May 16, 2006 — -- It's been more than 15 years since Tammy DiNicola left Opus Dei, but she still tries to raise awareness about the secretive and conservative Roman Catholic group.
DiNicola, 37, considers herself a faithful Catholic despite her falling out with Opus Dei, which she joined while she was in college. She stayed with the group for nearly three years. After her painful departure, she founded a support network in 1991 with other families of former Opus Dei members to shed light on what they believe are Opus Dei's true intentions.
With the upcoming release of the movie of "The Da Vinci Code," which casts Opus Dei as the villain, DiNicola's Opus Dei Awareness Network, or ODAN, has suddenly gained more attention.
"I really do feel God let me go through all this so I could be a spokesperson," DiNicola said. "If there was nothing wrong with Opus Dei, we wouldn't need to exist."
ODAN isn't out to attack Opus Dei, but it would like to see more transparency.
Opus Dei lends no credence to ODAN except to express dismay at members who leave Opus Dei.
DiNicola still believes the organization is untruthful in its vocation.
"Everything they do is couched in beautiful terms, sanctifying work and love, but in reality the whole process is deceiving and couched in orchestration," she said.
DiNicola was a freshman at Boston College when she went on her first Opus Dei retreat. Her parents rejoiced that their daughter took the time to deepen her faith while at school.
Without telling her parents, DiNicola joined Opus Dei and in her junior year became a numerary, a lay person who pledges celibacy and devotion to God's teachings. She moved into an all-female Opus Dei residence and slowly broke her ties with outside friends and family.
"I could tell I was a different person," she said. "When I was back home, people were devastated at how distant I was."
Her mother didn't like the change in DiNicola's personality and begged her to consider other options within the church, she said.
It was too late.
DiNicola said she had already fallen prey to what she now considers a controlling organization.
"All choices are made for you when you're in a group. You're not allowed to question anything," she said.
Her mail was read, her salary was handed over and she needed approval before reading anything or leaving the residence, she said.
"If you wanted to shop, you needed permission," DiNicola said.
Opus Dei acknowledges that many members hand over portions of their salaries but says that there is no truth behind allegations of excessive control, and that its only intention is to teach and coach.
Obedience came in all sorts of ways.
She said she was presented with the cilice, a spiked chain that members strap around their upper thigh to prove their devotion. Wearing it "is not presented as an optional thing," DiNicola said.
"I think a few people in Opus Dei just mildly slap it on their back while reciting prayers," Opus Dei spokeswoman Terri Carron told ABC News' "Good Morning America." "Mother Teresa, everybody knows her life, most people wouldn't think she needs penance, but she did practice penance."
Carron also refutes the claims of excessive control.
"You have to understand that people who are giving themselves up -- as I do as a supernumerary -- the idea anyone would be controlling me is rather absurd," Carron said.
Dennis Dubro, 55, spent 17 years in Opus Dei before abandoning the group, and he disagrees with Carron. In his view, supernumeraries, those in the less-formal category of membership that allows people to have families and live in their own homes -- are clueless about the organization's real intentions.
"I was in levels of leadership and like an onion, the outer core never finds out about these things," Dubro said. Supernumeraries make up about 70 percent of the 87,000 members worldwide, with the core representing about 20 percent.
Dubro grew close to Opus Dei while he was a student at MIT, and he eventually became a numerary. Opus Dei sent him to Australia to oversee a boys dorm, which is when he started to question the organization.
"As you move into leadership, they test your obedience and see how loyal you are," Dubro said. He likened the experience to loyalty in the Mafia, saying that he became a puppet.
"You are expected to stand up and tell the world that you are acting in your own name when you carry out the secret indications of your directors," he said. Dubro became dismayed by the manipulative elements of the organization, from the complexity of its finances to its lack of transparency.
His disloyalty led to his departure, although he said Opus Dei doesn't let its members go freely, despite what it says.
"When you talk to your spiritual director about things like that [leaving], he tells you that you will go to hell if you abandon your God-given vocation," Dubro said.
In DiNicola's case, her parents became more and more concerned in 1989 when she turned down their invitation to come home for Easter. With the help of the local clergy and a psychologist, DiNicola spent hours in counseling.
She recalls the time as extremely painful, but eventually she came to wonder why, if Opus Dei's teaching focused on friendship, it entailed abandoning her family. In addition, she found the constant pressure to recruit new members misleading and contrary to the doctrine of spreading the good word through charitable work.
She distanced herself from Opus Dei and moved in with her sister, readjusting slowly to living independently again.
"I soon realized that Opus Dei had squashed my true emotions, and so every day was an emotional roller coaster ride for months," she said.
Opus Dei's Carron counters that things don't always work out in life.
"You have to understand, this is a lifelong commitment," she said. "Many people go into a lifelong commitment, whether it's Opus Dei or a marriage, and sometimes they don't quite gel, sometimes it doesn't work for them and they get out of it and it's very sad when it ends."
DiNicola interprets her departure another way.
"I feel like I have been healed of the abuse," she said. "I felt God showed me the truth."