By: Randy Engel
An Interview With Ex-Opus Dei Numerary Eileen Johnson – Part 2
[Part 1 is available by clicking HERE]
Engel: Eileen, let me change the subject for a moment to a most unusual virtue – that of “non-giving.” It seems that Opus has twisted the expression “It is better to give, than receive,” to “It is better to receive, than give.”
Johnson: We were instructed to practice the art of “non-giving,” but only after we joined. We were not permitted to give alms. We didn’t give gifts to anyone, even family members. Any gifts we may have received were handed over to our Directress, who often gave them to other members. One exception was when my father gave me a watch for my 21st birthday. He didn’t know that I was a member of Opus yet, so I was allowed to keep it. The idea was that we were to be detached from things and from other people. We gave everything to God, through Opus Dei. I actually treasured the watch for years, until after I left. I loved my father dearly.
Engel: How about the Opus custom of the “visit to the poor.”
Johnson: I was eager to go on a “visit to the poor,” an Opus Dei custom I had heard about. I felt I should fulfill this before becoming a numerary. However, no one had the time to accompany me, and besides, no one at Rydalwood knew any “poor people.” So, I ended up visiting a dementia ward at the local hospital where I talked with elderly patients.
Engel: Since we are on the topic of “poor people,” how did you survive financially since you turned over your entire salary to Opus?
Johnson: I received an allowance to cover my weekly expenses (bus fares, books, etc.). When I needed to shop for clothes, I was accompanied by the Directress or another numerary, who paid the bill, and guided me in my selection of clothes and shoes.
Engel: Guided you? You were in your twenties and a college graduate! [laugh] Was that all?
Johnson: Not quite. We were not allowed to wear short sleeves or trousers at that time. It was deemed that our appearance should be in keeping with our status as young professional women or undergraduates. Usually, we were more elegantly dressed than our peers. At that time, the predominance of Spanish and other Latin numeraries was a big influence. Their ideas, their taste, affected all of us. Gradually my self-confidence diminished as a result. We also had to give an exact accounting of the allowance as part of the “Confidence.”
Engel: The “Confidence?” Is that more Opuspeak?
Johnson: Actually, it’s a literal translation of the Spanish “La Confidencia.” It’s a compulsory weekly conversation or “fraternal chat” with one’s Directress or another lay numerary appointed by her. The Directress provides spiritual direction along with the Opus Dei priest or chaplain of the centre. In the Confidence, we were encouraged to pour our souls out to the Directress concerning how faithfully we had carried out our fulfilment of the Norms (prayer, readings, the Rosary, etc.), the exercise of corporal mortification, our apostolate, and intimate details of our sexual temptations, and as I said earlier, a careful rendering of my living expenses.
There was also the obligatory weekly confession to an Opus priest, in addition to a spiritual talk in the confessional with the priest every fortnight.
Engel: Two more related questions. Were you given a choice of spiritual directors? Were you given a choice of confessors including priests not affiliated with Opus?
Johnson: No and no. Both were assigned to us without any previous consultation. Escrivá was vigorously against “washing our dirty laundry in public.”
Engel: Were you aware at the time that information conveyed in these “chats” with your Directress was not totally confidential and could be shared with other Opus higher-ups?
Johnson: No. I was not. I confided in her with total trust in confidentiality.
Engel: I believe, at some point, you were assigned to hear the “confidence” of Assistant numeraries who lived in the centre with you. Please tell our readers something about this category of Opus Dei membership.
Johnson: Assistant numeraries are domestic staff who are charged with the cleaning, cooking, and the laundry in Opus Dei’s male and female residences and other Opus facilities. In my day, they came from Spain or Ireland. I believe that today they are likely to come from Latin American or Eastern Europe.
Engel: You mean they are maids or servants?
Johnson: Yes. When they are recruited and join Opus, they take a vow/contract of celibacy and of lifetime service to the Work, like numeraries do. Some remain with Opus all their lives. Escriva referred to them as “our little sisters,” or “his little daughters.”
Engel: Did they wear distinctive uniforms?
Johnson: In the UK they wore plain blue overalls with white apron when cleaning, and black dresses with starched white aprons with head-dresses when they served our meals or on feast days.
Engel: And you, what did you wear for casual light cleaning?
Johnson: Numeraries wore chic white overalls.
Engel: I see. Was there a rapid turn-over in Assistant numeraries?
Johnson: No. Where would they go? They were in a foreign country. Some spoke little English. Opus Dei evaded social security payments for many years. More recently, after adverse publicity, contracts have been drawn up and social security contributions paid. However, the Assistant numeraries never saw their salaries, and I am told that is still the case. It seems that families can now apply to Opus Dei (not directly to their daughter), for support when needed, but there are many such requests, and not all are granted.
Besides, that would violate the apostolate of “non-giving.” Their life was tightly regulated, and they worked hard for long hours. They never left the centre to shop on their own. They were always accompanied by a numerary. My heart went out to them. Some were beginning to rebel in the 60’s, especially the Irish girls, who wanted the freedom to go out by themselves, wear make-up like the numeraries, and attend evening classes.
Engel: Was there any promise of upward mobility for them in Opus?
Johnson: No. They were a class apart, and deferential to numeraries. Even the elderly long-time assistants called me Miss Eileen. I felt very uneasy about that.
Engel: Before talking about your departure from Opus Dei, I wanted to be sure and ask you about your impressions of Msgr. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei whom you met on several occasions, correct?
Johnson: Yes, four times to be exact, in London and in Pamplona, Spain, home to Opus’ flagship, the University of Navarra. Even before I joined Opus Dei, I was told that Escrivá was a living Saint who would one day be canonized. And, if we followed the “Plan of Life” he laid out for us, we should all be candidates for canonization.
As a young, pious woman, I idolized him and hung on every word of “the Father.” As Escrivá reminded us, referring to himself, “My daughters, remember this: There are many popes, but only one Founder.”
His visits to London were preceded by an anxious, rather frantic time of preparation with special attention to the exquisite décor for the centre. His favorite foods were made available. Some delicacies like panettone were brought from Rome.
When he was speaking publicly, questions for him were prepared in advance and translated into Spanish. On one occasion I had a chance to ask him about the meaning of one of his favorite themes “priestly souls.” I was spellbound when he looked at me directly and said, “My daughter, you are a priestly soul because you are like a bridge, to help people reach God.” I was overawed that he had spoken to me even though I didn’t quite understand his reply.
Engel: As we near the end of this interview, tell me, how did you get from this spirit of adulation of the Father and everything Opus, to wanting to escape from the Work and all it stood for? Was this a gradual prompting or the result of a singular catastrophic incident?
Johnson: In truth, it was both. As the years went by and I assumed more and more responsibility for the Advisory, it appeared, at least superficially, that I was doing well in my quest to live out my “vocation,” as construed by Opus Dei. But at a deeper level I was in turmoil.
I was having a more and more difficult time putting my conscience down. If there was a conflict between my conscience and official policy, I was told that my problem was due to pride. We were required to exercise blind obedience to our Directors and also to the minutiae of all the many instructions from Opus Dei headquarters in Rome.
I was told recently about the response of the deceased Prelate Alvaro del Portillo when confronted by Antonio Esquivias, an Opus Dei priest who lectured at the [Opus Dei] University of the Holy Cross in Rome. He believed that the Prelature was in need of internal reform. Portillo responded, “In the Work of God, the spirit is to obey or get out.” Esquivias got out after more than 30 years of loyal service to the Prelature.
By 1967, I was so mentally and emotionally ill that I could not carry on with my work. I fell into a deep depression.
Engel: Did you seek treatment?
Johnson: Yes and no. I was treated by a woman colleague from the Advisory, a qualified physician who treated us numeraries. I should have sought medical help from an outside doctor, since Opus Dei was itself the root of my illness, but that wasn’t Opus policy. Objective medical professionals have pointed out that their treatment of me (and many others) involved a clear conflict of interest and a violation of the Hippocratic Oath.
The woman physician in question presented me with prescription drugs (Librium and Tofranil, plus Mogadon to sleep at night). She spoke to me as if she were addressing a child, and didn’t inform me why the medications were prescribed.
Over the next four years, I was treated and heavily drugged by a variety of doctors and psychiatrists – all members of Opus Dei.
Engel: Was your family advised of your illness at any time?
Johnson: No. Neither I nor my Opus superiors ever told them about my condition. When my mother asked what was wrong with me, she was told by my Opus Dei doctor that it was my “metabolism.” I confided only in my Opus family. I remained brainwashed and entirely dependent on them till the day I left.
You might better understand the tension and guilt I felt for my illness if you knew that official Opus Dei publications like Noticias, an internal magazine, interpreted “mental illness” as a sign of “lack of divine filiation.”
Engel: Your father died in 1967. What happened to you then?
Johnson: That was a cataclysmic event in my life. I had a complete breakdown. I loved my father deeply and my unresolved grief for him remained long after I left Opus Dei. I only wish that he had lived long enough to witness my departure from Opus.
A year later, in 1968, I was sent to Opus Dei’s University in Spain for postgraduate work in journalism. It had not been my personal professional choice. But as I noted earlier, my Directress had already sown the seed in my mind soon after I joined, that I would make a good journalist. I later learned Escrivá had instructed all directors and directresses to watch out for members who would make good journalists.
When I returned to London, I was able to connect successfully with a handful of newspapers and journals. However, my health did not improve, and I was subjected to more medical treatments.
I was still on drugs when a new Opus Dei psychiatrist, a male numerary based at Littlemore Hospital, Oxford, opened up the door for my escape from Opus by suggesting I might do better as a supernumerary, with the option of marrying, than as a celibate numerary. He presented his suggestion to my Directors, who agreed to my leaving. However, I had no wish to remain in Opus Dei as a supernumerary either.
I had been a valuable asset to Opus Dei mainly in terms of recruitment. I loved people, and in return they seemed attracted to me, including our young numeraries and assistant numeraries.
In hindsight, I suspect that another factor could have been that I knew too much about the inner workings of the Work as a member of the Advisory where I had access to many internal documents and sensitive private papers.
Engel: When did you finally leave Opus Dei?
Johnson: In 1971. Unfortunately, my difficulties were all the greater after I left!
Before leaving, I spoke to Father Richard Stork, Counsellor of Opus Dei in Britain. When I told him my story and suggested that Opus Dei was part of the problem, not in the least because their doctors had drugged me, he turned on me coldly and told me it was false pride that led me to criticize Opus Dei.
Opus Dei cut me off completely. According to the “Notes” from Rome, which were required reading for me as a member of the Advisory, anyone who left Opus Dei should be considered dead, and that he (Escrivá) would not give five centimes for their soul.
Former “sisters” were instructed not to contact me. I was financially destitute when I returned home to my widowed mother who welcomed me with open arms.
Engel: But I think finances were the least of your problems. Do you mind repeating for our readers what your family physician said to you on your first visit to him after you left Opus Dei?
Johnson: Certainly. After his initial assessment of my health, he said that the only comparable case in his experience was that of a former prisoner of war.
Engel: A former prisoner of war! Unforgettable.
Johnson: Fortunately for me, what I had previously viewed as a “breakdown,” turned out to be the “breakthrough” that made it possible for me to begin to regain my true self by leaving what ex-numerary priest Antonio Esquivias calls Opus Dei – “Heaven in a Cage.”
In July 2019, I attended the ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) annual conference in Manchester. There I learned more objectively about how an individual can develop a cultic personality that is gradually superimposed on one’s true personality.
Engel: It appears that your departure from Opus gave you a second chance at life.
Johnson: Yes, indeed. I married and have been blessed with a wonderful family. I still teach languages and I have done a lot of dance teaching especially Scottish country dancing.
Regarding Opus Dei, I had no contact with any ex-Opus members for many years. However, since going public, I have become friends with some, and their families. We enjoy the friendship. It is a source of sadness to us that our genuinely warm links with our contemporaries in Opus Dei were severed.
Engel: Do you have any parting thoughts, Eileen?
Johnson: Randy, you say that those who leave Opus Dei should be absorbed back into the Catholic Church. This does happen to some, but very many lose their faith due to the treatment they have suffered from Opus Dei, and from Church authorities who have turned a blind eye to the wrongdoings of the Prelature.
You say that Opus Dei violates the 5th Commandment. I agree.
And I also know that the 2nd Commandment of Jesus – “Love thy neighbor as thyself – and the Christian challenge to love our enemies, have both been disregarded by Opus Dei from its early years. What matters most to Opus Dei and to the institutional Church, is its image.
The Prelature stands accused of inflicting spiritual abuse on many individuals. Until this reality is acknowledged by Opus Dei and the wider Church, protests and the resulting scandals will continue.
You know, for many years after I left Opus Dei, I was afraid to speak out. But I am no longer fearful. I want to continue to put my name to my testimony as a challenge to the Work and show my face publicly.
I love life, and though Opus Dei may consider me dead, I am far from it!
Engel: Thank you for this interview, Eileen. May God bless you and your family.
It has been decades since Eileen Johnson left Opus Dei and became one of its most vocal public international critics, but I have to say, had she just left Opus today as an ex-numerary, there is almost nothing in this interview that I would have to change. Which is a backhanded way of saying that the abuses of faith and power have not changed over a period of almost a half-century. It is my belief that the time for internal “reform” is long past. Opus Dei needs to be disbanded and its members and priests absorbed back into the Catholic Church.
For as long as I can remember back in the 1980s when I first encountered Opus Dei and recognized it as a destructive force within the Catholic Church, ex-members have been attempting to get a hearing from the Vatican on the numerous abuses suffered by many of its members, abuses which we have just touched upon in this interview. I hope that the door to an objective investigation of Opus Dei will one day be opened, and opened widely. I would appreciate hearing from ex-Opus Dei members who wish to comment on our interview by writing to me at email@example.com or OD WATCH, Box 315, Export, PA 15632.
– Randy Engel
 Ibid. According to Msgr. Ocáriz, the Assistant numeraries have a “great dignity.” He said their task is “that of giving and maintaining the warmth of a home in a family.” He states that the work of Opus’s maids and housekeepers is “the apostolate of the apostolates.”
 After Antonio Esquivias left Opus Dei, he wrote an autobiographical book titled El Opus Dei: el Cielo en una Jaula, translated Opus Dei: Heaven in a Cage, that examines the systemic abuses of conscience designed to bring human beings into total subjugation by the Opus Dei machine. The book is currently available only in Spanish.
 Father Stork was not yet a Monsignor. The Counsellors were made Monsignors later on when Opus Dei became a Prelature.