The Opus Dei diaries

It had been more than 40 years since Anne Marie Allen lived and worked at Ballyglunin Park, but she still took the servants’ driveway up to the house. We parked in the shadow of the large grey manor, and a young man came out to beckon us in from the buffeting Irish wind. Anne Marie gave me a small, tight smile.

The man’s family bought the estate a few years ago and was slowly restoring it to its former glory. But they hadn’t yet touched the basements or the dilapidated stable-yard annexe. That is what we had come to see. He led us down the backstairs, into a warren of rooms that smelt like they were underground. “It was like a horror movie down here,” he said.

Anne Marie ran her hand along the stone wall. A vivacious woman in her early sixties, she has small, bright eyes and a warm, kind face. She pictured herself as a young girl again, rushing through the corridors in her green woollen uniform. We followed down a hall, where sepia-frosted glass flooded a chapel with an artificial dawn. Bookcases lay in disarray around the room, their volumes — The Catholic Encyclopedia, Conversations with Saint Josemaría Escrivá — covered in dust. Each one was stamped “Ballyglunin Park Conference Centre”.

Anne Marie moved towards a wood-panelled door in the corner. Inside, hardly larger than a coat cupboard, was a confessional, a small kneeler facing a lattice screen. Forty-six years earlier, this was where a priest first suggested that Anne Marie join Opus Dei. She was 15 and had come to Ballyglunin to take a catering course. But within a few months, she would commit to years of unpaid domestic service for one of the most powerful organisations in the Catholic Church.

Today, Opus Dei has 95,000 members worldwide, some of them highly influential. In the US, for example, the Catholic Information Centre, an event space run by Opus Dei priests, claims that its chapel is the “closest tabernacle to the White House”. Its supporters have been central to the conservative takeover of the US judiciary. High-profile Opus Dei members elsewhere include the late Luis Valls, former president of Banco Popular, Patrick Njoroge, former governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, and Guillermo Lasso, the president of Ecuador until last year. Within the Church, Opus Dei members have been in charge of the Vatican’s press office and its bank.

Connections like these fuelled the hyperbolic and nefarious depiction of Opus Dei in Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller, The Da Vinci Code, and its subsequent film adaptation. Ever since, the elite standing of its membership has fuelled speculation about the group’s influence in business, education and politics. Far less known are the women whose labour has propped up Opus Dei for decades. Called “assistant numeraries”, they give their lives to the organisation as domestic workers. In many cases, they have done so without pay and against their will.

Anne Marie was one of 16 former assistant numeraries I spoke to who worked as unpaid domestic servants for Opus Dei from 1977 to 2020 across Europe, the US, Africa and Latin America. Recruited as young girls from rural and working-class backgrounds on the premise of receiving an education, the women said they were coerced into domestic servitude — in effect modern slavery — through a rigid system of psychological control. When they eventually managed to leave Opus Dei, they had nothing to their name. Some were registered for minimal social security contributions, but many were not. Most did not even have bank accounts.

The women in this article are the first to speak publicly about Opus Dei’s treatment of assistant numeraries in the western world. They are doing so at a time when the organisation’s status within the Church is in flux and it has had to question some of its foundational principles, including the role of its domestic workers. But at Ballyglunin, Anne Marie wanted one answer in particular: how did an organisation of people trying to lead virtuous lives end up causing so much harm? “The day that I came here, my life changed for ever,” she said. “It was devastating what happened to me and to others here. I was a child, you know.”

Teena, Ireland

The door slammed like a starting gun. Instinctively, Teena Fogarty ran. She heard her father’s newspaper smack the tiled floor as he got up to pursue. Outside, she jumped over the low crumbling wall at the end of the garden, through the nettles and brambles, and past the rusting car in the field.

But her father easily outpaced the young girl. Teena froze, her back to him, and hunched her shoulders. She lost count of which blow finally broke the wooden clothes hanger he had brought with him. “Look what you made me do,” her father shouted.

The Fogartys were well known in Ballyroan. They were the largest family in the village. Most others had between five and seven children; the Fogartys had 13. Teena was the fourth youngest. When the family gathered around their table for Sunday lunch, they had to do so in two sittings. The Fogartys lived on Main Street, one of the village’s two roads. Three times a week, they walked down the other, Chapel Street, to go to Mass.

If the children weren’t at church or their convent school, they were outdoors. They invented games to play in the surrounding rivers and rolling hills. Summers were for “scrumping”, or pinching apples off neighbours’ trees, and for climbing high atop hay bales. When they came home, they found a note from their father on the mantelpiece: “Confession at 7 o’clock,” signed “the Boss”.

Teena’s father worked as a tailor in the nearest town. Sundays, his day off, were bad. Sat at the head of the table, he preached for hours. His strict, punitive faith overshadowed everything else. Quiet and diminutive, Teena bowed her head of thin blonde hair and mumbled the words of the rosary she didn’t know.

Anne Marie, Ireland

Anne Marie passed the man’s picture to the girl next to her. Square-faced, with dark hair parted sharply on the left, he wore thick glasses and a long, black cassock. His name, the elegant women standing in front of the dozen young girls said, was Monsignor Josemaría Escrivá. To them, he was “our Father”, the founder of Opus Dei. They showed the girls photographs of the ornate crypt in Rome where he was buried.

Escrivá started Opus Dei in Spain in 1928, to help ordinary Catholics become holy through everyday work. Translated from the Latin, Opus Dei means “work of God,” and the young Spanish priest said the idea came to him in a vision. It was not necessary for people to enter a convent or monastery to commit themselves to faith, Escrivá said. They could be lawyers, teachers or civil servants and still attend to their life with transcendent significance. Opus Dei would show them how.

By the time Anne Marie got to Ballyglunin in the late 1970s, Opus Dei was a rising power in the Catholic Church. Its influence had grown during the Spanish dictatorship of Francisco Franco. John Paul II, a proponent of Escrivá, had just ascended the papal throne. He would soon make Opus Dei a “personal prelature”, the only one of its kind in the Church. Like a diocese, the organisation was composed of lay people and clergy and would be led by a bishop. Unlike a diocese, membership was not defined by geography. It was global. The head of Opus Dei reported directly to the Pope.

Opus Dei’s growing influence had ruffled religious ranks. Jesuits were particularly critical. They publicly alleged that its practices — including a feverish zeal for its founder and members’ tendency to not disclose themselves to outsiders — were Masonic and heretical. Escrivá, they said, was a power-grabbing elitist and Opus Dei akin to a holy mafia.

Anne Marie had never heard of Escrivá before arriving at the catering college in County Galway. She was 15 and the imposing grey country house could have been taken straight out of her imagination, its towers like those she pictured at the girls boarding school in her favourite Enid Blyton books. The women who greeted her smelled expensive. They wore freshly ironed blouses and smart, tailored skirts of finely threaded wool. After talking about Escrivá, they asked the students to tell them about themselves.

Anne Marie was from a village in County Cork, where she had been raised on Irish music, dance and tales of the Gaeltacht. She was shy but fiery and had decided she wanted to be a chef. When two women had arrived in her village that autumn offering catering qualifications and employment afterwards, Anne Marie couldn’t believe her luck.

Teena, Ireland

Teena stood, head bowed, in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. An older Spanish woman, Concha Montero, led a prayer beside her. Teena, now 16, had grown close to Montero in the weeks since she arrived at Crannton, the Dublin catering college her mother had seen advertised in the Irish Countrywoman magazine that summer, in 1978.

The notice offered teenage girls a two-year course in catering and household administration, one where “sports and hobbies are given a wide scope”. Teena’s father approved of an all-girls residence, particularly when he learnt there was a Catholic chapel on site. The advert made no mention of Opus Dei.

Montero, one of the women who ran the centre, soon asked Teena to join her for walks and prayers and filled them with stories about Escrivá. She spoke in an accent Teena had never heard before, her broken English peppered with Spanish. The founder was called “our Father”, Montero explained, because God had shown him the need for a new family within the Church. It was important that all Opus Dei centres felt like homes too. Escrivá believed that required a woman’s touch.

The women and girls at Crannton, Teena learnt, were the “Administration”, a term that refers both to the women responsible for the domestic work in an Opus Dei centre as well as the area in which they live. Some Opus Dei members are celibate, and Escrivá thought it best to avoid temptation. So Opus Dei centres are strictly segregated by sex. Locations are chosen for their ability to conceal the Administration from the male residents, with separate entrances, dividing walls and double-locked internal doors. According to Opus Dei’s internal guidelines at the time, the men and women were not to speak to each other, see each other or know each other’s names.

In reality, the girls at Crannton knew the men’s names from the embroidered tags in their underwear, which they washed and delivered back to their rooms. When Teena served the men meals, she did so in silence as they stared straight ahead. They only saw her white-gloved hands. “The perfect Administration,” Opus Dei’s internal guidelines stated then, “is neither seen nor heard.”

Some of the Crannton students rebelled. They were angry about having to go to Mass every day, the endless cooking and cleaning with few formal lessons and the restrictions over the television. One evening, when a girl from Dublin put the Village People’s “YMCA” on the record player, one of the directors tore into the room and cracked the disc over her knee. “This song is obscene, it’s encouraging people to be sinful,” the director admonished.

Teena preferred to try to please the women who ran the school. Montero’s attention, in particular, dazzled her. She gave Teena little presents: the last thimbleful of her scent bottle or chocolates normally reserved for the silver platters they left out in the men’s residence. Teena loved to walk beside her, marvelling at her silk scarves and pearls.

In front of the statue, Montero was talking about Escrivá’s mother and sister, how they had sanctified themselves by dedicating their lives to caring for his home. “What do you see for your life, Teena?” Montero asked.

“I’m not sure, Miss. I’d like to finish my studies, get a good job I suppose. And have a family.”

“Oh,” Montero said. “That’s not so noble, is it? You need to open your heart and listen to God, Teena. I think you might have a vocation.” She gave a thin smile. “Wouldn’t you like to do something greater with your life?”

Anne Marie, Rome

“Sit here with me, Anne Marie.” Noreen Quinn gestured to a bench underneath a marble bust, glowing in an alcove of the crypt. She took a pen and paper out of her bag. “You might write the letter to the Father now,” Quinn suggested.

Anne Marie hesitated. Six months had passed since she first saw photos of Escrivá. Now they were sitting inside his crypt in Rome. Some of the girls, the most promising, had been taken to Italy for the annual Opus Dei gathering over Easter, where Pope John Paul II had promised the students an audience. Anne Marie had applied for a passport and tasted blood oranges and gelato for the first time.

The Ballyglunin catering course had not been what she expected. When her aunt, a teacher, asked her about the curriculum, she didn’t know what to say. The students cooked and cleaned all day for the guests on religious retreats at the big house. It felt like labour, not learning. When the women who ran the retreats allowed them a break, they often took one girl for a walk. It was on one of those strolls that Anne Marie first heard about vocations.

The Opus Dei vocation can take many forms. More than 20,000 of its members are celibates, most of whom live in the strictly single-sex facilities. “Numeraries”, as they are known, spend large periods of each day in prayer and weeks of the year at Opus Dei retreats. The priests of Opus Dei, roughly 2,000 of them, are ordained numeraries. “Supernumeraries”, the bulk of Opus Dei members, can marry and live in their own homes, with slightly fewer spiritual obligations. All members are expected to give their earnings to Opus Dei apart from a modest living allowance.

When Anne Marie was told she might have a vocation, she imagined herself a supernumerary. She could have a family and fulfil her professional dreams. But she was mistaken, a priest at Ballyglunin explained. Knelt in the chapel’s confessional, Anne Marie was told that God had given her a vocation as an assistant numerary.

Assistant numeraries are a little-known type of Opus Dei member. Like numeraries, assistant numeraries are celibates who live in Opus Dei centres. But their specific calling, according to the group’s internal directives at the time, was to “dedicate their lives to the manual work or domestic tasks in the Centres of Opus Dei”, a vocation “in which they must remain”, presumably for life. There are about 4,000 assistant numeraries in Opus Dei today.

Quinn agreed that Anne Marie was meant to be one of what Escrivá called his “little daughters”, his “homemakers”. Quinn had spent time in Rome with Escrivá and helped spread his vision in Nigeria. She’d taken Anne Marie under her wing from the moment she got to Rome. “Now’s a good time, Anne Marie,” Quinn urged. “Write that you’re asking the Father to join Opus Dei. That you want to be an assistant numerary.”

Dim light illuminated the page as Anne Marie wrote. She dated the letter and put it in an envelope addressed to Father Álvaro del Portillo, Escrivá’s successor. “Don’t tell your family you ‘whistled’ yet, mind,” a numerary later warned, using the term Escrivá adopted to compare members requesting admission to kettles on the boil. “They won’t understand your vocation.”

Monica, Buenos Aires

Monica Espinoza’s alarm rang at 5.55am. She got out of bed, knelt down and kissed the floor. “Serviam,” she said out loud. I will serve. Then, for the next 15 hours, she worked.

Monica was part of an Opus Dei administration near Buenos Aires that served several retreat venues and was also a hospitality school for young girls, similar to the ones Anne Marie and Teena attended in Ireland. After Europe, Opus Dei had spread to Latin America, where postcolonial Spanish Catholic culture was particularly hospitable to Escrivá’s ideas.

Monica grew up in Bolivia, one of 10 siblings. She was a strong and diligent child. On weekends, she swept hot red dust out of the local church. Her dark hair curled into corkscrews during the humid summers. Opportunities in her village were scarce and, in 1986, when Monica was 16, she and her sister were sent to Argentina to finish their secondary education. On the long bus journey, a woman had befriended them. She had coiffed blonde hair like the feathery tips of the passing pampas grass. They stayed in touch and the next year, both sisters had whistled as assistant numeraries.

Inspired by Jesus’s early life as a carpenter, Escrivá taught his followers that the path to heaven lay through the sanctification of ordinary work. “The work of each one of us . . . must be an offering worthy of our Creator,” he once said. “In short, a task that is complete and faultless.”

So Monica and the other girls worked like their salvation depended on it. They scrubbed every windowsill, skirting board and door handle. They made the underside of every loo seat sparkle. Each towel was folded just so. If it wasn’t perfect, they did it again.

According to Escrivá’s teachings, rest was dangerous. “Satan and his allies never take a holiday,” he warned. “You must fight against the tendency to be too lenient with yourselves.” So the girls took breaks only to sleep, eat or pray.

As an assistant numerary, Monica followed the daily spiritual plan Escrivá prescribed to help bring Opus Dei members closer to God: Mass each morning, the rosary, two 30-minute sessions of prayer, 15 minutes reading of religious texts, a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, as well as regular invocations and mortifications. Once a week, the administration gathered for a “circle”, where the spirit of Opus Dei was instilled in them by numeraries who led the class. They were taught the value of poverty, chastity, asceticism and obedience. And above all, hard work.

Anne Marie, Ireland

“Anne Marie, it’s your father.” The numerary passed her the receiver. Anne Marie’s heart raced. She had received several of these calls from her family, ever since Cardinal Basil Hume, the Archbishop of Westminster, made his guidelines for Opus Dei public. Hume was the most senior Catholic priest in England and Wales at the time, and he was alarmed by stories he had heard about the group.

In 1981, Hume had warned Opus Dei not to recruit minors and that the parents of young would-be members had to be involved in the decision to join. He made it clear that members must be free to join or leave without “undue pressure”, and the organisation’s activities must be clearly identified.

Anne Marie did not see much of the resulting media coverage. She was 19 and now living in the administration of Lismullin Conference Centre in County Meath. The newspapers in the centre had neat rectangles cut out of them to protect members from articles that might be corrupting. But Anne Marie’s parents had read the exposés citing former members, including a professor from the University of Oxford, who spoke of having their minds and actions controlled. Opus Dei denied the claims.

Soon after, Anne Marie’s father came to visit. He looked at the brown tablecloths, where Anne Marie and the other girls ate leftovers of the food they served to other members on bone china. “God Almighty,” he muttered. That’s when the calls started, various relatives all ringing to tell the teenager they wanted her home for good.

Sometimes Anne Marie had her own doubts. One day, she asked Mary Magrath, the director of Lismullin, “Miss Mary, where does all the money go?”. The conference centre seemed to make good money from its well dressed guests, but when the soles flapped off Anne Marie’s shoes, she wasn’t allowed new ones.

Magrath looked her straight in the eye. “If you continue going on about these materialist things, Anne Marie, you and your family will go to hell.”

At Lismullin, each girl was assigned a spiritual director, a numerary who slowly picked the lock on their soul. After one of the calls, Anne Marie turned to hers for guidance. When she said she was wanted back home, the numerary shouted. How could Anne Marie not stand up for her vocation?

The next time her family rang, Anne Marie took the phone from the wall and heard the little click indicating someone had picked up the other line in the director’s office. Her father was calling from a phone box in the village. “You’re to leave Opus Dei, Anne Marie. None of this nonsense any more,” he said. “You’re to come home.”

“But it’s my vocation. It’s God’s will.” Anne Marie’s hands were clammy. She could feel the other members quietly gathering in a semi-circle in the hallway around her. Their heads were bowed in silent prayer.

“You’re being manipulated, Anne Marie! You’re to come home,” her father shouted.

“No, Dad.”

Anne Marie hung up.

“You did well,” her spiritual director said, touching her lightly on the shoulder.

Teena, London

Teena had been miserable ever since she whistled. Shortly afterwards, Montero, her glamorous confidante, ceased to acknowledge her. The older woman passed by placidly in the corridors, her former care and attention haunting Teena like a living ghost. All she had done was give Teena a cilice, a barbed metal chain she was to tie around her thigh for two hours every day, and a discipline, a rope whip with knotted ends she was to use on her back when she prayed the Hail Mary.

Mortifications are part of Opus Dei’s daily spiritual plan, and they aren’t limited to the flesh. Asceticism is a way to imitate Christ’s life, to take up the cross with him. Teena was encouraged to offer up her suffering, however small or temporary, to God: sitting in an uncomfortable position, denying herself food she liked.

The girl had stopped eating. She buckled her uniform’s belt one notch tighter each month, until there were none left. She longed for the fields in Ballyroan. But when she wrote letters to her family she didn’t know what she could say. The numeraries read everything she sent or received — to protect her, they said, from immoral thoughts.

Over the years, Teena tried to run away a few times, each of them futile. In confession and one-on-ones with their spiritual directors, the girls were encouraged to share and critique their innermost thoughts. Teena’s flight attempts were attributed to her “bad spirit”. When she was 25, in 1987, she was transferred from Ireland to London. She lived in a women’s residence next door to Opus Dei’s headquarters near Kensington Palace.

The centre Teena lived in at that time was one of Opus Dei’s “corporate works”, institutions such as schools, universities and student residences to which the organisation provides spiritual direction. The University of Navarra in Spain, for instance, was founded by Escrivá in 1952. Its business school in Barcelona, IESE, is consistently in the top tier of the FT’s worldwide rankings for MBAs. Many others are also first-class educational institutions, including two private schools on the outskirts of Washington, DC, and two in London.

Corporate works are not owned by Opus Dei — there is no “Opus Dei Limited” — but, typically, by charities set up by members. This structure and the works’ anodyne names fuel charges by critics that Opus Dei conceals assets. It also limits Opus Dei’s legal liability. Members’ employment contracts, for example, are the responsibility of the individuals or entities that run specific centres, not the religious group.

In London, Opus Dei’s headquarters — a row of six £5mn town houses on a street by the gardens of Kensington Palace — are owned by the Netherhall Educational Association. Netherhall owns several other buildings in the capital, and its trustees are all Opus Dei members. But the name bears no obvious reference to Opus Dei. Similarly, Murray Hill Place, the organisation’s US headquarters on Lexington Avenue in New York, is owned by a non-profit of the same name. Finished in 2001, its $69mn construction was partly paid for by the sale of pharmaceutical stocks donated to Opus Dei by a private individual.

It is almost impossible to total the worldwide value of Opus Dei’s corporate works. By trawling the accounts of the seven charities that own its main centres in the UK, I calculated they declare assets of more than £65mn. That appears to be a significant underestimate of present-day values given that another Opus Dei-affiliated charity, Dawliffe Hall Educational Foundation, is currently selling two vast adjoining mansions on London’s Chelsea Embankment for an estimated asking price of £24mn.

Monica, Rome

After serving in Argentina, Monica was called to Rome. The opportunity — to be near the Pope and walk the same ground as the Father of Opus Dei — was hard to pass up. Monica travelled to Italy on a student visa. But although she lived at the Roman College of the Holy Cross, an Opus Dei seminary, she was not there to study. She was to cook and clean for the 200 men who were.

The Roman College is a sprawling complex of villas. Cypress and pine trees rise above tiled terracotta roofs. A network of underground corridors, nicknamed “the metro”, links the women’s section to the men’s. At the entrance to the underground walkways, Monica followed a map, each line to a different workstation colour-coded. She illustrated the map in her mind with glimpses of the gardens she saw framed through the men’s windows. Her own looked on to a wall.

Monica was not paid for her work. Wages were never even discussed. It was understood that the work she did for her Opus Dei family was done for free. She had a few euros credit a month to spend on basics: soap, tampons, toothpaste. Most of the time the numeraries gave her things from a store room. When she was permitted to go to a shop — once or twice a year — she returned, as instructed, with receipts.

On special occasions, the girls were allowed to use the women’s swimming pool. But they rarely had time. Once a week, they had three hours’ rest, and, once a month, they were allowed out for the day, as long as they were back to prepare dinner. At night, Monica crawled into bed exhausted.

Then, she started not sleeping. Her insomnia began soon after her mother’s birthday, when she was reprimanded for calling home without permission. Her work pace slowed. Eventually, she was told that if she wasn’t working hard enough, she would have to go back to Argentina. By then, Monica was 32 and had been in Rome for seven years. She was glad to go.

Two years later, Pope John Paul II gave Opus Dei a final, unequivocal sign of his support. In October 2002, some 300,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Square to witness Escrivá’s canonisation. Eight-metre-high portraits of the Opus Dei founder hung from the balustrades of St Peter’s Basilica as the Pope officiated from an open-air altar. Leaning into a microphone, his back stooped and his speech slurred by Parkinson’s, the 82-year-old pontiff made a sign of the cross with his wavering right hand and declared Escrivá a saint.

Anne Marie, Ireland

Anne Marie’s parents didn’t offer tea. Their battle with Opus Dei had intensified as Anne Marie’s 21st birthday approached. To placate them, Magrath, Lismullin’s director, accompanied Anne Marie on a visit home. It was agreed to on one condition: Anne Marie’s father promised in writing that he would not try to keep her. Before the trip, Magrath handed Anne Marie a £50 note. “If you need to run away,” she explained.

At home, Anne Marie’s parents wedged her on the sofa between them. The adults exchanged terse chit-chat, about the drive down, the rain.

“We’ll be going then,” Magrath said eventually. “We’ll collect you in the morning, Anne Marie, after Mass.”

They stood, and Anne Marie’s parents broke their pretence. They grabbed her by the arms. “She’s not going anywhere,” her father said.

Anne Marie started to scream. “Anne Marie wants to come back,” Magrath said.

“She’s not going and that’s it.”

“Your letter,” Magrath reminded.

“I said I wouldn’t try. I am.”

Anne Marie’s parents put her to bed in their room that night.

Her first months back home reminded her of being a child watching films she knew would give her nightmares. “Cop on, Anne Marie,” her parents said. “Time to be normal now.”

They packed her off to a gig in the local hall with her brother, friends piled two to a seat in his car. Anne Marie felt out of place and looked out of place, in her long tartan skirt and high-necked purple cardigan. But then she walked in and heard the flute and guitar riff of the Horslips’ Celtic rock anthem “Trouble (With A Capital T)”. She looked around. Were the others hearing this? She thought she had died and gone to heaven.

Gradually, she stopped going to Mass every day. She returned fewer of her spiritual director’s calls and letters. She gorged on newspapers, radio and television. She was shown how to open a bank account, buy a bus ticket and use the pay phone. She started dancing again, competing in a set of four. At a dance, she had her first sip of beer, and didn’t mind it. In the end, Anne Marie spent Magrath’s escape money on a dress. When her parents saw how dowdy her choice was, they insisted she swap it for something more youthful.

One evening, she saw Madonna on television, writhing on her back in lacy underwear and pearls. “You ma-a-a-ade me feel . . . Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.” Anne Marie didn’t know where to look. She had spent six years avoiding temptation and here was a woman revelling in sin. She peeked through her hands.

Teena, Ireland

The train pulled into Portlaoise station. Lamps lit the platform with a wet, yellow glow. Two figures stood in the light waiting for Teena. She had finally left Opus Dei.

In London, it had seemed like things might improve. After one attempt to flee, Teena had begged and begged to study at a polytechnic on the outskirts of the city. Eventually, the director relented. But one day, when a numerary couldn’t accompany her to college, Teena met a man after class for pizza. That evening, she confessed what she had done, and the next day she was driven four hours north to Thornycroft Hall, a retreat centre two miles from the nearest dwelling. Teena hit rock bottom. She tried to take her own life, twice. Eventually, the numeraries said there was nothing more they could do for her “bad spirit”.

On the journey home, Teena veered between elation and terror. She thought that, having left, she could now do anything and also that she might die the next minute. She carried a small fabric suitcase and in her handbag a notebook, passport and an empty purse. Teena was 33, and she weighed 43kg. To her mother and sister, she looked like a broken child. As she stepped off the train, they opened their arms and didn’t ask any questions. “It’s OK, you’re home.”

The numeraries came to visit Teena a few times, but she never went back. She lived with her eldest sister, who minded her while she slept and ate. In her soft plaster-pink bedroom, Teena thought the duvet was the most precious thing she’d ever seen.

Her sister taught her how to live. She was struck by how much easier Teena found the company of her teenage nieces. They were the same age Teena had been when she left home.

After a little while, Teena’s father came round.

“So. You’ve left,” he said.


“Are you OK?”

“I’m OK.”

He paused. “Well then,” he finally asked, “where will you live long term?” And he steered the conversation to practicalities.

Anne Marie, Ireland

Magrath strode into the hospital waiting room and sat down next to Anne Marie. Anne Marie had been home for more than a year and she hadn’t called anyone in Opus Dei for months. She had no idea how she’d been found at a routine medical appointment. Magrath’s face was white with anger. “We haven’t heard from you, Anne Marie,” the numerary director of Lismullin said.

“You’re living in sin, you’re living an immoral life,” Magrath raged, desperate not to give up on Anne Marie’s soul. “Look at you — who gave you this handbag? Who gave you permission to buy those clothes? We’ve a car outside, it’ll bring you to confession. Come.”

Anne Marie had started studying for her leaving certificate, the exam she would normally have taken at 18. She was paying for the night courses by working as a cook at a local convent, where she was treated well. She had made friends aside from her brothers: girls a few years younger, teenagers experiencing their own firsts. When they asked where she had been for so many years, she said working jobs in Galway and Meath, and it wasn’t technically a lie.

Anne Marie dressed differently, acted differently and spoke differently. Some of her brothers’ friends teased her, testing her blind obedience. If they asked her to make an apple pie, she hurried off right away. But slowly, Anne Marie started to wonder if they were really sinners. That perhaps people were doing the best with what they had.

She looked at Magrath. “I’m not going,” she told her.

“I’m taking you now.”

“I’m not going!”

Perplexed, Magrath stood and pulled on Anne Marie’s arm. Anne Marie clawed on to the wall. “I’m not going!” she shouted.

“There’s people looking at you,” Magrath lowered her voice and sat down. She stiffened. “Are you thinking of leaving Opus Dei?”

Monica, Argentina

When Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, he was the first Pope to do so in 600 years. Delivering his decision in Latin, the 85-year-old said his age meant he was “no longer suited” to govern in a world “subject to so many rapid changes”. A deeply conservative pontiff, Benedict was known as “God’s rottweiler” for his dogged fidelity to Church doctrine. The man who took his place a month later was very different. Pope Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, soon established a reputation as a comparative liberal. If Benedict lived by the letter of Church law, Francis lives by its spirit.

Francis is the first non-European pontiff in modern history, and Argentines went wild for their countryman’s election. But Monica finds it hard to recall details of the celebrations. She was, by then, in a medicated fog. She was suffering from chronic exhaustion and severe depression, but there was little let-up in her duties. Some nights she ironed until 2am. A numerary accompanied her to a doctor, also an Opus Dei member, who gave her pills to knock her out at night.

Monica’s sister, who had herself left Opus Dei years before after a breakdown, was worried about her. To stay in touch, she gave Monica a knock-off iPad and instructed her to hide it from the directors.

One day, Monica opened the browser and typed “Opus Dei” into it. She soon found a Spanish-language website, Opus Libros, where former members posted anonymously about their experiences. The testimonies complained of coercion, exploitation and deception. Almost every paragraph brought tears to Monica’s eyes.

She wanted to contact the website’s founder, but the director at her centre knew her email and social media passwords. It took her several months, but eventually Monica came up with a plan. She asked for permission to visit a sick relative. When she was told there wasn’t the money, her sister sent her the fare.

In 2015, she left Argentina for Bolivia and never came back. Two years later, Monsignor Fernando Ocáriz was elected as the new head, or Prelate, of Opus Dei. Unlike other previous Prelates, who were swiftly anointed bishops, Francis did not follow suit. Ocáriz remained a Monsignor. In the eyes of many religious observers, it was a demotion of Opus Dei.

Monica, Teena, Anne Marie

Last month, Anne Marie, Teena and Monica appeared in a grid of faces. The “agora” Zoom call is a weekly forum to discuss Opus Dei. It was started in 2020 by former members and recently expanded to the English-speaking world through a Reddit group, called Opus Dei Exposed. The group has hundreds of members.

Monica was the first of the three women to find the community. She is 55 now and lives with her sister’s family in the Balearics. Most mornings, she likes to swim at 6am, when the sea is calm. She recently had breast cancer, and exercise helps her deal with the side effects of chemotherapy medication. She was 48 when she left Opus Dei and has no qualifications. She works as a cleaner.

In 2021, Monica and 42 other former assistant numeraries from Latin America accused Opus Dei of enslavement in Argentina, denouncing the organisation in the press. The women are represented by a lawyer but have not yet filed a civil case. In response, Opus Dei set up a “healing and resolution office” in Argentina and asked its corporate works in the region to “review the labour and social security issues”. The Argentine police are investigating.

That year, across the Atlantic, Anne Marie had decided to put Opus Dei behind her. She left when she was much younger than Monica or Teena and managed to more than make up for her lost school years. She studied at night and has a thick file of certificates to prove it. Now 61, she works as an executive coach after a successful career in the Irish prison service.

When she retired from the public sector, Anne Marie was a governor at Portlaoise prison, a high-security jail in the town where Teena’s father once worked as a tailor. The facility is known for jailing abusive priests. Anne Marie had tried for several years to make contact with former assistant numeraries from Ireland, including Teena, but had little luck. In late 2021, after years of counselling, she gathered the few letters and photographs she had from her time in Opus Dei and burnt them. “Bye now,” she said. “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

But then, a few weeks later, her phone pinged with a notification about the Argentine complaint. Within a week, she was on one of the agora calls. Around the same time, she finally made contact with some of her Irish peers. Then, she heard from Teena out of the blue. They realised they weren’t alone.

Teena no longer lives in Ireland. After recovering at home, she spent time in the UK and now lives in a small town in Spain. Tiny and sprightly, with chunky silver jewellery and brightly coloured clothes, Teena looks like a pixie. It is hard to believe she is 61. She feels the impact of her time in Opus Dei has hindered every aspect of her life since. Unlike Anne Marie and Monica, she only recently started talking freely about Opus Dei. Doing so brings on bad dreams, migraines and anxiety. She has a gentle giant of a dog, a half mastiff, and walking him helps. She works as an English tutor and is otherwise living the youth she lost to Opus Dei; she and her partner are serious rock fans and sell vintage memorabilia. Her financial situation is not easy, but she still gets occasional surges of elation from being free.

In addition to assistant numeraries, I interviewed 40 former and current Opus Dei members from around the world for this article. The majority confirmed they had witnessed exploitative treatment of assistant numeraries. Before I could get in touch, Opus Dei’s UK press officer contacted me about my research. “We have nothing to hide,” he wrote. I have since spent many hours with the affable Spanish-born gentleman, who explained that some domestic work is now shared. The men in his centre make their own breakfast and wash up their dinner, he said.

When I put the specific allegations in this article to Opus Dei’s head office in Rome, a spokesperson responded: “Everybody’s experiences are valid, and if some people have been hurt while being in Opus Dei we are very sorry about that. We would like to apologise and if applicable, be able to amend and repair in the best possible way.” Several current assistant numeraries I spoke to said they chose their vocation freely, and that they view it as a way to show God’s love through domestic care. “People thrive in the right environment, we want to make the centres a home,” one woman told me.

Similarly, Opus Dei said assistant numeraries no longer have inferior living conditions or treatment compared with other members. “We are aware that in the past, in some countries, some of these manifestations may have occurred,” the spokesperson said. The organisation says it now has guidelines to “proactively avoid any kind of asymmetry in treatment, lifestyle and material aspects among the members of Opus Dei”.

That appeared to be true of the assistant numeraries I met in the UK, in the presence of a numerary. They have Instagram accounts, access to cars and are studying at university. They are paid for their work. But several Opus Dei members in other countries, predominantly in Latin America, told me that an effective caste system still persists. The most recent assistant numerary to leave Opus Dei I spoke to did so in Mexico in 2020. She is not registered with the country’s state pension system and said she never received a salary during more than 34 years of service.

Most of the centres mentioned in this article are now run by different management, but I was able to contact some of the former staff who are still alive. Montero, now in her seventies, said that she did not remember the specifics of Teena’s situation. “I treated all the girls the same, and we were all very fond of each other. Maybe, because of my character and being Spanish, I expressed my fondness in a different way from the Irish women,” she wrote. “I am deeply sorry if that affection was interpreted as something self-serving. It wasn’t at all. I can only apologise if my limitations or distractions caused her pain.”

In a lengthy letter, Mary Magrath, now in her sixties, rejected several aspects of Anne Marie’s recollection. She didn’t think it was possible to listen in on the girls’ phone calls, for example, and disputed the types of table cloths and flatware used in the centre. “The words attributed to me,” Magrath wrote, “do not reflect my attitude to life and to people, and would not be in keeping with the overall approach I take to things. The accusation that I tried to force her to come with me is totally untrue.” She remembered Anne Marie “as a lively, fun-loving and loveable person who did not appear to be in any way unhappy with her life”.

These explanations aren’t enough for Teena, Anne Marie and Monica. Last year, they provided testimony to a complaint to the Vatican by former Opus Dei members. The 20-page document denounces the group as a “destructive sect” and accuses it of being complicit in human trafficking. (Opus Dei “categorically denies” the allegations.)

The complaint asks for the Pope to intervene. There are signs that Francis might be listening. Last year, he issued amendments to canon law without warning that upset Opus Dei’s position within the Church. The change officially removed Opus Dei’s direct line to the papacy. It emphasised members’ accountability to the authority of their local bishop. In response, Opus Dei has had to revise its statutes.

The Pope’s move has been widely interpreted as an attempt to reduce Opus Dei’s power. But Francis is running out of time. He is 87 and was hospitalised several times over the past year. According to Catholic media, his declining health has sparked a lobbying campaign to influence the next papal election. Conservatives hope to ensure that whoever replaces him is not nearly as liberal.

After we said goodbye at Ballyglunin, Anne Marie tapped out a message to her friend Teena on WhatsApp. “Opus Dei took over Ballyglunin Park in 1964,” she wrote. “They took away its beauty and used it for their own purposes . . . But Ballyglunin has survived. It has fought back, and its beauty is being restored with the help of people who care. Just like what is happening to us.”

Antonia Cundy is an FT special investigations reporter

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