New York - In the basement of a six-story concrete building on the outskirts of Rome, young men and women in suits scurry around a simulated office, fetching documents from laser printers and hashing out business presentations. The fake corporate environment has a name: Junior Consulting.

Along with the Centro Elis trade school upstairs, it's the brainchild of Opus Dei, the Roman Catholic group that Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, portrayed as a killer cult conspiring with the Vatican to hide the true origins of Christianity.

Far from Brown's fictional world, Opus Dei says its image should be that of MBA graduates, not the book's murderous monk. The 78-year-old group has 84 000 members in more than 60 countries and counts top executives, political leaders in Latin America and a British cabinet official in its ranks.

Opus Dei's emphasis on recruiting and training businesspeople sets it apart from other Catholic groups.

"Opus Dei is unique," says Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit priest and professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. "Their approach is finding God in daily life as a Christian, and a big part of that is the business world."

Opus Dei is seeking more high-powered members by funding pizza parties and seminars on embryo research, euthanasia and evolution near US Ivy League campuses. And it is targeting lawyers and bankers with monthly meetings at a church in London's financial district.

Founded in 1928 by Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, Opus Dei promotes Catholic church policy. It opposes abortion and the ordination of women and says its goal is to spread a credo that working hard brings people closer to God.

Some members, such as Eduardo Guilisasti, the chief executive of Latin America's biggest winery, give their entire paycheck to advance the cause. Guilisasti says he donates the salary he earns as boss of Chile's Vina Concha y Toro to help run Opus Dei's more than 100 technical and management schools from Spain to Mexico to Vietnam.

Courses at Centro Elis are sponsored by Cisco Systems, the world's largest maker of computer networking equipment; Vodafone Group, the biggest cellular operator; and Nokia, the top maker of cellphones.

The school's students have designed business plans for Vodafone's mobile TV offering and assessed the quality of computer images for printer maker Hewlett-Packard.

Not everyone accepts that Opus Dei's goal is purely spiritual. Dianne DiNicola says the group is out to recruit future executives, separate them from their families and then take their money.

"They proselytise educated, bright people, corporate types," says DiNicola, the director of the Opus Dei Awareness Network (Odan). The US-based group publicises Opus Dei's practices, which it says restrict members' personal freedoms.

DiNicola founded Odan after her daughter joined and then quit Opus Dei as a student at Boston College.

"They get these subtle controls in places where it counts," she says. Opus Dei recruits people who have a potential to succeed professionally, both for their influence and their money, DiNicola says, based in part on her daughter's experience as a numerary, or celibate member who lives in Opus Dei residences.

About 30 percent of members swear off sex. The rest, known as supernumeraries, live in their own homes, often raising families.

"She even had to write down if she bought a postage stamp; that's how controlling they are on money," DiNicola says, and recruits can become big earners for Opus Dei.

Manuel Sanchez, an Opus Dei spokesperson in Rome, says such complaints usually come from former numeraries, who make a big commitment on joining and may go through major stress when leaving.

"Some people who have left Opus Dei rethink what they've done and the things they loved," he says.

He says it is standard for members to give Opus Dei as much money as they can afford.

Guilisasti, 53, who declined to disclose his salary, says he has no need for wealth. Opus Dei makes sure he has enough for his clothing, food and petrol to get to work. "What would I do with money?" Guilisasti asks. "It's not important to my life."

Like other numeraries, Guilisasti is celibate and lives in an Opus Dei home with group members.

In one aspect of the novel that crosses into reality, numeraries participate in regular "mortification", a weekly ritual in which they whip themselves on the back with a small switch while praying. For a few hours a day, they wear a band with inward-pointing spikes, known as a cilice, around their thighs, which can leave red marks and scars.

In The Da Vinci Code, Opus Dei and the Vatican are covering up the story of early Christianity, including the secret that Jesus fathered a family. The secret is guarded by a society known as the Priory of Sion, whose grand masters have included Leonardo da Vinci.

A monk, guided by the head of Opus Dei, goes on a killing spree to keep the secret under wraps.

"The conspiratorial theories about Opus Dei are ridiculous, but you might say the goals are beyond the church," says James Hitchcock, a professor of Catholic history at Saint Louis University. "It's the idea of influencing society from within, quietly, by utilising whatever professional influence you have."

Within the church, Opus Dei has become increasingly prominent over the past two decades. Pope John Paul 2, who died last April, made it the church's only personal prelature in 1982, meaning that its members report to Opus Dei leaders in Rome, not local dioceses.

In 2002 the pope presided over the canonisation of Escriva just 27 years after the priest's death, the fastest confirmation of a saint in modern times. The pope's spokesperson is a member, as are 41 of the church's 4 662 bishops and two of its 192 cardinals.

"John Paul liked Opus Dei very much, and he liked that they agreed with him on doctrinal issues," says Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who is a senior fellow at Georgetown University in Washington.

Beyond opposing abortion, contraception and marriage by priests, Opus Dei's pro-business stance and ability to rally lay supporters endeared it to John Paul 2, especially during his Cold War push to topple communism, Reese says. "This is an organisation that can turn out 100 000 people in St Peter's Square to cheer the pope and his policies."

The Vatican's stamp of approval gives Opus Dei clout in the highest levels in Catholic Latin America.

In Brazil, Sao Paulo governor and presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin seeks spiritual counsel about once a month from Carlos Di Franco, Opus Dei's communications director in Brazil, although he has told Di Franco he is not a member.

Opus Dei, Latin for "the work of God", is expanding from strongholds in South America, Italy and Spain to English-speaking nations.

UK education minister Ruth Kelly is a supernumerary, says Andrew Soane, a member of Opus Dei's UK regional council. Kelly, a former Bank of England economist, was elected to parliament in 1997. Soane, who is a chartered accountant, says Opus Dei is reaching out to City of London bankers and lawyers.

In the US, Opus Dei completed its 17-storey, $69 million (R414 million) headquarters in Manhattan in 2001, heralding its arrival in the world's financial capital. Opus Dei runs off-campus housing and student centres around Harvard University, Brown University and Princeton University. Opus Dei residences are open to students who choose not to live in dorms.

John Wauck, a Harvard graduate who is now an Opus Dei priest in Rome, says the centres offer non-residents pizza dinners, prayer meetings and talks on topics such as Plotting a Pro-Life Legal Strategy.

Recruiting on campuses and running business schools increase the odds that company executives will be members, says Pablo Elton, Opus Dei's chief financial officer.

Some former numeraries who joined as students describe what they call cult-like experiences.

In Brazil, Antonio Carlos Brolezzi spent 10 years living in an Opus Dei residence in Sao Paulo. A decade later, he says the group uses deception and secrecy to lure innocent youth into worshipping money and repressing their sexuality.

The University of Sao Paulo statistics professor says he didn't start recovering from "the trauma" until he wrote a book about his time as a member, published this year.

"The life of a numerary is like a slave's," says Brolezzi, who married after leaving Opus Dei. At age 18, he attended astronomy lectures that turned out to be recruiting meetings for Opus Dei. A virgin at 19, he moved into a house for numeraries.

"They really try to replace your family," Brolezzi says. Control was personal and financial.

He gave his salary to Opus Dei, and when he confessed to fantasising about women, the director ordered Brolezzi to wear tight-fitting pants to discourage masturbation.

To get out of the group was hard, partly because he had no savings.

"I don't think I will ever recover financially from Opus Dei," he says. "I gave 10 years of my most-productive years without earning a cent."

Spokesperson Sanchez says Opus Dei doesn't publicly contest grievances of former members. "An experience is subjective," he says.

Taking members' money isn't the group's objective and having executives among its ranks isn't a particular point of pride, Elton says.

"What's important is that their work is in service to other people."

Elton says The Da Vinci Code has heightened scrutiny of his work and caused him to be more open about Opus Dei's activities. It has also led Opus Dei and some Catholic groups to counterattack.

Opus Dei has asked Sony to include a disclaimer in the film adaptation of the best-seller stating that the thriller is entirely fictional.

It revamped its website in March and moved staff from its Rome information office to New York to co-ordinate its response to the movie.

One piece of the message is that the real Opus Dei has no monks. The group is also opening its schools and residences to reporters and getting members to grant interviews to tell the story of Opus Dei and its history.

The founder of Opus Dei, who was born in 1902 in Spain, learned the perils of entrepreneurship as a child. Escriva's father, Jose, ran a textile firm that failed 13 years later, forcing the family to move to northern Spain seeking work, according to Escriva's official biography.

When young Josemaria decided to become a priest, he also trained as a lawyer. Ordained in 1925, Escriva was working on his law doctorate in Madrid when he said God showed him his mission: to start Opus Dei. Escriva outlined those views in his book of aphorisms, El Camino, or The Way, published in 1934 and translated into at least 43 languages.

In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, he fled the anti-clerical Republicans in Madrid for France. He returned to Spain in 1939 during the rule of fascist dictator Franco.

Opus Dei began its international push in 1946 when Escriva moved to Rome and the group set up in Italy, Portugal and the UK.

In 1965, Escriva and Pope Paul 6 opened a technical school in Rome on Vatican-donated land. Centro Elis, or the centre for education, work, training and sport became a model for projects worldwide.

Members say education is key to the group's corporate aspirations. Opus Dei's Universidad de los Andes in Santiago gives graduate courses to students who have already made their way up the corporate ladder.

"The owner of a company can influence decisions more than a simple employee," says Alberto Lopez-Hermida, the director-general of the university's business school, which has just moved into a $10 million building in the Andean foothills.

Guilisasti, who joined Opus Dei while at high school in 1968, today lives with eight men in a group house in Santiago. Female Opus Dei numeraries, known as administrators, do the cooking and cleaning.

Opus Dei says it treats male and female members equally and says women should be politically active. It considers men and women to have different natural abilities and says housekeeping and child rearing are tasks in pursuit of holiness in the same ways as office work.

Bishop Javier Echevarria, Opus Dei's prelate, or leader, says on the website: "The women of Opus Dei work in every sector of society: running corporations and hospitals, working in fields and in factories, holding university chairs."

Guilisasti polices Opus Dei rules at the group house. One regulation bars numeraries from watching "immoral" movies on television, and self-flagellation forms part of his routine of daily "mortification", which reminds him of the suffering Christ endured on the cross.

"A lot is made of mortification," says Di Franco, who wears a cilice for two hours a day. "It's really just a mild discomfort."

Opus Dei, which is governed from Rome and funded locally, requires members to finance its centres and find money to run the schools and projects they start.

Members cover the living expenses of Opus Dei priests in each region and donate either to the centres or to foundations set up to fund Opus Dei activities, according to members and US tax returns.

Guilisasti has willed all of his assets to Opus Dei foundations.

Elton says that even with such donations and the scores of foundations that support it, Opus Dei isn't rich. The only accounting he has seen of assets is a $2.8 billion estimate for the group and its branches.

Elton's role is to advise local Opus Dei branches and foundations on how to establish endowment funds and to set investment guidelines, which he says are conservative. The directors of each foundation invest the money themselves.

"We don't go on adventures with hedge funds," Elton says, laughing. The group's local foundations and branches don't send him financial statements, although he's generally aware of their activities, he says.

For instance, in its 2004 tax return the New York-based Clover Foundation reported assets of $31.3 million, of which $12.1 million was invested in stocks, $10.5 million in corporate bonds and $5.93 million in municipal and US government bonds.

It built and renovated schools in Mexico and Nigeria; spent $50 000 to study the legal status of embryos, a topic that's central to the church's anti-abortion efforts; ran a conference on the importance of marriage; and supported unspecified postgraduate research at Princeton.

The Woodlawn Foundation, also based in New York State, reported assets of $12.5 million at the end of 2004. Woodlawn acts as a clearinghouse for channeling donations into Opus Dei activities. It received $11.4 million in gifts and distributed $11 million to 45 Opus Dei centres, schools and offices in 2004.

Centro Elis is a 4ha oasis in a run-down neighbourhood of concrete apartment blocks on Rome's eastern fringe. It includes a 200-bed dormitory, green playing fields and classes sponsored by top global companies.

Centro Elis has received about €800 000 (R6.2 million) in Italian government funds to spawn at least 16 similar schools around the world, from North Korea and China to Ecuador and Uruguay, says Pierluigi Bartolomei, the director of its technical school.

Opus Dei establishes the schools through its Association Centro Elis, which competes with other non-governmental organisations for Italian foreign ministry funding. When the association wins contracts, it sends staff, usually Opus Dei members, to start the schools and turn them over to local administrators, Bartolomei says. The schools don't overtly flaunt their Opus Dei connection, other than creating an environment that fosters work and economic development, he says.

"At an institute like this, we don't wear a cross on our chests or carry a Vatican flag," he says.

Opus Dei also keeps a low profile at its Iese Business School, a branch of the University of Navarra with campuses in Madrid and Barcelona. Escriva founded the Pamplona-based university in 1952.

Some executives say they had no idea they were associated with Opus Dei. Peter Sutherland, the chairman of both Goldman Sachs International bank and oil major BP, who is a member of Iese's international advisory board, says: "I know nothing about the Opus Dei connection. It's ranked one of the top two or three business schools in Europe."

Iese is also cultivating corporate connections. PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the big four US accounting firms, funds some of the school's professors. Nissan Motor, Alcatel and Banco Santander Central Hispano, Spain's biggest bank, also provide funding, according to Iese's website, while top US banks Citigroup and Morgan Stanley are listed as "supporting companies".

"Part of the revolutionary character of Opus Dei is work and economics acting for the pursuit of holiness," says Wauck, the Harvard graduate who teaches literature and the communication of the faith at Opus Dei's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

Across town in the Junior Consulting office, there are signs Opus Dei's work there has the approval of at least one higher authority.

On April 10 most of the students trekked to Vatican City to join 3 500 youths from Opus Dei schools worldwide for an audience with Pope Benedict 16, who spoke of the importance of friendship and quoted from The Way. He closed with a blessing, saying: "May the Holy Virgin help you. And may Saint Josemaria intercede on your behalf." The students gave the pontiff a chocolate cake for his 79th birthday.

With friends like that, it's no wonder Opus Dei's leaders are confident The Da Vinci Code won't stop them attracting and training students and executives, and winning financing from some of the world's largest corporations. - Bloomberg