Saturday 29 October 2022

Grooming: how Focolare deceives new members (and an introduction to the language of 'Focolarese')

While I was living in the Liverpool Focolare community in the mid-seventies and was leader of the Gen - Focolare youth movement - in the UK, we used to have national monthly meetings there for the handful of 'gen boys' in the UK, aged roughly 16-20.   A young family lived next door and we made friends with them, although they had no real idea of what we were up to.  Their eldest son was 16, rather shy, and so we invited him to the Gen meetings.  After attending these meetings for several months, this young man approached me and asked, with a puzzled expression, 'Does this have something to do with God?'  

Anybody familiar with the Focolare Movement, and certainly anyone who has been or is currently an internal member, knows that its main aim is proselytising.  The entire Focolare year is geared around proselytising, with key moments in spring - day meetings - and summer - the Mariapolis.  The approach was always very subtle. After all, we were obliged, like communists, to set up units even in our workplace: thise was known as the 'grappolo' (in Italian, grappolo means bunch, as in 'bunch of grapes'). The typical introduction to the movement, often quoted in 'experiences' or testimonies of members, is 'Come and meet my friends' - no mention of  religion, God, Jesus.  I'm sure, however, that at the Gen meetings attended by our young next door neighbour, there were plenty of references to Chiara Lubich.  But when he asked me, 'Does this have something to do with God,' I was astonished.  Even as a hard-liner, it made me think: are we being a bit too subtle here - is there an element of deception?  Are we liars?

Of course, it was deception, pure and simple.  The bland invitation to 'Come and meet my friends' would result in an encounter at a 'meeting' where the victim would be overwhelmed by 'love-bombing' and that process known as 'making yourself one' - ie pretending to agree wth everything the victim says and that you share all his or her tastes.    

Given the element of secrecy that enshrouds the process of proselytising in the Focolare movement, it is hardly surprising that the Focolare 'language' - let's call it 'Focolarese' (as in Chinese) - its vast 'elaborated code' of terms, either invented or redefined, is full of words and phrases referring to this process of proselytising which only internal members can understand.  An extreme example would be 'popabile'.  This is a pun on the term 'papabile' used in the Catholic Church to refer to a Cardinal who has the potential of becoming pope (It. papa).  In Focolare jargon, however, 'popo' or 'popa', meaning 'child' in Chiara Lubich's Trentino dialect, refers to a full time internal member of the movement.  So 'popabile' means someone has the potential of becoming a full time member, but it means nothing to an outsider so could be used in their presence without them understanding.   In Italian, there is a saying 'Piano, piano, si va lontano' (slow and steady wins the race).  In Focolarese it becomes, 'Piano, piano, si va a Loppiano' (Slow and steady, you go to Loppiano - ie the movement's -  training centre in Tuscany).  Definitely the implication of something sneaky here, of subterfuge.

But there are a host of other words in Focolarese which have had their meanings altered from normal Italian usage, all refering to a person's potential for membership of the movement, covering an incredibly subtle range of meanings.  'Carino' or 'carina' in normal Italian means cute (i.e. a young man might say, 'She's cute'; or a gay man might say, 'He's cute') but in the Focolare sense it refers to a fairly general potential for membership of the movement. 'Carissimo' (dearest) is much stronger and would also probably denote someone's potential as an internal member.  'Bravo'  or 'bravissimo'  - 'capable' or 'very capable' in normal Italian, also refer to someone's potential within the movement, usually with reference to some practical action - conquering new members or raising large amouns of money.  The term 'in gamba' - which usually means smart - is an even more enthusiastic term with a similar sense - someone who can come up with the goods from the movement's point of view - more followers, more money, more attention from important people.   'Lanciato' or 'lanciatissimo' literally means 'launched' or 'very launched' and is used to describe members of the movement who are transported by their enthusiasm for the activities of the movement.  A good translation for 'lanciatissimo' could be 'manic'.  Whether 'lanciato' means anything to Italians outside the Focolare movement I couldn't really say.   Buono', 'good' in the moral sense in everyday Italian, also means 'good' or 'kind' in Focolarese, but with a patronising overtone, i.e. 'good but not much good to the movement.'

The word most commonly used for proselytising in the movement is 'cultivating'.  Given the secrecy with which this is carried out and given the instensity with which it can be applied to a targeted individual, it is very close in meaning to what is called, in the case of paedophiles, 'grooming'.  There is another commonly used term for cultivating - 'prenderli dentro' o 'prenderlo dentro' which, literally translated means 'take them in' or 'take him in', and it could well be understood in exactly the sense it has in English.  In theory, this hidden, deceitful process of 'cultivating' or 'grooming' makes the Focolare movement the ideal nursery for paedophiles and their prey.  In reality, evidence shows that in a major case of paedofilia in the Focolare movement in France, not only were the victims groomed, or 'cultivated, but so were their families, giving the predator virtual carte blanche.  

In another case of sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult, a young man was the long-term lover of a leading, considerably older, full time focolarino (extensive correspondence held in archives).  Out of the blue, after many years, the focolarino, dumped the young man, leaving him devastated.  What is most shocking about this case is that, though this bright young man knew his partner lived in the Focolare community, though he had frequently eaten supper with the focolarini, performed many DIY taks for them, attended meetings, parties, even funerals, he had absolutely no idea that there was any kind of structure or hierarchy in the movement and that his lover had taken a vow of poverty.  This is communal deception raised to new heights and the perfect environment in which vulnerable adults, such as this young man, and minlors can be abused sexually and in other ways.  I wonder if even totalitarian states such as Nazis and Communists have ever come up with such a practical system of mass deception.

Look out for future blogs on Focolarese and why everyone is vulnerable in realtion to the Focolare Movement



  1. Thanks a lot for this post. I recently read The Pope's Armada and also "La setta divina". I think that both books describe what happens in the mind of those who have suffered abuse of conscience in the so-called "new movements". I co-founded a chapter of one of these groups 34 years ago and from the very beginning I had some issues with the "main group" and the founding members. At some point I could not stand the pressure any longer and I finally stopped attending their activities 1 year ago. Leaving my past behind has not been easy and I have required professional aid to face the process. Of course none of my former "friends" (to use a term that was always used in this movement and has no semantic content) has asked me why I have not returned without any prior notice. It is better for them not to hear any dissent.

  2. I am shocked, but not surprised, that more than 25 years after you published The Pope’s Armada, cult-like abusive behaviour can still be found, and still be largely unchallenged, in movements that operate within the Catholic Church.

    But is there, I wonder, a danger that we could regard such damaging behaviour only as a feature of newer religious movements? Is there a danger that we might regard longer established Catholic organisations and religious orders as being somehow safer? Back in the 1960s my older brother left home at the age of 17 to train to be a Jesuit priest. This involved an abrupt and complete break with family and friends. During his initial two-year novitiate we, the family, were only allowed to visit for a few hours on three occasions each year. Nobody else was allowed to visit him and he never returned to the family home, not even at Christmas. He was permitted, indeed required, to write a letter once a week to the family but was not permitted to write to anyone else. So any earlier friendships were effectively extinguished. This was, I suggest, a form of psychological abuse against both a vulnerable inexperienced 17-year-old and his family. I know that my mother found the rupture of separation very difficult, and only a few weeks after my brother joined the Jesuits I was in hospital being treated for a mysterious heart condition; we now know that this cardiac problem was almost certainly caused by the trauma of separation from my brother.

    How dare the Jesuits treat people in such an inhuman way.

    I am certainly not seeking in any way to minimise the dysfunctional behaviour of movements like Chiara Lubich’s Focolare, JosemarĂ­a Escrivá Opus Dei and Marcial Maciel’s Legion of Christ. I simply point out that longer established religious organisation can also be psychologically destructive. I suggest that emotionally inadequate individuals have always been attracted to religious organisations. Some of these individuals become victims; some become corrupt leaders. Many become both victims and perpetuators of institutional abuse. You, Gordon, had the courage to leave and to devote energy to warning others.