By Claire Harris
On 30 January this year, I appeared on Four Corners. The episode Purity: An Education in Opus Dei revealed the disturbing practices at four independent schools in Sydney affiliated with Opus Dei, an ultra-conservative faction of the Catholic Church with cult-like rules governing its membership.
The episode was the culmination of over a year’s work by a group of concerned alumni who graduated from Tangara School and Redfield College. In 2021, when a national conversation was sparked around consent education, I penned an article for The Guardian about the lack of sex education at my Sydney private school. While I was not allowed to name either the school or Opus Dei, for legal reasons, the anecdotes were immediately recognisable to others who had shared the same religious upbringing.
Later that year, Dominic Perrottet – a former Redfield school captain and current parent at Tangara, from a well-known Opus Dei family – became Premier of New South Wales. Within hours, I was receiving emails from students who felt deeply triggered seeing Opus Dei reach the upper echelons of power, as I did. As someone who had written on the subject, they were asking me what we could do. While Perrottet was never the target, his political rise was a catalyst for an action group to form.
For months, we reached out to students and collected testimonies that spanned more than 20 years. It was distressing to observe the same issues recurring over the course of decades and continuing to the present day – the experiences of current Tangara students were indistinguishable from my own in the 1990s. This was not the work of a few bad apples, it was institutional abuse.
In October 2022, we brought our testimonies to Louise Milligan. The episode was the result of four months of research and interviews in which we worked with Four Corners to gather more testimonies and evidence. The process took a great personal toll on all of us, resurfacing trauma from our childhoods. Many people involved had to remain anonymous to avoid personal repercussions from their own families and friends within the Opus Dei community.
Days before the episode went to air, the schools released an open letter to the right-wing media, refuting the claims and dismissing the Four Corners report – and our experiences – as a “smear campaign” against the Catholic faith and a politically-motivated attack on Dominic Perrottet. Not only was this letter full of blatant untruths, it failed to mention that they had been invited to participate in an interview with Louise Milligan, and declined.
Neither the schools nor Opus Dei have publicly offered any accountability or apology for the trauma they have caused. Privately, the principals sent each of us a copy/paste email expressing that they were “saddened by our comments” and inviting us to meet with them. After lengthy discussion, we decided that any such meeting would produce more harm to us than good: it would be deeply re-traumatising to come face-to-face with those who have perpetrated and been complicit in our abuse. As long as Opus Dei is embedded in every aspect of the schools, we do not believe they are capable of changing.
Because Opus Dei thrives on secrecy – as evidenced by the schools’ continual denial of affiliation beyond their chaplaincy – we wanted to ensure full transparency around the systemic issues present in the schools. By publishing an open letter to the principals of the schools, we intend to reclaim the false narrative that has been presented.
Since the episode aired, we have been inundated with messages from other alumni thanking us for having the courage to speak out. Many said they have always felt they were alone in their suffering at Tangara and Redfield. Our letter aims to validate the experiences of all those former and current students, and to dismantle the myth of inculpability disseminated by the schools. We also want to ensure that current and prospective parents understand the harmful culture created and enabled by the schools, the true nature of the ties between the schools and Opus Dei, and the ways that their children are likely to become targets for recruitment.
Our intention is not to orchestrate a “smear campaign” but to earnestly advocate for changes to the oversight, governance and funding of independent schools in NSW. Insufficient mechanisms for raising complaints have meant that students and their parents of independent schools are required to take their concerns to the school board rather than a governing authority. However, the integration between Opus Dei and the school executive board renders this futile, resulting in decades of silence and the perpetuation of these problems. We wish to see a revision of these mechanisms so that all students of independent schools in NSW have a safe space to raise concerns.
To support this objective, we will be approaching the Federal and NSW Ministers for Education to discuss our concerns – with greater optimism that we will be heard now there is a Labor Government in power at both levels.