Twenty seven years ago, I wrote The Pope's Armada (Bantam Press in the UK and editions in Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, USA and Brazil), the first-ever expose and analysis of cult-like movements in the Catholic Church: Focolare, the Neocatechumenate and Communion and Liberation. At the time, the Vatican and many Catholics considered it inconceivable that organisations officially approved by the Church and strongly supported by popes such as 'Saint' John Paul II and Benedict XVI (who even saw them replacing religious orders), could be accused of using cult-like methods. In spite of the fact that I had been an internal member of the Focolare movement and the book was meticulously reserached using only primary evidence, its many charges of abuse against Focolare and similar movements were never officially acknowledged by the hierarchy. Only now are Pope Francis and the Vatican's Dicastery for the Laity taking these movements to task for all the reasons given in The Pope's Armada so long ago. Nevertheless, this process has been dilatory and half-hearted, especially from the point of view of ex-members, many of whom have been profoundly damaged by abuse of power in these organisations which trumpeted their Catholic and papal credentials.
Over the years I have received many letters and emails, and had meetings in person with ex-members of these movements, particularly Focolare, of which I myself was a member for 9 years. All of them found my descriptions and analysis identical to their own experience, and described the profound and healing effect this had on them.
I, and other ex-members of the movements in question, have found the matrix of a cult, with all the characteristics it entails, vital in gaining an understanding of these Catholic movements. Yet I have become increasingly convinced that the exit-counselling methods used for other cults such as Jevohah's Witnesses and the even more fanciful cults, which claim to be religions or 'churches' though in reality they don't resemble either, are not necessarily appropriate for ex-members of Catholic cults. It was for this reason that nearly ten years ago I studied hynotherapy and counselling so that I could develop more suitable methods for the needs of former members of Catholic cults.
One of the crucial differences is that most members of Catholic cults were recruited not randomly, but from within the Church - and they tended to be among the Church's most coveted members - devout and very generous. They were people who gained sense and purpose from their lives as Catholics. Indeed, their initial reason for taking Focolare seriously was that it was supported by the Church, indeed, by the Pope. Tragically, all of those who have left the Focolare movement have had their belief in the Christian message challenged. More drastically, in many cases they have lost their belief in Christianity and God.
The greatest leakage is from the full time focolarini with vows. According to the movement's own records (which, if anything has played the numbers down), out of a total membership of 2000 fulltime members, 444 left between 2000 and 2014. The more recent figures are probably worse. The strongest support for Focolare - in the social media, for example - tends to be from fringe members. This is because Focolare is so secretive and members on the fringes have no ideas what goes on behind Focolare's closed doors - the abuse of power and authority that has driven out many full time members and in many cases snuffed out their faith.
One of the problems I faced, in my own case and that of others, was being able to distinguish between the cult experience in Focolare and my - or their - core beliefs. Many of my readers have said to me, 'But you can't possibly still be a Catholic?' I have never had doubts about Catholicism and have always considered myself a Catholic even when I disagreed with certain emphases from the hierarchy - the rampant homophobia of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, for example. I was fortunate, however, that before I met the movement, I had acquired the convictions of an adult Catholic through reading, courses and other organisations of which I had been a member. For the majority of those who joined the Focolare movement, especially at a very young age, this was not the case. Following the dictatorial teachings of the foundress, Chiara Lubich, Focolare is strongly anti-intellectual. Catholic teaching that faith and reason are not incompatible has little meaning for those who have been told for years to ignore reason, 'put their books in the attic' and 'cut off their heads'. This dangerous teaching of Focolare, keeps members hooked, but once they decide to leave, they have no intellectual background to fall back on.
Faith cannot be imposed. It is something highly personal - and, for those who aquire faith, in many cases hard-won. Personally, I am highly sceptical of entire nations who abjure or aquire faith. I would be fascinated to know, for example, the mechanism by which former communist countries pass from state atheism to packed churches. As I understand it, that is not how faith works. Faith is metanoia: a profound personal change which resembles no other.
From my own experience and that of others, I am convinced that a new form of exit-counselling from Catholic cults should be developed. Seeing the reaction to my accounts of life in Focolare and the horror and suspicion it seemed to generate in others, and how intimidating this felt to me, I rapidly came to the conclusion that it was best not to address the subject with friends. For many years I had one or two friends who had also been internal members I had known fairly well in the movement and with them I could speak freely, though rarely, as one lived in Italy and the other in the USA, and these were pre-internet times. Former members of Focolare can feel such shame and embarassment about having been a member of what later turns out to have been a cult, that they dare not mention it even to the closest friends. One of the two ex-members I mentioned earlier - Italian and a psychologist by profession - permanently hid from his wife the fact that he had been a full time member of Focolare for ten years. I used to meet him at his surgery in a major Italian city because he would not have been able to explain to his wife how we knew one another!
Why is such shame and embarassment necessary for victims? The only shame and embarassment should be felt be the Church authorities who have shrugged off or deliberately ignored this problem for so long when the evidence was staring them in the face. Exit-counselling of former members of Catholic cults can only be carried out with a true understanding of the various stages of their introduction to, experience within, and exit from, the movement and in relation to their previous convictions with a new form of exit-counselling developed for this very particular and specialised area. I fear that without such skills there are two undesirable outcomes: the first is that subject feels that they have not been fully understood by the counsellor and the process runs aground and nothing is resolved; or the second is that the subject rejects the problem completely because having to look back at the experience in the movement, without any kind of real understanding of the process, is simply unbearable.
What is astonishing is that the Church itself still does not seem to be aware of this need. It has taken over two decades for the Catholic Church to acknowledge and take any kind of action against the abusive and harmful presence of cultish organisations in its midst. An Apostolic Visitation imposed on the Memores Domini section of Communion and Liberation and Pope Francis' scolding of Focolare leaders during an audience in tha Vatican on 6 February 2021 are recent examples. But the Vatican is still dragging its feet. Its response to innumerable complaints from current and former members of Focolare - that is, no serious disciplinary measures against Focolare whatsoever - demonstrates that the Catholic Church's claim to put the needs of victims above those of the perpetrators is still just words. Pope Francis warned Focolare leaders that they must not put the needs of the institution over those of individuals. But in Focolare's case, that is exactly what the institutional Church is doing. Are they afraid of the consequences of sending in an Apostolic Visitation? As the person who has been studying Focolare and other Catholic cults longer than anyone else, my response is: they should be. But the longer they wait, the worse the scandal will be when everything is made public.
OREF (ORganization Ex Focolare), formed by ex-members of Focolare earlier this year, including myself, has compiled and submitted a Document on abuses carried out by the Focolare movement as part of the initial stage of the forthcoming Synod on Synodality, which was, for the first time in history, opened by Pope Francis to the participation of the laity. To date, a limited number of copies of this report have been dispatched: to the Synod; the Dicastery for the Laity; the Pope; the bishops conferences of the members of OREF, and so far have only received a single response - from the Conference of Italian Bishops.
I have a personal question I would like to out to both Pope Francis and Cardinal Farrell, head of the Dicastery on the Laity: 'Do you not think that an organisation which converts a large number of its most committed members from devout and generous Catholics to atheism cries out for your immediate and drastic attention?' Surely those who rob others of their faith are among those givers of scandal whom Jesus said should have a millstone tied around their necks and be thrown into the sea? I challenge that to to continue to ignore this situation is an absurd and heartless betrayal by those entrusted to be the pastors of the faithful and the servants of the servants of God.
One of the most astonishing dramatic scenes in a Puccini opera - and there are plenty of them - comes at the end of Act One of his verismo shocker Tosca set in the Roman church of Sant'Andrea della Valle* (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVR5YXubxRU). Against Puccini's mighty choral setting of the Te Deum, the opera's villain, Scarpia, terrifyingly sings, 'Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!' - 'Tosca, you make me forget God!' There are many former members of the Focolare movement, who, equally terrifyingly, could lament, 'Chiara, you made me forget God.' However her followers might attempt to temper this charge, it is the shocking truth. And all the expressions of sympathy 'for your suffering' from the focolarini are not going to mitigate this damage in the slightest.
*Ironically, the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle was regarded as the church of the 'community' of the Focolare Movement when it first established itself in Rome.