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ROME – New leaders for the sprawling Caritas International charity organization have said it is time to quit dwelling on the past following months of turmoil amid a massive internal shakeup.
Last November, the pope took the extraordinary move of ousting the charity’s entire leadership team and appointed an interim administrator to rewrite Caritas International’s governing statutes and to run things until new leaders were elected.
Caritas delegates elected their new leadership over the weekend as part of their May 11-16 general assembly, naming Archbishop Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo as their new president; Australian laywoman Kristy Robertson as vice president; British layman Alister Dutton as Secretary General; and French layman Patrick Debucquois as treasurer.
Speaking to journalists May 16 about his election and the turmoil of the past few months, Dutton said that even though the organization’s statutes were redone, this past week’s deliberations didn’t “start from scratch.”
Dutton has more than 25 years of experience working in the humanitarian field and has led projects in more than 70 countries.
While some changes were made, “in terms of the essential essence of Caritas, nothing has changed, we are the same today as we have always been,” he said. “We’ve come together saying let’s see where we’re at now, let’s look at what we learned from what’s happened, let’s look at what’s in the statutes…and let’s coalesce around that and move forward.”
“We really want to look to the future, and that’s been the spirit among delegates,” he said, saying the assembly could have been “really difficult,” with people voicing frustration and “looking backwards, and trying to pull that apart.”
“I haven’t heard that, I really haven’t. There’s been a sense of, let’s come together. This great friendship, the relationships really shine through,” he said, adding, “I know the past is there, but we really haven’t dwelt on it, we’ve really been trying to look to the future.”
Caritas members and Vatican observers were shocked last fall when the announcement was made during a Caritas conference attended by delegates from all over the world that Pope Francis had sacked the organization’s entire leadership team, including its president, Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle; its secretary general, a Frenchman of Indian descent named Aloysius John; and the organization’s vice presidents, its treasurer, and its ecclesiastic assistant.
At the time, a lengthy Vatican statement said the decision had been made as the result of an external investigation which found no evidence of sexual or financial impropriety, but which had identified “real deficiencies” in management that had seriously affected “team spirit and staff morale.”
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An interim administrator was assigned to draft new statutes and to run Caritas until new leadership was elected during this past week’s spring general assembly.
While the episode cast doubt on Tagle’s own managerial and administrative skills, much of the blame fell on John, whose brief 2019-2022 tenure has been described as problematic, with staff complaining they had been routinely bullied and harassed.
John remained silent about his firing until this week’s general assembly, when he wrote an eight-page open letter to Caritas, calling the Vatican takeover a “brutal power grab” brought on by a “colonialist” attitude.
He argued that things were running well on his watch and said the Vatican’s decision to oust him was “made in haste, with incredible violence and very poor public communication,” and had “discredited” both the church and “one of its jewels, Caritas Internationalis.”
Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, which oversees Caritas International, attempted to explain what happened during this past week’s general assembly, saying serious problems were identified and, while offering few details, asked delegates to trust in the Vatican’s decision.
In his comments to journalists, Dutton said Czerny was right to address “the elephant in the room,” and while he did not offer details, “what he did was reassure people that the dicastery was genuinely trying to act in care of Caritas.”
“We can all have questions about how that was done,” he said, referring to the Vatican’s decision to offer no prior notice to Caritas members, but to announce the removal of its leadership publicly at a conference highlighting Caritas’s work.
“I think for a question of trust, the disposition of the person who acts is really important. I think once someone is in a position and they are convinced that they have to act, then they have to act in the way they think they have to,” Dutton said, saying the task now is one of rebuilding trust, among the organization and with the Vatican.
Asked about John’s criticisms, Dutton was sympathetic, saying, “I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel to be removed by a papal decree, and I’m sure Aloysius is still very, very hurt.”
“Aside from the rights and wrongs of where we got to in the end or the process, in terms of how that must feel, I can’t begin to imagine,” he said, and declined to comment directly on John’s remarks, saying, “we need to draw a line under that now, that’s the clear desire.”
Dutton also touched on the decision by Caritas Africa to elect John’s ecclesiastic assistant, Father Pierre Cibambo, as their new regional representative, despite the fact that he was also ousted by the pope last November.
“That shows how Caritas Africa felt, and I think it was a way of putting Pierre back into the future,” he said, saying “it was a mark being put down by Africa” and he doesn’t see it as problematic for the future.
“I’ve had a couple of long chats with Pierre while I’ve been here, and I’m confident that he wants to look to the future and get on with it, and doesn’t want to dwell on the past,” Dutton said.
He also referred to the fact that the new leadership is primarily composed of Anglo representatives from wealthier donor countries, despite a push in recent years to have stronger representation from the global south.
Asked whether this was a return to donor countries running the show while the poorer, recipient countries had no power, Dutton said, “Not on my watch.”
“If we had a strong woman from the global south who was the right fit for the job now, I’d step back, I’d be really happy,” he said.
Dutton said there was one other candidate for his position who was a woman from the global south and that many delegates had initially intended to vote for her. However, throughout the assembly he said he was approached by many who said that given the job that needed to be done, they felt that he was best qualified.
“The story about north and south doesn’t end there, it isn’t one step,” he said, saying, “I don’t think you can characterize it as rich and poor. We each have different roles to play,” and work must be done in partnership.
Asked why he put himself forward for the position to begin with, Dutton, a former Jesuit novice, said he has always been inspired by Caritas’s work, and felt a “sense of vocation” about continuing it despite the difficulties of the past, because “the work of Caritas makes such a difference in the world.”
Speaking to journalists Tuesday, Kikuchi said he was “honored” to have been elected Caritas International’s new president, and said the organization exists to ensure people are not forgotten, because “we want to bring hope, hope to live, hope for life.”
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Robertson spoke of her own election as the first-ever woman to serve as vice president for Caritas, saying the organization is “the expression of God’s love in the world,” and it reaches “some of the darkest places in the world.”
Noting that she is the first woman to hold her position, Robertson noted that, “In every country in the world, women have yet to achieve economic equality of men.”
“The face of poverty is the face of a woman, and as a confederation that seeks to serve the poorest, most marginalized, it is often women’s faces and the faces of children, therefore it is only right and just to see the face of women at all levels in our confederation,” she said.
Robertson said Caritas will strive “to amplify voice of women in villages throughout the world, in our church and throughout our confederation structure.”
“It’s hard not to feel the joy that seeps out of Caritas and the work that we do,” despite the troubles of the past few months, she said, saying, “it’s important to remember the heart, the expression of our mission that exists in the love of Caritas.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen