In the fall of 1980, an FBI agent in New York and his wife paid a visit to an Opus Dei priest, the Rev. Robert P. Bucciarelli.
Robert Hanssen had an unusual confession to make: He had turned over sensitive material to the Soviet Union and been paid $30,000 for it. Robert and Bonnie Hanssen wanted to know if the G-man would have to turn himself in.
Bucciarelli at first said yes, but the next day telephoned the Hanssens and asked to see them again. The priest told the couple all would be well if Hanssen would donate the money to charity.
After mulling it over, Hanssen, who had already spent most of the $30,000, told his wife he would pay an equivalent amount to Mother Teresa. As The New York Times reported in May of 2002, “[Hanssen] began to make small payments over several years to a charity affiliated with Mother Teresa’s Catholic organization, moving the family close to bankruptcy. [Bonnie Hanssen] said she repeatedly questioned her husband to ensure that he was making the payments, and each time he insisted that he was.”
The incident, recounted in David Wise’s 2002 book Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America, is a reminder that Opus Dei, known for its aggressive outreach to the rich and powerful, has some devotees it would probably rather forget all about. Convicted spy Robert Hanssen is one of them.
Hanssen, a highly placed FBI agent, was arrested in February of 2001 after 22 years of spying for the Russians. His activities netted him millions of dollars – but also resulted in the deaths of three double-agents in Russia who were exposed by Hanssen.
Incredibly, even as he was betraying his country, Hanssen became deeply involved with Opus Dei. He frequently promoted the group to his colleagues and took his family to Saint Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, a conservative parish in Great Falls, Va., popular with many Opus Dei members in the Washington, D.C., area.
In affiliating with the group, Hanssen was in some respects traveling a well-trod path. Wise quotes one source who pointed out that the Tenley Center, a focal point for Opus Dei in Washington, had strong ties to the Reagan administration.
“Half of the Reagan White House would come to meetings at Tenley House,” the source told Wise. “Opus Dei is very strong on recruiting people, and once they have you, they don’t let go. They’re all over you.”
Once he became a member in 1978, Hanssen began trying to recruit fellow agents and other contacts. Hanssen even reached out to James Bamford, then a reporter for ABC News, and persuaded him to attend an event at the Tenley Center.
Hanssen also tried to convert Priscilla Galey, an exotic dancer whom he met at a strip club in Washington and showered with jewelry and other expensive presents.
Despite his gift to Mother Teresa, Hanssen was reluctant to share the proceeds of his ill-gotten gains with the church. Wise reports that the pastor at St. Catherine’s asked Hanssen and Bonnie (who today teaches at an Opus Dei school for girls in Virginia) to return to their own parish after he noticed they were not contributing financially.
Bonnie Hanssen sought and won readmission to the church, and her husband agreed to make regular monthly contributions – a commitment he did not meet.
Hanssen was also a regular at the Catholic Information Center in downtown Washington, an Opus Dei-run facility, where he got to know its director at the time, the Rev. John McCloskey.
McCloskey told Wise that Hanssen, usually accompanied by one of his sons, often attended noon mass at the center’s chapel. Hanssen, he noted, frequently took communion.
The Opus Dei prelate was at a loss to explain how Hanssen could spy for the Russians and consort with a stripper while at the same time promoting right-wing Catholicism.
“I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist,” McCloskey said. “I’m a Catholic priest, but I have a lot of experience dealing with souls. There must be some deep psychological trauma, there is something radically wrong.”
After Hanssen’s arrest and exposure, Opus Dei quickly went into damage control. The organization, Wise wrote, “was not at all happy to be linked to Robert Hanssen, whose arrest led to a flurry of news reports about the controversial organization.”
Luckily, the group had a solution: Opus Dei officials in Rome wrote to Bonnie Hanssen, urging her to make no public statements about her husband.
Bonnie Hanssen must have taken the advice to heart. With the exception of a few interviews, to this day, she has remained tight-lipped about the case.