Jane West graduated from Catholic University and is a former teacher and speech pathologist. She and her husband moved to Gaithersburg with their four children in 1984 to join the Mother of God community. Her telephone calls to an editor at The Washington Post, Bob Woodward, launched the newspaper's investigation of Mother of God.
How did you become involved in the Mother of God community?
In 1977, I was active in the Catholic charismatic renewal and helped plan a conference to be held in Washington. Through that I met two coordinators and a priest from Mother of God. Later the priest invited me to return with my family to spend a week living in the community. We were impressed by the families we met, who seemed to share our values, and by a local bishop's strong words of praise for Mother of God. After seven years of careful consideration we decided to move here. We were strongly influenced by the fact that five widely acclaimed priests were members.
What were your earliest feelings about the community?
I loved the feeling of belonging to a group of people who had a deep faith and prayer life. During our first few years there was plenty of fun: picnics, skits, concerts, summer camp for the kids and so forth.
Once you had belonged for a while, did your feelings change, and how?
Yes. The pressure to attend community events steadily increased, leaving little time for family. We resisted, convinced that duty to family was our first priority. We were beginning to get a vague sense of how the system known as "headship and submission" worked. The community appointed a "head" or spiritual adviser for me. I was often told by this person, "I am responsible for your salvation." I challenged that, referring to Catholic teaching on the sanctity of individual conscience. I was berated by one of the leaders for this. Despite our resistance, for years we were allowed to sign the Mother of God covenant after we added a statement saying we retained the right to make our own decisions. We never relinquished that right.
What was your best experience at Mother of God?
It was a joy teaching seventh- and eighth-graders at the Mother of God school and helping them produce plays. These kids were denigrated by some of the teachers and referred to as "bad," but I found them full of life. Sadly, their spirits later appeared to have been quenched.
What was your worst experience there?
In 1991 we were finally told we could no longer be covenanted members. At the time we were not given the reason but would later learn it was our refusal to submit totally to the community's demands. I was lectured about my faults, and my Catholic beliefs were denigrated. I was subjected to harsh verbal attacks. Leaders tried to convince me that I was a terrible mother and implied that I should abdicate my parental authority to the team who had pastoral "care" over my daughter, which I refused to do. We were allowed to remain as "associate" members, a lesser category.
Why didn't you leave when you developed doubts about the group?
We were in a conundrum. We stayed because we loved many of the people there and still hungered for community life. Although we were hearing stories of damaged lives and were particularly alarmed about the teaching and treatment of the young people, we were hopeful of reform. In early 1994 the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington launched an assessment of Mother of God. However, in October '94 we heard that Mother of God leaders wanted to have the chairman of the assessment committee removed. Fearful of a cover-up and mindful of the statement in the Catholic Catechism that "society has a right to information based on truth," I called Bob Woodward of The Post to tell him about the situation at Mother of God.
Did you come to feel you had been misled about Mother of God's real nature or purpose?
Yes. Its outward appearance was Catholic, yet Catholic practices were often ridiculed. There was secrecy regarding the system of "headship and submission," arranged marriages and other controversial practices. The effects on many young people were disastrous. As we began to realize how misled we had been, we took to heart the exhortation in the catechism of the Catholic Church that lay people "have a right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the church." So we wrote letters to Cardinal James Hickey, archbishop of Washington, and met with his vicar general, Bishop William Lori, expressing our fear that the recommendations of the committee studying Mother of God would not be fully enacted. Unfortunately, our fears proved correct.
When and why did you finally leave?
We left because those who had suffered ridicule were not given a public forum to talk about what had happened. At two Mother of God "town hall" meetings in summer '95, I stood up and talked about the "Information Gathering" document and the fact that files were kept on members. By a two-thirds vote the assembly agreed to invite former members to tell their stories in an open forum. Later the archdiocese canceled that forum. In good conscience, we could not remain in a group that neither heeded the pleas for full disclosure of the group's actions nor specifically denounced them. As Elie Wiesel said, "What hurts the victims most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander."
What's your opinion on whether the group was a cult?
I would call it a high-demand, high-control, totalistic group. I base my opinion on the many characteristics of such groups listed in professional literature: Top leaders were revered as having unique knowledge about, and from, God. Members were continuously exhorted to "be of one mind," namely that of the leaders. Members were exhorted to "take every thought captive." Mother of God members were said to "know more about the spiritual life than 99 percent of all believers." Any criticism or negative evaluation by anyone, including the archdiocese, was described as motivated by evil forces. Members who raised concerns were slandered and shunned. Activities outside the group, including seeking outside professional counseling or seeing a priest for confession, were discouraged. Extremely personal, confidential information was solicited and shared without the knowledge or consent of the individual. There were arranged marriages and gross interference in marriage. Parental authority was undermined. Many of these practices devastated some members' lives.
Drawing from your own experience, what's your best advice for other people who are thinking of joining unusual movements or religious groups?
Beware of secrecy and elitist attitudes on the part of people professing some unique claim of truth. Seek out former members of the group for their opinions. Don't be misled by a group's attempts to discredit critics. Leaders can be very persuasive in presenting their side. For Catholics, don't assume canonical status means safety. Reports have surfaced recently of problems in groups that have acquired canonical approval. Research all press coverage, both secular and Catholic. The bylaws under which a group operates, known in the Catholic Church as statutes, may afford little protection against long-established habits of coercion, manipulation and dependency. If you are already in a manipulative group, don't be afraid to contact the secular press. Often they are the only ones willing to investigate and publish facts. Healthy groups needn't fear scrutiny. If you are Catholic -- as I still am -- please write your bishop and the Vatican requesting they become better informed about manipulative groups. Suggest they convene an international congress to discuss such groups, with emphasis on public testimony from people who have been harmed. A document issued by the Vatican in 1987, known as Christifidelis Laici, contains excellent general thoughts about how lay associations of the faithful should operate. But it lacks specific guidelines, and is often used by oppressive groups as justification for their existence. Ask the Vatican to publish more specific guidelines. Ask them, also, to consider withdrawing canonical recognition of groups unwilling to abolish harmful practices. Procedures for this are described in canon law. Finally, remember the Pope's Address to the World of Culture held in Budapest in 1991: "Ignorance makes any kind of free decision impossible."
Jane West's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org