Alex Constantine - November 4, 2007
Book lifts cowl on 'misogynist' Opus Dei
By Susan Bell
Defector tells of threats and humiliation she suffered during 13 years in secret sect ...
87,000 members spreading the word
Véronique Duborgel re-counts in a new book, Inside the Hell of Opus Dei, the 13 years she spent as a member of the group, which she describes as rigid, insensitive, sectarian and misogynistic.
The 44-year-old kindergarten teacher describes techniques of psychological isolation similar to those sometimes used by sects, and claims that Opus Dei intrudes into the most intimate areas of members' private lives, encourages them to inform on each other and drains their financial resources.
Mrs Duborgel writes that she was instructed not to tell family or friends that she was a member of Opus Dei.
"I was told they might ask awkward questions and it would avoid family conflicts if they didn't know," she told The Sunday Telegraph.
She had also been told to drop friends who had no inclination to join the organisation. Each year she was required to give the names of three friends, known as St Joseph's List, whom she would have to try to persuade to join Opus Dei over the next 12 months.
Members were encouraged to look upon each other as "a family", but Mrs Duborgel said she was forbidden to share intimate confidences with her "sisters" – other female members of Opus Dei. Instead, she had to discuss personal matters with a spiritual director, "someone we had not chosen and whom we were obliged to report to."
Members were instructed to appear joyful, even when sad or depressed. "It was a form of psychological isolation," she said, adding that she had survived by concealing the existence of some friends she made through her children's school. "With them I could talk about the normal stuff, but I was obliged to live a double life, otherwise I would have got my knuckles rapped," she said.
Every 15 days, Mrs Duborgel's spiritual director questioned her about her faith, and occasionally about the most intimate details of her marriage. "Once she warned me not to buy sexy underwear because it led men into temptation," she added.
She added that her spiritual director also asked her to spy on other women to find out if they used contraception – labelled a sin by the Catholic Church. She refused, but was denounced by fellow members for crossing her legs at Mass ("disrespectful and immodest"), for wearing trousers ("too provocative") and for not wearing enough make-up.
On being upbraided because she had not re-dyed her hair, she objected that she had never done so, but was told the unfounded reprimand had been "good for her humility".
"I realised then that Opus Dei was more about humiliation than humility," she said.
When Mrs Duborgel confided to two Opus Dei priests that her then husband, a 48-year-old former university professor who now lives in a monastery, beat and insulted her, she was told: "It's your cross, you must bear it."
Opus Dei has opted to turn the other cheek over Mrs Duborgel's book. A spokeswoman, Beatrice de la Coste, said: "We sympathise with the suffering expressed in this work. It gives us great sadness. This woman was not sufficiently listened to."
The organisation would not pursue the author or the book legally, she said, adding: "We are not going to attack someone who is suffering."
"I am not suffering at all," retorted Mrs Duborgel. "The suffering was when I was in Opus Dei."
Mrs Duborgel was drawn into the organisation by her future husband, who kept his own membership secret until after she joined. She says the secrecy governing Opus Dei is illustrated by a Latin prayer, which members must recite daily on their knees. "I was told to learn it off by heart so if I was surprised by anyone there would be no written trace of the prayer," she said.
The couple gave €400 (£275) a month and a bigger contribution at Christmas to Opus Dei, whose worth is estimated to be £1.4?billion. "We were told to consider Opus Dei as an extra child we had to support. But it cost me more than all my children put together," said Mrs Duborgel, who lives in Strasbourg with six of her nine children.
The Da Vinci Code vividly portrays the practice of "corporal mortification" by Silas the Albino, the murderous, self-flagellating monk, but Mrs Duborgel said she was encouraged only to take cold showers and forego treats.
"Dan Brown's novel is not very accurate about the organisation of Opus Dei, but where he got it exactly right is in his portrayal of a group who are prepared to do anything to maintain their power."
The last straw came at an Opus Dei conference at which a senior member said women were the equals of dogs. "He was not joking," she said.
She finally summoned up the courage to leave in 1996 when her husband, who opposed her plan, was away. From her anger at her treatment, her book was born – a book she expects Opus Dei members will be forbidden to read.