Opus Dei members facing abuse charges

2011-09-22 19:00 Paris - Two members of the secretive Roman Catholic society Opus Dei, made famous by the blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, were due in a Paris court on Thursday accused of subjecting a disciple to years of abuse.

The case comes after a nine-year probe and centres on Catherine Tissier who says that as a teenager she was forced to work 14-hour days and brainwashed, resulting in charges of "undignified punishment" and illegal employment.

Two Opus Dei members are defendants at the trial, along with the University and Technical Culture Association (Acut), which runs the Dosnon Hotel School in Aisne in northern France and is accused of links to Opus Dei.

Tissier joined the school in 1985, aged only 14, and says she only later discovered it was run by associates of Opus Dei, which in Latin means "work of God" and so is often referred to simply as "the work".

15 witnesses

She said she was forced to take vows and made to work as a domestic servant for virtually no pay. Opus Dei has insisted it was "not involved in the charges being brought" and had "nothing to be guilty about".

The accused are charged with having "obtained from young students of the Dosnon School or those in an obvious state of psychological fragility... unpaid services or those paid with no respect for the work done."

Around 15 witnesses are due to be heard during the trial.

Tissier's parents only realised that their daughter's institution had anything to do with Opus Dei when a film was shown about the organisation's founder at the end of the year.

She said the group compelled her to take vows of obedience, poverty and chastity and for the following 13 years gave her jobs with organisations that her lawyer Rodolphe Bosselut said were linked to Opus Dei.

She said she was made to work 14-hour days, seven days a week, cleaning and serving. Staff paid her a salary and then reclaimed money from her by making her sign blank cheques, supposedly to pay her room and board, she alleged.

Made famous in book, film

Staff accompanied her wherever she went, including on visits to the doctor, she said. On these occasions she says she was taken to see an Opus Dei doctor who prescribed tranquillisers that left her "senseless".

Tissier weighed only 39kg in 2001 when her parents rescued her from the group. Lawyers first took legal action that year alleging "mental manipulation" among other charges.

The organisation, which is branded a dangerous sect by some critics, came to wide attention after being portrayed as a secretive and violent cult in the blockbuster novel and film The Da Vinci Code.

Opus Dei strongly objected to its portrayal in the film.

The group - which has a chiefly lay membership estimated at 80 000 - was founded in 1928 by Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer, who was canonised in 2002 with support from the late Pope John Paul II.

The charges against the two Opus Dei members and the University and Technical Culture Association (Acut) - which ran the school - are for "undignified punishment" and for not declaring her as an employee.

Acut has said it has no more than a "cultural link" with Opus Dei.

The college's lawyer, Thierry Laugier, has previously said that "there is nothing to this case," and insisted that Tissier "was paid according to the work she did".