Monday 29 August 2022

Action against abuse in the Focolare movement

The TV series Impeachment: American Crime Story is a shocking account of how, in the mid-1990s, the White House intern 22 year-old Monica Lewinsky was set up by her supposed friend Linda Tripp and an unscrupulous band of hardline Republicans and forced to testify publicly against her will about an alleged affair she had had with President Clinton.

Episode 6, ‘Manhandled’, is a harrowing depiction of how Lewinsky, innocently meeting up with Tripp, whom she trusted as a close friend, finds herself trapped in a hotel room  by an all-male group of FBI officers who, over a period of 12 hours, bully her mercilessly, restricting her access to a phone, pressurising her not to seek the help of a lawyer.  As well as being shockingly cruel, their methods were also unlawful and, despite their threats of a 28 year jail sentence, at the end of this episode Lewinsky walks out of the hotel room and the FBI can actually do nothing to stop her.

One of the problems of those who have been abused by the Focolare Movement is that, at the time and perhaps even now, they are unaware of the fact that they were being abused and are not capable of appraising the cruel treatment and in some cases the crimes that had been inflicted on them.  While watching the sequence of Monica Lewinsky and the FBI - a helpless, rather naive young girl trapped by a hard-bitten group of men trained to be harsh and cruel and also skilled liars - I remembered an episode that happened to a member of the Focolare Movement which was much more cruel, far more inhuman and degrading, and furthermore was in grave disobedience of the laws of the Church and arguably civil law.

Having grown up within the Gen Movement in his Central American country ‘Carlos’, also in his twenties, was attending the School at Loppinao in order to become a full time focolarino.  In a routine discussion with the then head of the School, ‘Carlos’ happened to mention that, as a teenager, he had had homosexual experiences although now, as required by the movement, he was leading a celibate life.

To his astonishment, he was despatched to the Centre of the Focolare Movement in Rome where he found himself in something resembling a Soviet ‘show-trial’, faced with a kangaroo court of five leaders of the movement who subjected him to an interrogation on his intimate sexual feelings - ‘Have you touched other members?...Have you touched yourself?...What are your sexual fantasies?’  Their queries even included astounding, almost perverted questions as ‘Do you have sexual fantasies about Jesus?’

It is almost impossible to imagine how shocked, terrified and helpless ‘Carlos’ must have felt to have been ambushed, unprepared and without any kind of support.  Almost anyone -  Catholic or not - would agree that such a procedure was heartless and invasive, far worse than the FBI’s attack on Monica Lewinsky.  But from the point of view of the Catholic Church it was also an extreme and serious crime against at least two articles of canon law which safeguard the pastoral care of the individual.  

The first of these - which counts both for the initial interview at Loppiano as well as the subsequent interrogation - was referred to by Pope Francis in an address made to Focolare leaders on 6 February 2021 when he took Focolare to task for a number of very serious errors in their methods. [1]  I refer to ‘confusing the inner forum and the outer forum’.  This means combining highly personal pastoral care, such as one might receive in confession or with a spiritual director - i.e. the inner forum - with the kind of dialogue one might have with a leader of the organisation - i.e. the outer forum.  This has been banned by the canon law of the Catholic Church for over a hundred years in order to avoid abuse of power.  Furthermore, the interrogation to which ‘Carlos’ was subjected was a particularly extreme crime against of this aspect of canon law as well as being a serious transgression of human rights. 

But another important point of canon law was also broken, particularly in the case of the 5-man interrogation.  Canon law forbids ‘enforced manifestation of conscience’, i.e. forcing a person to reveal the kind of intimate detail that they would normally reveal only under the seal of confession - or indeed the kind of confidentiality that a secular psychologist or counsellor would offer.  The members of this ‘court’ could use the information they had elicited by force from ‘Carlos’ without any kind of seal - and, as we shall see, they did.

From the Church’s point of view, this incident was a serious abuse of pastoral care in flagrant disobedience of the Church’s teaching.  But looking at it from a civil point of view, could it not also be seen as a particularly savage example of a hate crime in which a member of the LGBTQ community is degraded in a situation in which he has no recourse to preparation or assistance as he would have in a civil court or even a church court?  It’s hardly surprising that through its Italian magazine Citta Nuova the Focolare Movement is a  rabid opponent of the ‘Zan law’,  a recent attempt to pass a law in Italy against anti-LGBTQ hate crimes.

After the ‘show-trial’ ‘Carlos’ was sent back to Loppiano and here began another sequence of horrifically inhuman treatment. He was kept under strict surveillance by his superiors who monitored everyone he spoke to, his friends, his study group.  He was instructed to go to bed after everyone else in his single-sex community ‘to avoid temptation’ and to rise before the others so that he could shower alone.  While in bed, he was to sleep with his arms outside the covers - even in winter - so that he would not be tempted to ‘touch himself’.  He was encouraged to take more exercise in order to ward off temptation - but in long pants, not in shorts.  He was forced to do an hour of penance every day, praying for his ‘conversion’.  

Although 'Carlos' had previously worked with children visiting Loppiano, he was now forbidden to do this and sent to work in the kitchens instead. Although he was originally scheduled to spend his summer holidays with a group of other focolarini by the sea, at the last minute his superior told him he was to go ‘to the mountains’ alone ‘because at the beach people would be wearing swimming costumes and I would be exposed to the devil.’  It must be remembered that all this was as a result of the fact that he had mentioned his orientation in what should have been a totally confidential private encounter with a leader of the Focolare Movement, not because he had been guilty of any misdemeanor.  

‘Carlos’ was summoned to a final consultation in Rome where the Focolare leaders who had interrogated him delivered their findings: he was indeed homosexual and therefore not fit to become a full time member of the movement.  He was to be sent home within two or three days.  Through a phone call to friends in his own country, Carlos learned that his family and Focolare colleagues had already been informed of the reasons for his return. He discovered that he was to be excluded from the activities of the movement and knew that he would face rejection from his family on account of his homosexuality.  

Anxious that his hasty departure should not be too much of a trauma for his classmates - with no thought for 'Carlos’' own feelings - his superiors at Loppiano concocted an elaborate lie that he was returning home because his mother was seriously ill.  This subterfuge was compounded by a little sermon to the focolarini novices on the duty of a Christian to his parents.  ‘Carlos’ was compelled to go along with the deception even when, seeing the young man’s distress, his unsuspecting classmates promised their prayers for his mother’s recovery and reassured him that she would soon be well and he would be able to return to complete his course.  

At the airport, he was presented with a one-way ticket and $100 in cash.  Fortunately, ‘Carlos’ was able to break his journey as the route passed via the US, contacted sympathetic friends and later successfully sought asylum in the US on the grounds of ‘religious persecution’ by the Focolare Movement.  I have a copy he sent to me of the substantial dossier in which he made his case for asylum, with the help of lawyers, which contains a number of extracts from my book The Pope’s Armada, as well as a full account from which the above details are taken.  He has gone on to great success in his new life in America.

Assessing the treatment meted out by Focolare to ‘Carlos’ from the civil point of view - the restrictions placed on him, the unnecessary and humiliating nature of these restrictions, the level of degradation, the isolation, the lies spun around him that he was forced to collude with, the revelation of his sexual orientation to his parents and friends back home, not to mention the hate-crime towards an LGBTQ person - it occurs to me that it falls under the term used in civil law of ‘a cruel and unusual punishment’.  This term was originally used in British law, later in American law and is enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In judging the abuse of power in the Focolare Movement, therefore, it is necessary to re-interpret such events from a new perspective, categorising them in the terms of the laws of the Church - which are probably unknown to many, including the members of the movement - and civil law.  There may be many reasons which may prevent the victims of such abuse in the Focolare Movement from becoming conscious of it and naming it, and these reasons will be discussed in this blog.  

However, as a group and with the help of legal experts, these abuses must be named and made public.  In the case of ‘Carlos’ described above, for example, all those who took part in this shameful incident - including the leader at Loppiano who made the report, the five leaders of the interrogation and any others at any level whose authority or intervention was involved - should be publicly named, they must admit with full awareness that their actions contravened the canon law of the Church and possibly civil laws of abuse, they must ask forgiveness of their victim and some kind of financial compensation must be made - even though nothing can be done to make good the pain that has been caused.  This was clearly an example of a process and a system, and all other similar examples in the Focolare Movement - whether concerning LGBTQ people or others - should be independently investigated and brought to light.  

The many testimonies included in investigative journalist Ferruccio Pinotti’s The Divine Cult (La Setta Divina) which was published in Italy 9 November 2021, feature examples of treatment which is unlawful either from the ecclesiastical or civil point of view, including illegal terms of employment, proselytising methods which could be interpreted as kidnapping, attempting to force people into arranged marriages and numerous other varied examples.

If you have experienced abuse of any kind in the Focolare Movement, please feel safe and free to share on this site or to ask any questions. 


[2] There is an interesting contrast here between the homophobia of the Movement and the fact that a large number of the focolarini (at least the male members) are gay.  This will not come as a great surprise to those who are familiar with the book In the Closet of the Vatican by Frederic Martel.  This watershed book reveals that under ‘Saint’ John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a largely homosexual Vatican (closeted) persecuted the LGBTQ community with astonishing fanaticism.  Something similar exists among the focolarini and I will shortly publish a post on this subject.


  1. Thank you for sharing this. My experience is quite similar to the one described. I am a woman. When all of this happened I thought I was an exception and met the wrong people who had misunderstood me… turns out, so many people have gone through this and have been sent away for similar reasons and with this same “method”.

    1. Thanks you very much for your comment. The internet has certainly shown its value in bringing together former members of the Focolare movement and enabling us to piece together similar or identical forms of abuse, apparently unconnected, from all over the world, which illustrate that this abuse is not isolated but systemic. Thank you for your courage in sharing. An international organisation was set up earlier this year for former members of Focolare - OREF (ORganisation Ex Focolare) which offers support to former members (discreetly, in many cases) and aims to draw the attention of the Church and civil authorities to these abuses. One of its recent achievments was a Document on these abuses submitted as its contribution to the Synod on Synodality which will take place in 2023 in Rome.