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In the basement of a six-storey 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 Mr. Brown's fictional world, Opus Dei says its image should be that of MBAs, not the book's murderous monk. The 78-year-old group of priests and laypeople has 84,000 members in more than five dozen 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 business people sets it apart from other Roman 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 embryonic research, physician-assisted suicide and evolution near U.S. Ivy League campuses. And it's targeting lawyers and bankers through monthly meetings at St. Mary Moorfields church in the City of London financial district.

Opus Dei promotes Catholic church policy. It opposes abortion and the ordination of women. The group says its goal is to spread a credo that working hard brings people closer to God.

Some members, such as Eduardo Guilisasti, chief executive officer of Santiago-based Vina Concha y Toro SA, Latin America's biggest winery, advance the effort by giving their entire paycheque to help run Opus Dei's more than 100 technical and management schools.

Cisco Systems Inc., Vodafone Group PLC and Nokia Corp. all sponsor courses at Centro ELIS. Students there have designed a business plan for Vodafone's Mobile Interactive TV and assessed the quality of computer images for Hewlett-Packard Co.

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 proselytize educated, bright people -- you're talking doctors, lawyers, corporate types," says Ms. DiNicola, executive director of the Opus Dei Awareness Network. The group publicizes Opus Dei's practices, which it says restrict members' personal freedoms.

Ms. DiNicola, 63, founded ODAN after her daughter, Tammy, joined and then quit Opus Dei when she was a student at Boston College. "They get these subtle controls in places where it counts," Ms. DiNicola says. Opus Dei recruits people who have a potential to succeed professionally, both for their influence and their money, she says, based in part on her daughter's experience as a numerary, a type of member who is celibate and lives in Opus Dei residences.

About 30 per cent of the people in Opus Dei 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," Ms. DiNicola says. Recruits can become big earners for Opus Dei. "Say they have a salary of $200,000; they'll give most of it to Opus Dei," she says.

Such complaints almost always come from former numeraries, who as celibates make the biggest commitment when joining and may go through the most stress when leaving, says Opus Dei spokesman Manuel Sanchez in Rome.

"Some people who have left Opus Dei, they rethink what they've done and the things they loved," he says. He says it's standard for members to give Opus Dei as much money as they can afford.

Recruiting on campuses and running business schools increase the odds that Opus Dei will have company executives as members, Opus Dei chief financial officer Pablo Elton says. "If we're working with students, 30 years later they'll be CEOs."

Concha y Toro's Mr. Guilisasti, 53, says he has no need for wealth. Opus Dei makes sure he has enough for clothing, food and gasoline for the 2002 Subaru he drives to his company's headquarters along the banks of the Mapocho River in Santiago.

"What would I do with money?" Mr. Guilisasti asks, seated in his wood-panelled office, where he keeps a framed photograph of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the Spanish priest who founded Opus Dei in 1928. "It's not important to my life."

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