Stories of defrocked monks, money and pretty women

This article first appeared in the leading Italian daily, La Repubblica, on Wednesday, June 26th, 1991.  The original title was: "Il business si fa in sette: storie di ex frati, soldi e belle donne".



«One day I was looking out of the window, in Anzio, when I saw two women pushing the wheelchair of a paralysed man. I realised that one of them was the mother, the other the wife of the sick person.  I was witnessing an atrocious  crime, a true homicide: those two women were sucking away all his life energy. Sooner or later the law will be able to punish this kind of criminal»
The little empire of faith .

This anecdote is frequently repeated: a kind of parable which is often heard in the sermons of a "guru" with one of the largest followings in Italy's capital. A disturbing and magnetic character, a past as a priest, a beautiful wife (who also abandoned her religious vocation), a person halfway between magic and science, who has created a small financial empire extending throughout Latium [the region surrounding Rome]: Antonio Meneghetti, 55, founder of ”Ontopsychology”. A belief-system part pseudoscience and part exorcism, part psychology and part demon-haunted religion, an army of thousands of followers belonging to every class and degree of education. Meneghetti and his wife, Loretta Lorenzini, have survived a number of legal problems which seem not to have affected either their charisma or their bank account. The hard core of the cult has long since settled down in a splendid residence in Scandriglia, and the faithful have virtually taken over the old centre of the village.

Besides it headquarters in via Medaglie d’Oro 428, "Ontopsychology" in Rome owns a colossal design centre a few hundred metres away, a consulting room in piazzale Clodio, a fashion shop at Borgo S. Benedetto and has recently started negotiations for the purchase of a hotel complex at Percile. The former parish priest of the church of San Giovanni in Paganica,  a handsome man and eloquent man with a tragic expression, has gone a long way in the world.

The first attack on Ontopsychology was launched ten years ago by the Rome daily “Paese sera”. A series of articles came out one after the other: complaints by family members who spoke of mind control, violence and harassment. In 1981 the Carabinieri arrested the former monk, his wife and twelve of his leading followers. The accusations were criminal conspiracy, unauthorised use of titles, enormous swindle and rape.

The case broke down a few months later. The magistrate said that psychology  had not yet been regulated by law, so it was impossible to establish the frontier between what was legally permitted and what was not; as a result, the entire group was acquitted. The appeal submitted by the public attorney, Giorgio Santacroce, was accepted and  Meneghetti, alone, went back to gaol, for a few days. The Court of Cassation confirmed the sentence, but the case then faded away due to amnesties and running of statutes of limitation.

Four years ago, the flying squad of the police of Rome started investigating the "Ontopsychologist" again: this was a serious investigation, with shadowing, controlling phone lines and archives, and turned into a gigantic report sent to the court. Here are the conclusions the investigation came to: (the accused) “practice such activities without any authorisation to do so, in order to treat and cure such psychogenous troubles as phobias, depression or hypochondria. Taking advantage of the special condition of frustration… they manage to cancel any freedom, generating fears of imaginary dangers in their patients and creating suicidal tendencies among them”.

 This investigation too finally faded away. Antonio Meneghetti goes on inaugurating Pharaonic exhibitions of “Ontoart”, sponsored by public and  private bodies, and recording “Ontomusic” and having his picture taken while he shakes hands with politicians of primary and secondary importance. A victim of persecution? The heart of a businessman under the dark cassock and wide-brimmed hat which are his favourite way of dressing in front of his followers? Hard to say.

Escape as a way of life

Ontopsychology is an obscure, sometimes quite dubious mix of esoteric and psychoanalitic terms; the constant element is a kind of "endogenous vampirism" in family relationships: the mighty suck away the energy, the vital essence of the weak, and the only way to avoid this kind of leeching is flight.

Many therefore run away from their family, children and husbands, seeking asylum in the protected fortress of the cult. Here is the story of Sofia, a strikingly beautiful 39 year old lady, fair-haired and slim, as told by her husband Ezio.

 “My wife was always very religious, she had a very profound faith. Before marrying, she even made a vow: she would never miss a mass on Sunday or on other religious feast days. She worked as a salesperson for a knitwear company, was a perfect mother for our son, an enviable wife from every point of view. The first change I saw was that she started coming home later and later every evening, and started to drink wine - she had always hated alcohol. 

Then she suddenly refused to have physical relations with me,  saying something strange about my having negative nodules inside me: I could not make love with her because I would have infected her. Then she asked me for two loans, for 15 million lire [about 8.000 US dollars] each, she told me she needed them for her job, but she was lying. Well, I though what anybody would think, she was having an affair with another man. I wish it had been true… 

It was only after some time that I discovered that she had started attending Meneghetti's group. She told me about it with such enthusiasm that I once agreed and accepted to go with her to Scandriglia. They all seemed crazy to me. I also spoke briefly with Meneghetti's assistant, Giuseppe Incarbone, who prescribed a long psychoanalytic therapy for me. The whole place was crazy. Sofia began to stay more and more with the cult and less and less with the family, and she completely ignored our child, who was left with me. One evening she even pretended there had been an armed robbery, so she could collect the insurance. She was unrecognisable, had become a chain smoker, was always saying four-letter words. 

What else can I say? Yes, I still love her, I would take her back with me tomorrow. Maybe one day she will come back…”

 Meneghetti's case is a typical example of para-scientific cults, like Scientology or the Ergoniani. 

 “Commonalities are an initiates' jargon, loaded with terms which only the followers can understand, and the promise of almost supernatural powers in a short time", explains Dr Michele Del Re, one of the main experts on "emerging cults" in Italy,  and a lawyer in many trials against gurus: "The techniques cults use today to bend the minds of people are highly refined and there is no need to use drugs", adds Del Re. "The most common techniques - obsessive repetition of a mantra, sleep deprivation, urine retention, protein-free diets, absolute obedience to unreasonable and unexpected orders, sexual deprivation together with orgiastic elements, a feeling of fear towards the outside world. All these procedures have been studied in the USA. Like "love bombing", constant and suffocating attention to the newcomer, an emotional overdose which turns into a true drug…”

 Parents know what to expect.