A Family Intervention
by Dianne R. DiNicola, mother of former numerary, U.S.
American Family Foundation (AFF)* Conference Presentation, October 18, 2003
When my daughter Tammy left her home to attend Boston College (BC) in the fall of 1986, the DiNicola family trusted one another for advice about decisions and was involved in each others lives. All that changed when Tammy went on a retreat run by Opus Dei in February 1987. Over the next 3 years, our family was shattered by Tammy’s involvement in this controversial Catholic group. The name Opus Dei meant nothing to us at first, even though I was and am a practicing Catholic. We had never heard of the organization. Tammy was a happy person and had many friends and enjoyed associating with people. She included her older sister Lori in her life and was a good communicator with her family.
Her participation in Opus Dei didn’t seem to be all encompassing at the beginning. Several times girls from Opus Dei would come to visit us in our home or we would travel to Boston. There was something I didn’t like but did not know what it was at this point. I would later learn of the aggressive techniques used in Opus Dei to recruit new members. I learned much later that Tammy was a target for their recruitment.
As time went on, Tammy was going to Mass more frequently, something my husband and I felt good about. She also started to spend all her time with Opus Dei people. We sensed that her involvement was deepening. An aloofness we never experienced before became her normal behavior. Opus Dei was taking up a lot of her time, so much so we worried about her studies and classroom performance at Boston College. We experienced a feeling of loss and communications were rapidly deteriorating even at this early stage. We were going through a radical change.
When she came home, she didn’t bother with old friends and never talked about them. Most of her time was spent in her room.
In the summer of 1988, after Tammy had finished her sophomore year at Boston College she approached us to stay in the Boston area at an Opus Dei residence. We told her because of monetary reasons, it would be more feasible for her to stay at home, work the summer and save to help defray expenses for college.
In the fall of that year she moved back to Boston to an Opus Dei residence called Bayridge. I remember being very worried. I didn’t want her to be anywhere near Opus Dei. At this point I didn’t know the reason why.
Tension increased with time but especially after Tammy’s sister Lori informed my husband and I that Tammy had confided in her about possibly joining Opus Dei. She had not mentioned a word to us, so we waited to see if she would share this information. When she did, we asked her to wait until she graduated from Boston College, a suggestion she strongly opposed. We asked her how she knew she had a vocation in Opus Dei. She reacted with anger to the question and dismissed our advice to look at other organizations within the Catholic Church. We did not know that she had already joined.
After this upsetting session, I went to my parish priest and asked him if he knew anything about Opus Dei. I told him how upset I was about Tammy’s decision to be a numerary (celibate) member of Opus Dei. He told me he didn’t know very much about Opus Dei but most families' initial reaction is against a child being celibate. He suggested maybe that was the reason why we were so opposed. I decided to examine my feelings to make sure they were not getting in the way of Tammy’s vocation in Opus Dei. Instead of feeling better about her involvement, each turn of events caused me to become more alarmed. I had to find out what a vocation in Opus Dei entailed and was not getting satisfactory answers. We were struggling with what seemed to be a clergy-run organization and yet Tammy was a lay person who had taken a vow of celibacy. We were requesting information about Opus Dei and were not satisfied with the answers. We were experiencing a breakdown in family relationships and did not understand why Tammy needed to sacrifice us for her vocation.
I spoke with another local priest whom I admired a great deal. He told me that he did not like Opus Dei and called them archaic. He said it was like throwing the Church back to the 15th century. He also told me that members of Opus Dei practiced corporal mortification by whipping themselves and using a cilice. It was something about Opus Dei I had not heard before.
What was I to do with this new information? Tammy was more involved than ever and growing even further away from us. I sensed her inner turmoil. She was nervous and stilted. Her happy, bubbly self had disappeared. The easy play between us did not exist anymore. I missed that deeply. Our relationship was completely destroyed. I couldn’t help her and worst of all, I didn’t know what to do. I was beginning to feel hopeless.
In April, 1989 Tammy was supposed to come home for Easter. Our family put great importance in being together for holidays. I was looking forward to seeing her. She was coming home less and less and I missed her. About a week before Easter I received a letter from her saying that she was not coming home, she had a family in Opus Dei and they needed her. Every frustration that I previously felt came to a head. It was emotionally disturbing, so much so that I wasn’t sleeping at night and I cried a great deal. I called her on the phone and asked her why she wrote this letter. It sounded like she wasn’t ever coming home again. She did not give us answers so we scheduled a meeting with a priest of Opus Dei. We traveled to Boston and met with him at Bayridge, the Opus Dei residence. He told us that he did not have a problem with his family and implied that the trouble was with our family. For 2 hours Tammy hardly said a word. We realized we were not accomplishing anything so we went to dinner with our daughter. It was a very tense time. After we dropped her off at Bayridge a feeling of complete hopelessness permeated my now fragmented family. It was as if Tammy had died yet she was walking around in her body. The Tammy we knew was buried inside of her. We did not recognize the girl we had just dropped off.
When we arrived home and tried to understand what we had just experienced, we still were not satisfied with the answers we were getting from either Tammy or Opus Dei. We decided to contact the chaplaincy office at BC. We scheduled a meeting with one of the pastors there. I thought that Tammy would respect the priest’s knowledge of theology. It was another emotional meeting that did not culminate in any resolution. The turmoil we were experiencing ripped through us, resulting in a lot of tears. The BC priest later told me that the situation was too big for him to handle but he would pray for us. The ride home was long and an even deeper sense of hopelessness overtook my whole being.
In May, Tammy’s sister Lori spoke with a priest she happened to see at the college where she was taking graduate courses. She asked him if he heard of Opus Dei. His face darkened and said he did not like them. He was from Ireland and said Opus Dei was controversial in his country. Lori asked him if we could contact him and shortly after, I called him. He said that many in Opus Dei have problems with their parents. He confirmed every worse fear I had about Opus Dei and more.
Our investigation now took a turn towards education. We still did not know or understand the magnitude of control that Opus Dei had over our daughter. We were hearing the official version Opus Dei puts out about itself and it did not correspond with what we were feeling. I still had not connected with others with similar experiences. That soon would change. Lori and I went to our local library and found the name of a man, Dr. George Swope, who was involved in an organization named Citizens Engaged in Reuniting Families. He was a retired community school professor who had run a support group for parents who had children in cults. He had heard of Opus Dei and knew of its questionable practices. I also talked with Dr. John Clark, an official of the Harvard Medical School and associated with the America Freedom Foundation. Both gentlemen, now deceased, were renowned for their work in cult education. He repeated what I had heard earlier from Dr. Swope and gave credibility to what I had been feeling all along. He gave me the name of Father James Lebar, cult consultant for the archdiocese of New York. He was the one who finally put me in touch with a family who had two children in Opus Dei and were alienated from them for many years. Their pain was a mirror image to ours. Networking with this family was the beginning phase of the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN), a non-profit organization. It would be two years before we would organize ourselves in a more formal setting.
We also were informed of the existence of cult awareness groups. I talked to many people from these organizations who told me of a family intervention called an exit counseling. I had never heard this term before and thought it entailed kidnapping your loved one and holding them against their will. It frightened me and I did not want any part of it. It was only after my family members educated ourselves on mind control that we began to understand what an exit counseling was.
We were still filled with disbelief that Opus Dei could destroy our family and be a part of our own church. So we decided that we needed to speak with someone from Opus Dei to give them a chance to correct their questionable practices. We also wanted to seek help from the hierarchy within our Catholic Church. We invited the Opus Dei vicar for the east coast to our home and told him of all that had happened to the DiNicola family since Tammy’s involvement with Opus Dei. He said he did not have an experience like we did with his family, even though his mother was an Opus Dei member. He also implied that it may be an over-zealous spiritual director or perhaps the DiNicola family’s fault. He did say that he would speak with Tammy and her spiritual director and would try to straighten things out. We also either met or spoke with several church officials. Our pleas for any substantial help from Opus Dei or Church officials did not improve our situation. We decided to plan a family intervention.
As we progressed further into our discovery process, we kept hearing the terms “exit-counseling” and deprogramming. We talked to many people and wondered who we would seek to help us restore our daughter. We didn’t want to destroy her spirituality and we were worried sick about the consequences. We wondered how we would be able to help our daughter see that the life decisions she made while a member of Opus Dei were being manipulated and she was being deceived. An exit counselor’s name came up several times during our discovery process. We still did not know who we would choose until we contacted two people he had helped to leave the groups they were involved in. Both of them were in the same area where we lived so we arranged to talk with them. Hearing about their experiences gave us the courage to proceed with a family intervention. We arranged for the exit counselor to come and talk to members of our family. I wanted to schedule a family intervention immediately but after talking it over, and taking the advice of the exit counselor and my husband, we decided to wait until Tammy graduated from Boston College the following May. If and when Tammy saw what had happened to her, it would be difficult for her to continue her studies. What a long winter that was. We tried to keep in touch with our daughter as much as possible. Sometimes it wasn’t easy. Opus Dei kept her so busy, it was hard to connect.
Finally the date arrived and we asked Tammy if she could come home for a graduation party. We did not know at the time that Opus Dei usually did not allow this, but for some wondrous reason I attribute to the Holy Spirit, she was granted permission by her spiritual director to come home for one overnight. There would be no physical restraint or violation of freedom. When Tammy arrived, we asked her if she would be willing to speak to a counselor who would help us to settle our differences about her joining Opus Dei. She agreed and the exit counselor was asked to come eat dinner with DiNicola family members and various aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends. They all told her how much they missed her. She had not been a part of family for almost 3 years. It was an emotional time with people sharing their love for Tammy. We wanted to recapture our closeness with her. It wasn’t as if we wanted to control her, just share what was happening in each other’s lives. See Tammy's testimony Exit Counseling from Opus Dei for more details.
After Tammy decided to leave Opus Dei my family had to go through another readjustment phase. We began to interact with more families and saw a need for accurate information about all aspects of Opus Dei. Together these founding families of the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN) developed resource material and established three goals: Education, Outreach and Support to those negatively affected by Opus Dei. We encountered accusations, some from Opus Dei, that we had abused our daughter during our family intervention. We freely discussed our family intervention with the media. One article, "Path of Opus Dei leads to debate" by Ernest Tucker, February 28, 1999 prompted a rely by Dr. Leroy Wauck, an Opus Dei member and father-in-law of convicted FBI spy Robert Hanssen. He stated in a March 10, 1999 Chicago Sun-Times letter to the editor …”it would seem that Tammy DiNicola is hardly an unbiased and qualified source of information. Her accusation that Opus Dei is “cultlike” is a direct consequence of what she herself refers to as “an intervention.” ……”As a practicing psychologist, I can say that what DiNicola calls “an intervention” is in fact a traumatic psychological experience. At the instigation of disgruntled parents, a member of a group is sequestered by deception with the intent of forcibly extracting the person from the group. A team of self-proclaimed “experts” submits the person to an intense barrage of psychologically intimidating, highly distorted information, without the ability to communicate with the outside world. This is followed by several weeks of continued so-called deprogramming. The process costs thousands of dollars and leaves the person with permanent psychological scars. One of the psychological techniques used to keep the “cured” person from going back to the group from which they were forcibly removed is to reprogram them to attack what they formerly found attractive. This is the origin of the Opus Dei Awareness Network.”
It was difficult to hear such untruths about our family intervention and the beginnings of Opus Dei Awareness Network ((ODAN). I hardly recognized what Dr. Wauck described in his letter to the editor. It led to inaccurate information about a subject that was already misunderstood.
ODAN was founded 12 years ago and with each passing year information reaches more and more people. We have provided information to parents, students, priests, nuns, relatives of loved ones in Opus Dei, people who have left Opus Dei and people who are concerned. ODAN has made a difference in many of those lives. They were spared the devastating experience the DiNicolas went through. They come from every continent except Antarctica. We presently have an average of 1000 hits a day on our web site and have become a clearinghouse for information on Opus Dei. It has been gratifying to help people when Opus Dei touches their lives in a negative way. Exit counseling is not coercive. It restored our family and gave our daughter the right to make informed decisions once again.
(*) The American Family Foundation (AFF) studies psychological manipulation and cultic groups, educates the public and professionals, and assists those who have been adversely affected by a cult-related experience.