me as eerily similar to what I remember my experience of LC/RC. I lived in community with LC priests for the better part of two years, from 1995 to 1997, while the demonic Marcial Maciel still ran the order and I had the distinction of being labeled a “co-founder” with that monster. I was also the first (or so I was told) Young Men’s Regnum Christi team captain in the North American territory. I was a fairly effective recruiter before I realized I was bringing my friends into a cult. And although I escaped, my faith has never been the same since. Sexual abuse isn’t the only sort that leaves wounds; spiritual abuse does, too.
So yeah, I have an axe to grind against this kind of thing.
The testimony I will excerpt below is from a woman who goes by the name of Maria. It was first published in 2004, but I’ve only just come across it. She describes herself as a former numerary of Opus Dei. OD has both numerary and supernumerary members. I didn’t know what these were, so here’s a description of each:
Numerary members pledge to remain celibate and generally live in Opus Dei houses. They commit their entire salaries to Opus Dei, submit incoming and outgoing mail to their directors, and practice various forms of corporal mortification, including use of the cilice, a spiked chain worn around the thigh, and use of the discipline, a knotted rope for whipping. To read the testimonies of several former numerary members:
Opus Dei Recruits Minors and Deceives Church Officials
Opus Dei Superiors Lied to Church Officials
Deception and Drugs in Opus Dei
Supernumerary members may be married, and live with their families. They follow the same “plan of life” as the numeraries, but generally do not know about many of the details of numerary life. They contribute large portions of their income to Opus Dei, often at the expense of their local parishes. To read the testimony of the daughter of a supernumerary: https://odan.org/tw_apple.htm
Maria describes her recruitment as something that happened surreptitiously, much like the YTM tactic I described above:
I was young, with great goals in life and a desire to change the world and bring Christ to all human beings. I first came in contact with Opus Dei, when I met a numerary at the university where I was studying “Education.” She invited me to her center for a free conference on the “career of an educator.” I found out later that she had planned this conference especially for me, since I seemed to her like a good candidate for “their work” from the very beginning. At the conference I met other people who were also in the field of education, most of whom where members of “the work” of course. This numerary didn’t tell me at the time anything about Opus Dei. The following week I was invited to go hiking with some of the girls that lived in the center. I didn’t realize then that this was part of their recruitment technique. Later as we became better friends she started telling me more about Opus Dei and the founder and invited me to my first meditation on a Saturday morning.
This is how they operate. If you consent to their friendly invitation, they will evaluate you and ask you many questions to see if you are a good prospect for them. Please beware when you enter a center for the first time. You will meet happy people with big smiles, in a casual atmosphere. They will show concern and care for you, “the new visitor,” making your visit very pleasant, too pleasant at times. As time when on, I started visiting the center more frequently and spending more time with my new Opus Dei friends. About a year after my first encounter with that numerary I found myself asking to be admitted into Opus Dei as a numerary or full time member. As soon as “I whistled” or joined the work, my director instructed me to not tell my parents I had joined Opus Dei. When I disobeyed and told my mother I was reprimanded.
This description of people being so friendly and nice was absolutely one of the things that drew me to the Legionaries. I went to public school at the time, and it was a dog-eat-dog world of quasi-feral children scrabbling their way to the top of a dominance hierarchy. The Legion was fantastic about displays of almost supernatural charity. I’d never met nicer boys my age, who were so friendly and welcoming and shared my beliefs. They made me want to be like them.
Having identified a stressed, emotionally vulnerable target, cults flood that person with affection, flattery, and validation. Cult awareness educator Ronald N. Loomis described this practice on college campuses as involving “a recruiter approaching the student and doing everything [they] can to make the student feel special and unique. They’re quickly trying to convey the message that I am your new best friend. And they will fake mutual interests in order to give the impression that they share many things in common.” He also described how one cult trained its members to wait outside counseling centers to poach troubled students and offer them the comfort they would otherwise get from a trained professional.
There’s another set of cult tactics that are also being described by Maria here — Isolation and Keeping Control. From the same article on cult tactics:
Once they’ve enticed a recruit with approval or the promise of some fulfilling understanding of the universe, cultists then work to isolate the recruit. Often, this takes the form of a weekend retreat, where the recruit is immersed in the cult’s ideology over the course of a few days. Not only are recruits physically isolated from friends and family members who might otherwise provide a reality check, but cults often isolate recruits from outside information. Newspapers, books, TV, and web access are all censured, ensuring that the only reality the recruit gets to experience is the one presented by the cult.
After convincing you that they’re the best friends you’ve ever had and bombarding you with the cult’s ideology, the cultists’ next job is to make sure they hang on to you. There’s a variety of techniques they can use to accomplish this, but these usually involve iteratively subjecting the cult recruit to terror and love.
This was a theme with the Legionaries as well. They’d pit children against their parents if it suited them. I recall my uncle getting a phone call from the director of the Apostolic School in New Hampshire when his 12 year old son didn’t want to come home from a visit. The priest told my uncle that his son was “crying” because he wanted to stay so badly. My uncle, not an idiot, and the father of a large family, told the priest his son was only 12, and he cried about lots of things. It was an emphatic no.
Of course, once they did get a parent’s consent, the child who entered the minor seminary or the novitiate became subject to an Orwellian program. Phone calls and correspondence were monitored, and saying anything out of line when communicating with the folks back home would earn a reprimand. Visits between parents and their children on the inside were infrequent — if I recall correctly, at the time they were limited to only once or twice a year. Some boys who wanted to leave were told they’d go to hell for doing so. Some escaped in the middle of the night; others tried and then got cold feet.
Maria continues about her own experiences:
Not long after that I began to find out more things about the life of a numerary, such as all the corporal mortifications. We were required to wear a cilice or spiked chain tied around our upper thigh for two hours a day except on Opus Dei or church feast days. I also found out about the discipline which was a small whip used on the naked buttocks once a week, among other sacrifices we were required to make as part of our vocation. I was also informed that we mostly spent time with those friends who may have a vocation to the work. I also learned that “the work” was now my family, with stronger bonds than my blood family, and that I would never again be allowed to spend the night at my parents’ home. There were other things I found out when I moved into the center.
While there is a historical practice of more extreme forms of mortification in the Catholic spiritual life, I find these descriptions disturbing. As the ODAN page on the practice of corporal mortification in OD notes:
The cilice and disciplines are so foreign to the experience of most people, that they just conclude that Opus Dei is very odd for mandating them. That is true as far as it goes, but there is a more important point to be made. Because of the dangers of masochism, the traditional Catholic teaching on this sort of mortification is that it be done under obedience to a spiritual director. Such supervision in fact exists in Opus Dei, although often authority is entrusted to people who lack requisite maturity and prudence. The real point is that even if the cilice and the discipline are acceptable forms of penance, their use shows that Opus Dei members are NOT ordinary people, are not free agents.
One of the things that disturbs me about movements like RC and OD is the use of lay or consecrated members for spiritual direction. This underscores the reason why.
Maria continues, and you can see elements of the cult tactics we’ve been looking at appear throughout her testimony:
I was happy at the very beginning of my vocation but not for long. I soon began to see many inconsistencies in my life as a numerary. The way we were required to pursue people to join the work started to seem manipulative and deceptive. I remember clearly an incident that happened, which was probably one of the first “red flags” that made me start questioning the false friendships we were required to pursue in the work in order to get girls to join as numerary members. I had a friend, Carolina, whom I had invited to the UNIV conference in Rome, since she had been on my St. Joseph list as someone who according to the directors of my center at the time, had a vocation to become a numerary. She ended up “whistling” while in Rome as the directors had planned. As soon as she wrote the letter to be admitted as a numerary, the directors immediately told me that she should no longer talk to me as a friend or share anything personal with me, since she was now a numerary. They told me there weren’t any kind of “special friendships” allowed in the work and that from then on Carolina should only share her personal life with the director in charge of her fraternal chat. I found this very disturbing, since I had really become her friend and it didn’t seem normal that now we could no longer be friends.
Not long after that, I tried to tell the directors that I was having doubts about my vocation, but they always said it was a temptation of the devil. I felt manipulated and started doing things because the directors asked me to and because I had to obey the directors and live the “spirit of the work” even though I didn’t believe it in my heart. I felt like I was living a lie, but was afraid to leave because I didn’t want to be doomed to hell. They also told me that if I said “NO” to my vocation I would never be happy or be able to live in the grace of God again. There was a point in my life when I prayed to the founder more than I did to God, almost like if the founder was becoming more important to me than God himself.
This is part of “keeping control“. From the aforementioned cult tactics article:
By keeping cult members totally off-balance in this way, cults increase their members’ dependency on the leader, ensuring they retain control. The exhausting, frozen state of “terror and avoidance” overwhelms cult members and their ability to think critically about the ideology they’ve suddenly committed themselves to.
Maria then describes something I saw the Regnum Christi do to consecrated women more than once. After years of telling her she had an irrevocable vocation, they pulled the rug out from under her:
Finally, a year after my Center of Studies, the person that I did my fraternal chat with told me that they had seen that I no longer had a vocation for the work. I asked them why they waited almost 5 years to tell me. I never got a good answer.
I remember sitting with a girl who had gone through something very similar at the hands of the Regnum Christi, back when I was in college. She had been “consecrated,” for years, but then they told her she didn’t have the vocation anymore — but that she might again some day. In tears, she told me about how she felt trapped by this. She wanted to move on with her life, but she was paralyzed with fear.
It’s sick, sick stuff to do to a person. Especially when you’ve made them terrified of what will happen if they don’t follow the alleged vocation.
Back to Maria, who makes an absolutely stunning accusation:
The director from my center at the time, said that they wanted me to stay at the center and live my life as a numerary until March 19 and it was February 23. I refused and requested to be able to call my parents and have them pick me up that same day. They wouldn’t allow that. When I tried to get out they hid the house keys. They wouldn’t let me use the phone. They even had me take “Rohypnol”, a very strong antidepressant that makes you very sleepy, saying that it would help me get some rest. I took it not knowing how strong that medicine really was and the fact that it made you so sedated that you couldn’t even think straight.
For those unfamiliar with Rohypnol, it’s better known as “roofies” — one of the most well-known of the so-called “date rape drugs.” Here’s WebMd’s description:
This is a strong benzodiazepine (a class of tranquilizers) also known as Mexican Valium, circles, roofies, la rocha, roche, R2, rope, and forget-me pill. It’s not available legally in the United States. In other countries, doctors sometimes use it as anesthesia before surgery.
Rohypnol relaxes you. In high doses, it can cause trouble controlling your muscles, amnesia, loss of inhibitions, and loss of consciousness. Its effects usually start within 30 minutes and peak about 2 hours after you take it. As little as 1 milligram can affect you for 8 to 12 hours.
The idea that Maria was being drugged by something like this to keep her in line is absolutely terrifying — but she is not the only one to make such claims. See this report, in Spanish, from another person claiming to be a former member who also said they were drugged.
As I said before, there is no way to verify these testimonies outside of a thorough investigation — something that is far beyond my scope to accomplish. But someone out there reading this may very well have the ability to do so, and I hope that they will. Because whether these practices are happening or are completely made up — even if they are isolated events — it is important for those in the orbit of Opus Dei to know the truth, one way or the other.
Maria then concludes her story on a happy note. Even after being drugged, she says, she
still refused to do as they said, so finally, that night, “C.R”, a numerary that had lived close to the founder for years, came to my center to tell me that I had received permission from the father (Alvaro del Portillo) to go home the next day. She said that I had never done the work’s apostolate, that I always did my own and that if I ever spoke against the work she herself would make sure that my reputation would be ruined and that the doors of Opus Dei would be forever closed if I spoke negatively against them. It is now 11 years later than I am finally speaking out.
This is strikingly familiar. When I left the Regnum Christi, an immediate smear campaign was activated against me, and it was in these same kinds of terms. My friends and associates on the inside were informed how I was simply not “generous” enough to do the work of the movement. I was to be pitied, but, as one priest told a friend of mine, I had fallen in battle and had to be “left behind.” I had spent years building relationships with people in “the movement,” and they sought, almost overnight, to turn them all against me.
Maria talks a bit more in her testimony about other methods of control used by the organization. The whole thing is worth reading, as are, no doubt, other testimonies on the site.
I know that in the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, Opus Dei is quite popular. I know that a number of influential people are members of Opus Dei — perhaps even people you’d never expect. Some of them are great people, and I will no doubt get significant pushback for even bringing these stories up.
I do so not as a means of providing some definitive judgment or conclusion, but to sound an alarm. If there’s a possibility that any of this is true, it needs to be brought to light.
What I do know for certain is that I was part of a Catholic cult, and when I read these testimonies, the feelings associated with those experiences start coming back to me. They are not pleasant.
I’ve had a couple of Catholic media figures try to use my involvement in the LC/RC as a means of damaging my credibility. What they seem to forget is that I was a child. I got involved at about age 15, and I was out by age 19. The reason my parents let me be so involved is because the priest who recruited me was a relative of a relative, and seemed very trustworthy (he is no longer a Legionary, or a priest, which perhaps speaks to the fact that he was actually one of the good ones). But also, because it was a boon to my faith at a time when I was facing temptations to fall away. There weren’t a lot of other opportunities in my small town in Upstate New York to be involved in anything faith-related. It’s hard to blame them for wanting to see me more involved in my faith.
Perhaps other parents feel the same way about their own children becoming involved in Opus Dei. If I can help them to discern this more cautiously, I’d consider that a win.
Ultimately, something many people don’t understand about cult groups is this: if they seemed creepy, they’d never be able to recruit anyone. What makes them so effective are the good things they do, the good people they draw in, and the way that creates an ambience of “goodness” that creates an overall illusion of positivity. What I perceived as the Legionary’s authentic, orthodox Catholicism was, in a sense, exactly that – in virtue of the good Catholic men they attracted to their seminaries.
What I didn’t see was that this veneer of orthodoxy was a lure that brought vulnerable individuals into the darker world of those who did not have their best interests at heart.
Let’s hope that’s not the case with Opus Dei.
For those of you young Catholics who might be willing, as I was, to become part of a movement I thought was bigger than myself and in which I hoped I could do some good, I hope you’ll tread carefully. (Really, I think I wanted to be valued and affirmed, but that’s exactly what groups like the LC/RC look for.) I can only urge you to be cautious. Never give up your autonomy. Be incredibly wary about subjecting your will to anyone, even a spiritual director.
And listen to your instincts – if they tell you to get out, don’t wait.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.