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An In-Depth Look At Opus Dei: A Conservative Catholic Group

Aired May 18, 2001 - 10:10   ET


DONNA KELLEY, CNN ANCHOR: We're taking an in-depth look this morning at the secretive religion in the life of a complex man. Former FBI Agent Robert Hanssen was indicted this week on charges of spying for Moscow. Recently, it was discovered that he belongs to a conservative Roman Catholic group known as Opus Dei. Like Hanssen, it seems to embody contradictions, a spiritual haven to some and not to others.

Here's CNN's Bill Delaney. He has an investigation of Opus Dei.


BILL DELANEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mysteries of faith, that often elusive territory where believers seek insight, salvation, a search that around the world has led 80,000 Roman Catholics like Meg Kates, a conservatory trained opera singer, to an organization called Opus Dei.

MEG KATES, MEMBER, OPUS DEI: The essence of Opus Dei is helping people from all walks of life find God in their ordinary, everyday activities.

DELANEY: Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva founded Opus Dei in 1928, beatified the final step towards sainthood in 1992. Pope John Paul II declared Opus Dei in 1982 a personal prelature formally affiliating with the Catholic Church, the group whose name means God's work.

KATES: Ordinary work can and should be a means of finding God. If it's done for the glory of God, not only for bringing home the money for the house and, you know, paying the bills, but also with that intention, lord, this is for you, that work can become prayer.

DELANEY: Idealism, devotion and a history of passionate anti- communism seeming to utterly contradict the cynicism, betrayal Opus Dei member Robert Hanssen is accused of, an FBI agent who allegedly spied for the communist Soviet Union and Russia for 15 years. Meg Kates met Hanssen a few years ago.

KATES: Lovely man. He's a lovely man. He's intelligent, funny. He's, you know, a wonderful father and a wonderful husband and a wonderful worker. Great integrity in his work. And that's why it's so much of a shock. That's why you hear something like that and it's like that's really sad. DELANEY: Controversy, though, has shadowed Opus Dei. Though no one's suggesting any connection between Robert Hanssen's membership in the group and his alleged crimes, which mystify, even horrify members of Opus Dei, former members of the group do say it has a dark side.

(voice-over): The DiNicola family of Pittsfield, Massachusetts say they remember their daughter Tammy gazing back at them like they were strangers when (AUDIO GAP) Opus Dei.

DIANE DINICOLA, MOTHER OF FORMER OPUS DEI MEMBER: It was as if our daughter had died and yet she was still alive. Her eyes looked dead. It was as if she was there but she wasn't there.

TAMMY DINICOLA, FORMER MEMBER, OPUS DEI: My emotions had basically been squashed when I was in there and it was kind of an eerie thing because I could sit there and watch them crying and, you know, just their hearts completely broken and have a cold face.

DELANEY: Tammy DiNicola says she was recruited by fellow students at college. Vowing celibacy, she slept on a board amid a strict routine of prayer and study. And she learned self-flagellation.

DINICOLA: You were required every week to use these, it was like -- it kind of looked like a macrame mat thing on your buttocks and then you also had the cilice, which was a spiked chain that you wore around your thigh for two hours every day except Sundays.

DELANEY: After three years in the group, an intervention with an expert on deprogramming helped Tammy DiNicola leave Opus Dei. The DiNicolas now help run ODAN, the Opus Dei Awareness Network, saying they've received thousands of calls for help from people wanting out of Opus Dei.

All of which baffles leaders of Opus Dei we spoke to in New York, Boston, Chicago, as completely as Robert Hanssen's alleged spying baffles them. Opus Dei says its organization is simply about doing good, like this tutoring program in the inner city of Chicago, which the group sponsors, and the estimated 3,000 members of Opus Dei in the United States, leaders like Meg Kates say can come or go.

KATES: Free to come, free to go, free to participate, free not to, free to walk right out the door, free to stay.

DELANEY: Robert Hanssen would be designated a supernumerary of Opus Dei, able to marry, have a family, contributing a modest amount to the organization. Kates is a celibate member, a numerary who turns over all her money. She does wear the cilice on her thigh, emulating, she says, the suffering of Jesus Christ.

KATES: Just like an aerobic program at the gym will get your body into shape and it's worth all of the pain and agony that goes along with that, so denying yourself little things will get your soul in shape. It makes it stronger.

Everyone has their own subjective viewpoint and ways of seeing things and taking things. What I can tell you in my own many years in Opus Dei, that the bottom line is that the people are always free.

DELANEY: Mysteries of faith, one person's approach to heaven, another's a kind of hell, and how one man's faith allegedly coexisted with such faithlessness.

Bill Delaney, CNN, Boston.


HARRIS: To learn some more about the secrecy and the controversy that goes along with this organization, we're joined this morning by Tom Groom. He is a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College and he's also a closer observer of Catholic groups around the country. He joins us from Boston this morning. Mr. Groom, this really strikes us...

TOM GROOM, BOSTON COLLEGE: Good morning, Leon.

HARRIS: This is really surprising to hear this about this organization because I've heard a little bit about it before in the past but I've never heard such divergent, I guess, descriptions of exactly what this group is all about. How do you reconcile those two?

GROOM: Well, Leon, I can't reconcile them. I cannot. And, in fact, I have not heard divergent views, other than from Opus Dei itself. The typical attitude and understanding of Opus Dei among ordinary in the street Catholics, as it were, is that it's a secretive, clandestine, elitist organization that has a very right- wing conservative agenda, both for church and society. Now, that's the typical image of Opus Dei. If that's not true, as somebody like Meg Kates would claim, then Opus Dei have a huge public relations job to be doing.

HARRIS: Now, the reason why, of course, we're paying attention to this organization now is because of the Robert Hanssen case.

GROOM: Indeed.

HARRIS: In your mind, is it possible that this organization could have had some sort of influence on him to get him to go ahead and spy on the -- from the FBI?

GROOM: I would absolutely say not. This man clearly must have compartmentalized his life. He obviously had one side of him and another side of him. We heard Meg Kates say that she thought he was a lovely man and I'm sure -- and Kates seems a pretty keen observer of the human condition.

So he fooled a lot of people. He fooled his colleagues in Opus Dei. But I would certainly never lay any blame on Opus Dei for the kinds of crimes that he's allegedly, that he allegedly has committed.

HARRIS: Are you aware of any political agenda this organization may have?

GROOM: Well, within the church, certainly, Leon. They are commonly perceived -- and I think accurately -- as having a very restorationist, even reactionary kind of Catholicism. It's no secret that their founder, the blessed Josemaria Escriva, was very much in opposition to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. He opposed the changes in the liturgy, for example.

In the Opus Dei communities they still typically celebrate mass, as I understand it, in Latin. I don't know much about Opus Dei from the inside because it is such a secretive organization. So within the church certainly they've had a very conservative agenda. That's the one I know best. They also allegedly have the same kind of agenda for society.

HARRIS: But considering the fact that there is so much secrecy that clouds this organization there may be many things that they were still unaware of. Would you be concerned at all about this organization? I mean if there any sense of, I guess, danger here at all, do you think?

GROOM: I don't think there's any plot for taking over a government or something like that. They do exercise a kind of back room politics that I find very ominous and, indeed, threatening.

Now, the Catholic Church has never been a democracy and it never will be. But there is a certain kind of public discourse that ought to go on that ought to surround any group. Any group should be open about its membership, for example, but if I ask for a list of members here in the Boston area, if I ask for a list of members for the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits would be happy to tell me who they are. Ask for a list of membership of Opus Dei, they will never tell.

So there is a certain kind of secretiveness and also these very questionable practices of mortification, flagellation and so on. I mean psychologists and other people would certainly warn about that. And theologians would, as well. It reflects a very negative image of the human body and quite, indeed...

HARRIS: Well, it sounds like those, when you mention those things it sounds more like a cult than it does just a religious group.

GROOM: And certainly there are lots of former members or people who know the organization far better than I who refer to it as certainly being cult-like, cult-like in its suspension of freedoms, in its suspension of informed consent. Very often numeraries or super numeraries don't always know what's entailed until they, indeed, get so installed and so on. So that there's a great deal of problematic surrounding this group and it's not a cozy Sunday school gathering.

HARRIS: Well, we sure thank you for educating us this morning. Tom Groom of Boston University.

GROOM: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you very much.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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