Exit Counseling from Opus Dei
by Tammy A. DiNicola, former numerary, U.S.
American Family Foundation (AFF)* Conference Presentation, October 18, 2003
What happened during the exit counseling
The exit counseling was planned for June 1990 after I graduated from Boston College. My family asked if I would speak with a counselor about Opus Dei - they did not understand Opus Dei and wanted to improve our relationship. I agreed, and the counselor arrived; also in attendance were other close family members and friends. The exit-counseling itself was not coercive – I genuinely wanted to be closer to my family and was willing to speak with them.
My family and friends began to ask questions about my involvement with Opus Dei and how I joined. As I was giving the best answers I could to their questions, I began to see that these answers were not good enough. I was frustrated because I felt as if the water was under the bridge; yes, I had made mistakes when I first joined, but why go over and over it? At the beginning of the exit counseling, I put the blame for our lack of communication and the devastation of our relationships entirely on myself. It was an exhausting experience. Tension was high as was the emotional level for all involved. I refused to answer certain questions, such as "do you use the cilice and discipline?" (the cilice and the discipline were shown and explained) See Corporal Mortification. I was using them of course, but I did not want to answer their question and be subjected to even more questions.
The exit counselor was a mediator for our dialogue. He would attempt to soften the harsh questions that were being directed to me by my family. He would re-phrase the questions and attempt to help me see it in a different light. He would often quote scriptures. One that stood out for me as I was re-evaluating my commitment to Opus Dei was John 18:20 when Jesus says "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple...I have said nothing in secret." The counselor was very professional and treated me with great respect.
When I realized that the questions were going in circles and my answers were not sufficient, I agreed to look at some of the written material that was critical of Opus Dei. This marked a shift in the exit counseling from my perspective. As I read the printed material, which was written by former Opus Dei member John Roche of England, I began to see aspects of Opus Dei that were not as flattering as I had first thought. See John Roche's The Inner World of Opus Dei." I asked if I could take notes, because my intention was to bring these new concerns back to Opus Dei for explanation. I took notes of specific Opus Dei texts that I intended to look at when I returned to the Opus Dei house; I wanted to see if the quotes were taken out of context or mis-translated (from Spanish to English). I discounted any of the personal accounts from ex-members at the time thinking this would be unreliable information.
As I was reading the material, I believe that pinpoints of truth were starting to break through. I began to see the inconsistencies within Opus Dei – for example, Opus Dei states that they engage in an “apostolate of friendship and confidence”, and yet the reality is that it is not true friendship, and it is far from confidential! On the contrary, members regularly divulge intimate details about their recruits to their directors and even devise strategies for each one to get them closer to joining Opus Dei. Members are instructed to have between 10-15 friends at a time, with 5 close to joining Opus Dei. Members keep monthly statistics on their recruits and are required to report on their efforts to their directors each week at the "chat". This naturally leads to the instrumentalization of friendship - friends not likely to join Opus Dei are dropped for new friends who are capable of becoming successful members.
Opus Dei even instructs their members on how to find these "select" individuals. The Founder of Opus Dei wrote in The Way 399 “If, to save an earthly life, it is praiseworthy to use force to keep a man from committing suicide, are we not allowed to use the same coercion – holy coercion – in order to save the Lives of so many who are stupidly bent on killing their souls?”
This is just one example of the many inconsistencies I was beginning to see in Opus Dei. What I had thought was so beautiful about Opus Dei, seemed manipulative and deceptive to me at this point in the exit counseling process. The teaching I had received from Opus Dei about the “apostolate of friendship and confidence” did not seem to mesh with the reality within Opus Dei.
I did this study independently for quite some time. I could sense that family members were getting restless, but this was actually a very important process for me, because for the first time I was seeing Opus Dei in an entirely different light.
I began to relax when it was time to break for lunch on the second day. At the same moment, one of my cousins was dropped off to participate in the counseling. Her four little boys were in the van with their father. I ran out to see them, as they were very dear to me, and I had not seen them for a long time. As it is quoted in scripture, out of the mouth of babes comes truth, one of the boys, Alex who was 4 years old, said to me "Aunt Tam, I haven't seen you in a long year!" It was the truth, and it made me think of all that I had abandoned - mainly the love and support of my family who had loved and sacrificed for me since I was a baby.
After the lunch break, I was confronted again by the family about my decision to join Opus Dei. At a decisive moment, my mom picked up an apple and asked me “Tammy, is this a peach or an apple?” I did not want to answer the question. For some reason, I knew that the apple was symbolic of the truth about Opus Dei. I was reluctant to answer the question because somehow it meant admitting that Opus Dei was flawed. I was so conditioned for double speak in Opus Dei that it took a long moment before I finally answered “it’s an apple.” My mom said “yes!” and hugged me, and at that moment, which I attribute to the Holy Spirit allowing me to see the truth, I saw the deception and manipulation of Opus Dei so clearly that I immediately decided to leave. I have often likened the whole process to me being in a dark closet. When I was in Opus Dei, I was in the closet with my eyes closed. When I began to look at the critical material, I had opened my eyes and was beginning to see the pinpoints of light and truth. The moment when I decided to leave, the door was flung wide open and I was flooded with light and truth.
For me, the exit counseling had many dimensions that allowed me to see the truth. There was an intellectual dimension, where I was privy to new information that had not been available to me before; there was an emotional dimension, which allowed me to see all that I had cast aside in my pursuit of Opus Dei, mainly the love and communion of family and true friends; there was also a spiritual dimension of being set free from the bondage that is Opus Dei.
The primary reason I decided to leave Opus Dei was because I saw clearly the cult-like techniques employed by Opus Dei. Opus Dei employs the same means of recruiting and controlling members as other totalistic groups. In 1986 the Vatican released a document detailing the means used by destructive religious movements, and I could relate all that was written to the techniques used by Opus Dei. This booklet (Parents’ Guide to Opus Dei) examines Opus Dei and compares its practices to those the Vatican cautions against.
For example, Characteristic One: “a subtle process of introduction…gradual discovery of the real host” along with the general approach “deception and affection”, with love-bombing and overpowering techniques. In Opus Dei, new members making just an initial commitment without knowing any of the details of Opus Dei life are treated as full members. Instead of allowing new recruits to examine the details of membership and then re-evaluate their commitment, Opus Dei deliberately withholds information and then exerts tremendous pressure on new recruits to remain in Opus Dei, even if the recruits object to one or more aspects of Opus Dei life. The new members are typically told that if they leave Opus Dei they may be damned and will absolutely live their whole life without God's grace. They are told that they must be faithful in all that the directors say or they will not be living "the spirit of the Work” and they will be letting the mute devil into their soul. Opus Dei twists the truth so that it sounds like members are making free decisions but they really are not! If the choice is between damnation and a life without God's grace, and living ALL the details of Opus Dei life, there really is no choice at all.
Other characteristics mentioned include the eventual surrendering of control of nearly every aspect of life. In Opus Dei, the numerary or celibate members hand over their entire salaries to Opus Dei and are accountable to the penny for whatever they spend, which they must ask for each week; yet Opus Dei does not reveal how the rest of the money is spent; incoming and outgoing mail is read; all reading must be approved; members are typically not allowed to attend movies or sporting events; numeraries do not watch television, listen to radio or read magazines or newspapers without permission.
Blind obedience to directors is also expected. The Founder wrote in Maxim 941 of The Way “Obedience, the sure way. Blind obedience to your superior, the way of sanctity. Obedience in your apostolate the only way, for in a work of God, the spirit must be to obey or to leave.” I learned after I left Opus Dei that blind obedience is a characteristic employed by other totalistic groups. This obedience is monitored through required weekly confessions and the chat with the director along with fraternal correction where members are expected to report on the failings of their fellow numeraries. Guilt and fear are used to maintain this obedience. The Founder wrote “If one of my children abandons the fight…let him know that he betrays us all, Jesus Christ, the Church, his brothers and sisters in the Work…It would be treason to consent to the tiniest act of unfaithfulness.” (Cronica, ii, 1972) See Opus Dei's Secret Magazines.
After I decided to leave Opus Dei, the counselor spent several days with me explaining the dynamics of totalistic control and helping me understand what had happened to me through videos and written materials. I learned that the same process of deception and manipulation can be used by almost any kind of group, whether it’s the Moonies or Jehovah Witnesses or Opus Dei. I studied Lifton’s eight basic means of exerting mind control and could relate all of it to my experience in Opus Dei. This basis of therapy was extremely important in my recovery.
A few days later I went to a cult recovery facility that existed at the time in Iowa that was very similar to Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio. My learning about mind control and totalism continued and was augmented by the opportunity to speak with the counselors about my own personal concerns and learn again how to function as an individual. I had to re-learn how to make decisions; how to relate with others; how to take control of my own life and emotions.
Even though I had no doubt about my decision to leave Opus Dei, I still went through a very difficult time of adjustment after leaving. I soon realized that Opus Dei had squashed my true emotions, and so every day was an emotional roller coaster ride for months. In the same day, I could be on the highest mountain, and later on, in the depths of despair. It was supremely difficult to make even the simplest of decisions. I would sit on the bed and cry because I could not pick out an outfit to wear...When I did move out into an apartment with my sister some months later, I almost had a panic attack in the grocery store because of all the choices.
Over the span of several months after leaving Opus Dei, we had some communication with Opus Dei. I think Opus Dei was shocked when I left, because nothing like this had happened before. They went to extreme lengths to try to find me and talk to me, even resorting to calling an aunt. Eventually I did talk with them, but I was very clear about my intentions to leave Opus Dei. I never doubted my decision.
A few months later, my family and I and a priest who specializes in cult-like groups within the Church met with the Opus Dei vicar of the United States and presented our concerns. At the meeting the vicar appeared to agree with what we considered legitimate concerns, but a subsequent letter and the testimony of hundreds of individuals since that time reveals that Opus Dei has not changed its deceptive and manipulative techniques. Opus Dei may have made some cosmetic changes over the years since I left, but the central way of dealing with members and recruits is still wrought with deception and manipulation.
With time and the love and support of family, the effect of my experience began to lessen. My experience with Opus Dei created a hunger to know God, and I embarked on a new journey of faith, receiving counseling and support from kind and wise priests. Over time, God led me to a new type of relationship based on trust in Him alone, not in a group, and grounded in the daily reading of scripture for wisdom, guidance and peace. I am now a practicing Catholic with a deep faith that guides me each day; I am happily married and the mother of three beautiful boys; I work as a tax preparer.
My activities with ODAN have also been healing for me. A guiding scripture for me and motivator for my work with ODAN has been 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God."
See A Family Intervention for Tammy's mother's complementary account.
(*) 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.