By Randy Engel
Part II – Focus on John Allen, Jr. and Opus Dei
A Backgrounder on John L. Allen, Jr.
On its home page, Fort Hays State University states it is “proud to offer an immersive, advanced education to hard-working individuals who wish to grow their opportunities for tomorrow.” John L. Allen, Jr. is a Hays alumnus who has lived up to that description.
Born in Hays, Kansas, on January 1, 1965, Allen, an only child, attended the Capuchin-founded Thomas More Prep-Marian High School. His early relationship with the Capuchin Order would later stand Allen in good stead with Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap.
Upon graduation in 1983, he went on to earn a BA in English and Philosophy from Fort Hays and a Masters in Religious Studies from the University of Kansas, where he was preparing to be a Bible scholar, and where he began to develop his writing skills.
His first full-time job was teaching journalism at the Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California in the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles. Allen also supervised the student-run newspaper, ironically called, The Knight.
In 1998, a series of freelance articles led to a job with the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) in Kansas City, Mo. Here he frankly admits he imbibed his liberal and somewhat anti-traditional religious and political views and biases.
In 2000, his NCR bosses sent Allen to Rome where he mastered Italian, Latin and “Vatican speak” – the language of the Roman Curia.
His weekly column “The Word From Rome” (later “All things Catholic”) became a popular source of information from the Vatican and the Church around the world. Allen later became the Vatican analyst for CNN and National Public Radio.
Accolades From Fellow Reporters
In his more than two decades of reporting from Rome, Allen established himself as a Vatican “insider” extraordinaire and a confidant of numerous bishops and cardinals and sundry hangers-on.
Kenneth L. Woodward, former religious editor of Newsweek claimed “Outside of the North Korean government in Pyongyang, no bureaucracy is harder for a journalist to crack than the Vatican’s. And no one does it better than John L. Allen Jr. … In just three years, Allen has become the journalist other reporters – and not a few cardinals – look to for the inside story on how all the pope’s men direct the world’s largest church.”[i]
According to Boston Globe editor, Brian McGrory, “John is basically the reporter that bishops and cardinals call to find out what’s going on within the confines of the Vatican. His inexhaustible energy, supported by extraordinary insights is legendary.”[ii]
Allen’s Marriage to Shannon Levitt
Shannon Levitt was born and raised in a small Colorado town where hers was the only Jewish family. She earned a BA in English and Religious Studies from the University of Kansas and an MA in English from California State University at Northridge. After graduation, she worked with the Orthodox Jewish community in Los Angeles, which is where she met John. Later she taught high school English at the Notre Dame de Sion School in Kansas City, a liberal private Catholic school “with a unique mission of building interfaith connections through mutual respect and dialogue.”[iii]
It is unclear when Allen and Levitt married, but the couple moved to Rome in 2000. Shannon taught ESL (English as a second language). From 2004 to 2019, Shannon, an avid film buff, who also speaks Italian and Spanish, also served as Allen’s business manager and copy editor – six of those years with Crux.
In a January 2017 Crux article “A peculiar Catholic education led this Jew to love Rome,” Shannon reflects on her life in Rome as seen through the eyes of “a non-religious Jew” married to a famous Catholic editor. She said that she learned a great deal about the Catholic Church just by living in the Eternal City and admitted to having to deal with her own critical view of Christianity as a Jew in light of her new friendship “with so many amazing people in the Church.”[iv]
Of particular interest was her comments on Opus Dei. She said that “All my biases were challenged, even my reflexive dislike of Opus Dei, a group thought to be fairly conservative and not exactly at the vanguard of empowering women. I remember the day when I had lunch with a priest of Opus Dei, who would become a very dear friend, and being so ready to despise him. Years after that meeting, when John was researching and writing his book about Opus Dei, he was made aware of an ex-member whom he wanted to interview, but was warned that I, his wife, was a secret supporter of Opus Dei and should not be trusted based on a travelogue I had shared with friends.”[v]
Shannon ended her article by noting that for her, “it isn’t surprising that a Jew could take place in Rome just as a Catholic can. But I would argue that it’s basically non-denominational, and even non-religious. It’s a human pride. Pride for what humans can accomplish on our best day.”[vi]
Since she still refers to herself as John’s wife in the article, her separation/divorce from John must have occurred after January 2017. She has since left Rome and returned to the United States where she works full time for Crux.
Allen’s Early Connections to Opus Dei in Rome
After Opus Dei numerary, actor, psychiatrist, and journalist Joaquín Navarro-Valls became Director of the Holy See Press Office in 1984 under the pontificate of John Paul II, no member of the Vatican press corps could hope to survive without his benediction. Allen was smart enough to understand how the game was played and acted accordingly.
By the time Allen had registered at the Vatican press office in 2000 for the NCR, Navarro-Valls had already been at his gate-keeping and public relations post for 16 years, and had become the second most important man at the Vatican, next to the pope himself. According to Allen, he (Allen) was lucky enough to become one of Navarro-Valls’ favorites. “There were some journalists, either because of the size of their audience or because he trusted them, with whom he would share insider information,” said Allen candidly, “and others whose phone calls and emails he would never return.”[vii]
In one of his earliest NCR commentaries on Opus Dei written in November 2001, Allen explained that as soon as he arrived in Rome with Shannon, he “made it a point to seek contacts with Opus Dei in order to develop his own perspective.”[viii] The couple became dining partners with Fr. John Wauck, who was teaching literature at Opus Dei’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Santa Croce) in Rome.[ix] Wauck is the brother-in-law of FBI spy Robert Hanssen. Before Wauck was ordained to the Prelature, he was the editor of The Human Life Review and served as a speechwriter to former U.S. Attorney General William Barr and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey.[x]
Allen said he had met some likable young Italian members of Opus Dei, and that he maintained regular contact with Mr. Marco Carroggio, Opus Dei’s Public Relations guru in Italy.[xi] Allen said he thought “the people of Opus Dei are generally well meaning, amiable conservatives, often very competent at what they do, who harbor a rather traditionalist vision of the church and the culture. It’s not my cup of tea, but there is certainly room for it under the Catholic big tent.”[xii]
As for influence in the Church, Allen admitted that “Opus Dei does seem disproportionately represented in the Roman Curia (5 priests and 1 archbishop.)”[xiii]
Regarding various “conspiracy theories” swirling around the Prelature, Allen said, “Rome is constantly awash in speculation about new Opus Dei takeovers.” His explanation of these accusations was: Opus Dei is an energetic new movement favored by the pope; Opus Dei (and groups like the Legionaries) fills a vacuum left by religious orders; and Opus Dei “is in synch with the theological and political line of the John Paul II pontificate.”[xiv]
Allen’s conclusion was as follows:
Bottom line: For those who believe in a more open, progressive Catholicism… [like himself and the National Catholic Reporter], it is a mistake to fix on Opus Dei as a sinister force lurking behind today’s disappointments and setbacks… Rather than demonizing Opus Dei, progressives need to deepen their theological reflection on the key issues facing Catholicism. They need to stay engaged with institutional politics, however distasteful and discouraging the effort may sometimes be. The battle for public opinion in the church will be won with arguments, not accusations.[xv]
Allen Writes the “Definitive” Book on Opus Dei
In 2004, Doubleday Publishers in New York approached Allen with the idea of writing a book on Opus Dei. Prelature officials in Rome assured Allen of their support and said they would provide him with documents and information on the Prelature, heretofore not available to any other journalist.
Opus Dei – An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church appeared in print the following year.[xvi] Oddly enough, the book drew praise from both conservative and liberal reviewers.
I was among the small group of critics who labeled the book “a whitewash” wherein every grave, valid and long-standing objection and criticism of the Work was glossed over in preference to the official line of the Prelature. What Allen believes are “myths” are true and what he describes as “reality” are lies. He appears to have forgotten, if he ever remembered, that one of the primary characteristics of sects like Opus Dei is that they LIE! Allen consistently affirms Opus Dei in its habituation to the concealment of its true identity and aims – both by commission and omission – more by the latter than the former.
Here is a small sampling (with additional endnotes) of what Allen passes off as truths contradicted by the official documents of the Prelature and the lived experience of former members of Opus Dei:
MYTH: Opus Dei is a lay organization of ordinary Catholic laymen and women.
FACTS: Opus Dei is a “Personnel Prelature” which is an ecclesiastical and canonical/jurisdictional structure of the Catholic Church – a novelty of the Second Vatican Council. Although its general membership is made up primarily of professional/intellectual lay numeraries and supernumeraries, supreme power and absolute control of the Prelature is held by the Prelate. Governance is shared by secular priests of the Sacerdotal Society of the Holy Cross. Further, although Allen uses the word “ordinary” more than 30 times in his book to describe Opus Dei’s lay membership, and its priests who are selected exclusively from its male lay numeraries, there is nothing “ordinary” about the degree of cultic control, manipulation and depersonalization – physical, mental, psychological, physiological, emotional, social, financial, political, and spiritual – or the inordinate demands for absolute obedience, required of its members. According to the Spanish writer, Jesús Ynfante, “The neophyte of Opus Dei is told verbatim, ‘You renounce being you in order to be Opus Dei.’”[xvii]
MYTH: Opus Dei is open to persons of all conditions and states of civil society who are seeking God (and holiness and sainthood) in their everyday lives, especially through their work. In accordance with canon law, no one may be juridically incorporated into the Prelature who has not reached 18 years of age.
FACT: Gaining membership in Opus Dei is a highly selective and secret process. Candidates (excepting cooperators who are not considered full members) are thoroughly vetted during their six-year trial period (the Admission and Oblation) that ends with the definitive incorporation or Fidelity into Opus Dei. To be absolutely excluded from membership is any person physically handicapped or deformed. It is interesting that in his year-long travel around the world seeking information and insights into Opus Dei, Allen never noticed that among the lay members he interviewed, there were no cripples or dwarfs or overtly ugly men or women. And, although I may have missed it, I don’t believe that Allen ever mentions that Opus Dei, which claims exclusivity only in the spiritual realm, nevertheless requires that all potential members undergo a vigorous medical exam by one of its own physicians. Here is the testimony from a young woman just two days away from signing her life-long “contract” or Fidelity with the Prelature who didn’t make the cut:
I was a bit shocked when, a couple of days before “beeping” – entering the Work – I was told that I had to have a medical examination. What did my state of health have to do with being in the Work? For years, Opus Dei had assured me that I had a rock-like vocation to serve Opus Dei. But all that changed when the doctor reported back to Opus Dei that I had heart arrhythmias. My “vocation” immediately disappeared. There was nothing for me at Opus Dei. When I left, they advised me not to tell my parents about my visit to the Opus Dei doctor and my exam. It was deemed necessary that I be discreet.[xviii]
Unfortunately, the candidate who lost her “vocation” to Opus Dei overnight, had failed to read the fine print found in the Prelature’s Statutes, Chapter 4 – Concerning the Departure and Dismissal of the Faithful from the Prelature: (30 P2) which reads: “bad health is not a reason for dismissal unless it has certainly been established that it was deceitfully concealed or dissembled before temporary incorporation.” (bold added).[xix]
Myth: According to Allen, numerary assistants who cook, wash, and clean Opus Dei residences and facilities “do not seem to appear oppressed. They see their role as being ‘mothers’ in the Opus Dei family.”[xx]
FACT: In September 2005, the year Allen’s book on Opus Dei was published, the Associated Press reported on a trial in Paris involving a former numerary assistant, Catherine Tissier, who accused an Opus Dei hotel management “apostolate” of defrauding her of just wages for more than ten years. Defense attorneys argued that the plaintiff entered on to the “spiritual path” of Opus Dei of her own free will.
Tissier said she was 14-years-old when her parents sent her to the Donson Hotel School in Paris, where Opus Dei provided “spiritual direction and guidance.”[xxi] Opus Dei assigned Tissier a spiritual director who eventually recruited the young woman as a “numerary assistant,” meaning she had given up marriage and having children in order to serve Opus Dei. The young woman told the jury she worked from 7 am to 10 pm seven days a week. On holiday she attended Opus Dei retreats. Every month she was told to sign her paycheck over to the apostolate. She said she never saw the money. Opus Dei said it was to pay for her food, room and board. She rarely ever saw her parents as Opus Dei declared it was her new family. After being diagnosed for “depression” by an Opus Dei physician, she was heavily medicated and sent back to a full load of work. On a rare home visit, her parents took the 86-pound Tissier to their own physician who told her family that Catherine should not return to Donson. Tissier’s original lawsuit, filed in 2001 was dismissed, but her 2005 case went to trial. It was not successful. The judge said that tax records from the apostolate showed she had been paid a salary for her work. There were no records as to where the money went, once she signed her checks over to Opus Dei. Opus Dei said it was vindicated.[xxii]
In 1998, seventeen years before the Tissier trial, a mother of another young Spanish numerary assistant of Opus Dei went public. She complained to a reporter of the Spanish weekly magazine Tiempo in Madrid that her daughter was working as a servant for free.[xxiii] The mother explained that her daughter worked from 10 am to 10:45 at night, without stopping, so there was no time for her daughter to even think. The Opus Dei ladies said her daughter was doing it for God. The mother’s reply should have been chiseled in stone: “But my daughter is not scrubbing floors for free for God, who does not need it, but for the Work.”[xxiv]
There are other vital issues and problems in Opus Dei that are ignored or glossed over in Allen’s book including; the alienation and separation of members from their parents, siblings, and relatives by the Work; the recruitment of minors without parental knowledge and/or consent; the lack of acknowledgement of the existence of deprogramming centers in Spain and other countries designed to help heal traumatized ex-members who have return to their families and help restore a normal environment free of fear and intimidation; the need for the clear and public identification of Opus Dei apostolates, centers, residences, businesses, youth facilities, etc. that come under the control, spiritual direction, discipline and jurisdiction of the Prelature; the issue of the crime of the sexual abuse of minors by Opus Dei clergy and male numeraries; Opus Dei’s systematic violation of the Seal of Confession; the binding and mandatory “confidences” whereby Opus priests and lay spiritual directors are transformed into spies, informants, and overseers; and the “circles” whereby faults, sins and “attitudes” are exposed to public group scrutiny.[xxv]
In summary, by any measure Allen, was never in danger of suffering a mental hernia in his so-called “exhaustive” and “comprehensive” investigation of the Prelature in preparation for Opus Dei – An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality.
By his sins of commission and omission, Allen served his Opus Dei masters well. And 15 years later he is still serving Opus Dei as I shall demonstrate now as we continue with our study of the Knights of Columbus’s bailout of Crux from 2016-2019, and the continuing financial support of Crux and the morally wayward Allen via members of the Opus Dei hierarchy in the U.S.
Allen’s Transition to The Boston Globe and Crux
In October 2013, John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, bought the historically liberal newspaper, The Boston Globe (its parent company is the Soros-funded New York Times Company[xxvi]) for $70 million. The political position of The Globe was described by a former executive editor thusly:
The Globe has a long tradition of being a progressive institution, and especially on social issues. We are pro-choice; we’re against the death penalty [except for unborn children]; we’re for gay rights. But if people read us carefully, they will find out that on a whole series of other issues, we are not knee-jerk. We’re for charter schools; we’re for any number of business-backed tax breaks. We are a lot more nuanced and subtle than that liberal stereotype does justice to.[xxvii]
The following summer, John Henry approached John Allen, who was still in Rome reporting for the NCR, with a proposal to create a new Catholic national/international news service, Crux, designed to appeal to a wide-Catholic audience.
Allen, after some hesitation about leaving the NCR, decided to join another basher of all things truly Catholic. He signed on as Crux’s Rome correspondent as part of a six person editorial staff that included “spirituality columnist” and pro-abortionist Margery Eagan, a defender of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and its feminist pro-abortion, pro-lesbian cohorts[xxviii]; and guest contributors such as Jean Girdish, Associate Communications Director for the Soros-funded Catholics for [a Free] Choice.[xxix]
Nevertheless, Crux was publicly promoted by Cardinal Sean O’Malley[xxx] of Boston, Cardinal Timothy Dolan or New York and Cardinal George Pell of Australia each of whom attended Crux’s formal grand opening, which was held at the Jesuit administered Boston College.
Not all of Allen’s staff at Crux, however, were of the liberal ilk. Crux’s Vatican correspondent was Argentinian reporter Inés San Martín. That Allen hired San Martín is at least one indication that his connection to Opus Dei continued long after he had written Opus Dei – An Objective Look and that Allen was aware of Opus Dei as a continuing powerhouse at the Vatican. We’ll be returning to San Martín’s interesting background shortly.
Allen Says Crux will be “Smart, Wired and Independent”
Shortly after the Globe/Crux news site was created, Allen gave a surprising interview to Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond of the National Catholic Register (owned by EWTN since 2011) in which Allen made a point of assuring Desmond that Crux news service would be a “one-stop-shopping” destination for the best in Catholic news and commentary.”[xxxi] I say surprising because I was puzzled as to why the “conservative” Register was promoting a liberal, pro-homosexual, anti-life media enterprise owned by The Globe?
When asked by Desmond about his liberal attachments, Allen twice assured her that Crux wouldn’t “carry water for anyone,” and that he preferred a “centralist position” where “all voices in the conversation would be heard,” which is fine for politics, but not where Catholic dogma and morals are concerned, especially when dealing with such black and white issues as contraception (mostly abortifacient drugs and devices), surgical abortion, euthanasia and sodomy.[xxxii]
Unfortunately for Allen, the Globe/Crux honeymoon was relatively short lived.
Two years later, on March 14, 2016, The Globe announced it was shutting down Crux (it gave all the intellectual property associated with Crux to Allen), and the Knights of Columbus formally took over the news service on April 1, 2016.
Under the new Knights reorganization plan, Allen became the President of Crux, but his liberal Globe staff, including Margery Eagan, was released and/ or rejoined The Globe staff. Allen, however, with the obvious approval of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, who also belongs to Opus Dei,[xxxiii] kept Opus Dei reporter Inés San Martín on as co-editor of Crux and Rome Bureau Chief, thus cementing the Prelature’s influence and power over both the Knights of Columbus, and Crux.
To be continued in Part III: “Focus on Crux Staff and Contributors”
[i] Kenneth L. Woodward, “An All Seeing Outsider,” Newsweek, January 18, 2004.
[ii] Becky Kiser, “Hays native named religion editor for Boston Globe,” Hays Post, January 16, 2014
[vii] John Allen, Jr., “Joaquin Navarro-Valls: Take him for all in all, I will not look upon his like again,” at https://cruxnow.com/obituary/2017/07/joaquin-navarro-valls-take-will-not-look-upon-like/.
[viii] Joh L. Allen, “Opus Dei: No surprise it gets top billing in this papacy,” National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001, Vol. 1, No.11 at http://nationalcatholicreporter.org/word/word1109.htm.
[x] See https://www.archindy.org/criterion/local/2006/05-19/davinci.html. It is not unusual for Opus Dei to provide ghost writers for its members. Archbishop José H. Gomez has used Opus Dei numeraries to write his talks.
[xii] Allen, “Opus Dei: No surprise…”
[xvi]John Allen, Jr., Opus Dei – An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, Doubleday, NY, 2005.
[xvii] Jesús Ynfante, La prodigiosa aventura del Opus Dei – Génesis y desarrollo de la Santa Mafia, México, 1978, p. 390. See also Josemaría Escrivá, The Way maxims and slogans 484: Your duty is to be an instrument [of Opus Dei]622: 941: Obedience, the sure way. Unreserved obedience to whoever is in charge, 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.”
[xviii] This edited statement is based on “La historia amarga de una numeraria del Opus,” Marie Claire Magazine, December 1987).
[xix] Opus Dei Statutes (1982) available at https://translate.google.com/translate?sl=es&tl=en&u=https%3A%2F%2Fopusdei.org%2Fes-es%2Fsection%2Fprelatura-personal%2F.
[xx] Allen, Opus Dei, p.370. A common criticism of Opus Dei by ex-members who entered the Work at an early age is that, aside from selling you the idea of sanctification in the world, the neophyte is not told what Opus Dei is all about. The rest you discover later.
[xxi] Young people under 18 are instructed by Opus Dei not reveal their full relationship with Opus Dei until the parents lose the legal capacity to remove their children from the Work.
[xxii] Associated Press, “Opus Dei Followers Go on Trial in France,” Paris, September 22, 2011.
[xxiii] Tiempo Magazine, Madrid, April 11, 1988. As noted by a number of Opus Dei critics, sects like the Work mainly seek out “cheap labor in the service of their own business.”
[xxv] Priests of Opus Dei use the Sacrament of Penance, and lay spiritual directors, use the “confidence,” to reveal the penitent’s sins and secrets (personal and professional) if their superiors believe it for “the good of souls.” In addition, sins and faults are also “confessed” in a public forum known as “the circle.” Opus Dei priests and lay spiritual directors meet to compare notes on numeraries and supernumeraries under their jurisdiction. Their reports are sent upline to the delegation every week. A member of the delegation types up the reports which are sent to the Regional Council, then to the Central Council in Rome. “At the moment I read that report, whatever had united me to the Work was sundered apart.” This testimony of a former numerary who accidently came upon such a report on herself typed by her spiritual director is conclusive: “I learned something after I had made a decision to leave the Work that made me realize that this was not my place… I learned that both the talks you had with your [spiritual] director and those you had with the priest of the Work (you had to go to Confession to a priest of the Work under threat of compulsion) were exchanged. This means that the two tell each other the things that the numeraries have told them to see if they coincide and permits them to follow a joint strategy. In addition to such manipulation of a person’s most intimate secrets , the director sends a weekly report on the activities of the member to the delegation. After the report is typed up, it will be read by someone who probably doesn’t know me at all. I discovered the sharing of confidences when I went to the director’s room to get something. She wasn’t there, and as the paper, half-written was sticking out of the machine I wasn’t able to overcome the temptation to read what was there. It was the most crude, ignoble and anti-Christian thing I had ever seen…How can one call something the Work of God when it falls so low? Only God knows what reports they have on me in the archives in Rome.” Source: Marie Claire Magazine, December 1987.
[xxviii] Margery Eagan, “Mass. Is one battleground in national abortion debate,” The Boston Globe, May 24, 2019.
[xxix] Jean Girdish, “Do Catholic Millennials Buy the US Bishops’ Religious Freedom Argument?” Crux, July 22, 2015.
[xxx] “Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the only American on the Council, is a faithful supporter of Opus Dei and has sponsored the canonization of the priest who “established an Opus Dei presence among students and professors at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology” between 1946 and 1956. Metropolitan Boston now has more than eighty colleges and universities attracting thousands of students from around the world. O’Malley celebrates special Masses commemorating Opus Dei founder, Josemaría Escrivá, and visits the Opus Dei (male only) center at Harvard.” Cited by Betty Clermont in “Pope Francis is Close to Opus Dei and their Money Men,” at https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2015/6/28/1397381/-Opus-Dei-Prepares-America-for-Pope-s-Visit.
[xxxi] Joan F. Desmond, “The Matter of Crux,” National Catholic Register, September 8, 2014.
[xxxiii] Robert Hutchison, Their Kingdom Come – Inside the Secret World of Opus Dei, Doubleday, New York, 1997, pp. 360, 361, 398. This writer followed up on the references to Anderson with Mr. Hutchison by phone several months after the publication of his book . Evidence validating Anderson’s membership in Opus Dei will be presented by this writer in an upcoming separate study on the Knights of Columbus and Opus Dei.