Interview: New Vatican charity leaders look to the future after workplace crisis
Caritas Internationalis, the second-largest humanitarian organization in the world, held its general assembly in Rome last week and elected a new leadership team to coordinate its work in more than 200 countries and territories for the next four years. It did so after being under pontifical administration since Nov. 22, 2022, when Pope Francis stunned the organization by removing its top leadership.
Some 400 delegates from 162 branches elected Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi, the archbishop of Tokyo and president of the Japanese Bishops Conference, as president of Caritas Internationalis and, for the first time ever, they elected a woman—Kirsty Robertson, the CEO of Caritas Australia—as vice president.
Caritas Internationalis held its general assembly in Rome last week and elected a new leadership team to coordinate its work in more than 200 countries.
They elected Alistair Dutton, executive director of SCIAF (Caritas Scotland) who in the past worked for Jesuit Refugee Service, to the key post of Secretary General of this international federation that has its headquarters in the Vatican. They voted for Patrick Debucquois from France to be the international treasurer.
Caritas had been overseen by temporary administrators while the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development investigated complaints about the workplace environment and bullying.
“Caritas Internationalis is a Catholic organization and so besides giving humanitarian assistance we have to bring hope to people, hope for life, hope for the future,” Archbishop Kikuchi said at a Vatican press briefing on May 16.
“I am happy and humbled to be elected president,” the 64-year-old archbishop, who is a member of the Divine Word Missionary order, said. He began his work in the humanitarian field in 1995, he said, when he was sent as a missionary to Ghana for eight years and soon after began working in a Rwandese refugee camp. He recalled that when he asked the refugees what they needed they told him, “We are all forgotten.” He said he heard the same cry later from Japanese people who were suffering from the earthquake in his homeland. He said Caritas Internationalis “exists to ensure people are not forgotten.”
“We are light in some of the darkest places in the world, and the expression of God’s love there.”
Asked by America how he proposed to serve as president of Caritas, president of the Japanese Bishops Conference and secretary general of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (F.A.B.C.), all at the same time, Archbishop Kikuchi said that with all these responsibilities and the fact that he is now “bishop of the largest diocese in Japan” he will ask the nuncio for an auxiliary bishop and also ask his vicar general and others to help him “to share the responsibilities.”
“We are light in some of the darkest places in the world, and the expression of God’s love there,” Kirsty Robertson remarked of the work Caritas does. She recalled that as a young schoolgirl “I used to give my money” to Caritas Australia “as my way of changing the world,” but she never imagined that one day she would become its first female vice president. Commenting on her election, she said that “the face of poverty is the face of a woman” and remarked “therefore it is only right and just to see the face of women at all levels in our confederation.” Moreover, she said, Caritas will strive “to amplify the voice of women in villages throughout the world, in our church and throughout our confederation structure.”
She added that Caritas Internationalis launched its strategic plan during the assembly, which “speaks to the one billion people in the world who go to bed hungry every night, and the 2,000 people who die every day because of the lack of clean water.”
While the president and vice president have important roles in the organization, everyone was watching to see who would be elected secretary general, since that person is the C.E.O. and is responsible for the day-to-day management of the affairs of this global organization. There were two final candidates: a woman from the global south (whose name was not disclosed to the media) and the British Caritas worker, Alistair Dutton.
Caritas will strive “to amplify the voice of women in villages throughout the world, in our church and throughout our confederation structure.”
Mr. Dutton has been executive director of SCIAF (Scottish International Aid Fund, the name for Caritas in Scotland) since 2014. He has worked in the humanitarian field in 70 countries over the past 25 years, including from 2009 to 2014 as humanitarian director at Caritas Internationalis headquarters in Rome. He gained his first experience in Nepal in 1992, when he worked in a refugee camp there helping refugees from Bhutan. He went there as a Jesuit novice, with the Jesuit Refugee Service, after obtaining degrees in physics from Durham University, and in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University.
Asked by America why he presented himself as a candidate for the role of secretary general, Mr. Dutton, who has been deeply influenced by the Ignatian spirituality and served on the board of J.R.S. in the U.K. up to a few years ago, responded: “It’s a sense of vocation.” He explained that he was aware of the problems that Caritas had been through in recent times and revealed that he went on a retreat before coming to the plenary assembly at the Ergife Hotel in Rome. During the retreat, he said, he read the Gospel passage about how Jesus rode into Jerusalem knowing well the problems he would face, and so he viewed his own situation in the light of the Gospel.
He succeeds Mr. Aloysius John, a French citizen born in India, who had been secretary general from 2019 to November 2022 when Pope Francis suspended him and the other members of the leadership of Caritas Internationalis, including its president Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle.
Francis did so after a review ordered by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, which has some oversight responsibility for Caritas Internationalis, “into the workplace environment and its alignment with Catholic values of human dignity and respect for each person” at its Rome headquarters.
On May 14, Cardinal Michael Czerny spoke about the crisis that had rocked the organization.
Mr. John did not comment on his suspension at the time, but on the eve of the assembly he released an open letter accusing the Vatican of a “brutal power grab.”
On May 14, Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, addressed the Caritas assembly and spoke about the crisis that had rocked the organization. He explained that “some people working in the General Secretariat complained about workplace problems” and said “the problems could not be reduced to a few isolated complaints” and so an investigation had to be carried out. Its findings, he said, “revealed patterns of workplace relationships and processes that prevented the General Secretariat from operating properly; furthermore, they undermined the well-being of staff. They put the operations, name and reputation at risk, not only of Caritas Internationalis, but of all Caritas.’” In a statement from November 2022, the dicastery made clear that there was no evidence of financial or sexual impropriety.
The cardinal acknowledged that “the changes ordered by the pope were drastic for persons whom you had come to know and appreciate” but he expressed the hope that “some or even all of the members’ concerns had been addressed.” He urged the members of Caritas Internationalis to “follow the example of the ‘good and faithful servant’ who knows how to use goods intelligently and avoids any suggestions or temptations that would be contrary to caritas.” He added: “May you work together, guided by the compass of God’s word and valuing your multiple capacities and may all the paths you follow promote reconciliation, leaving behind past divisions, tensions and rifts that rob you of the joy of the Gospel.”
Speaking on May 16, Mr. Dutton said he welcomed the cardinal’s intervention to “address the elephant in the room” and added: “I think what he did was to reassure people that the dicastery was genuinely trying to act in care of Caritas.” He said, “It was a painful thing for him to do, and he said yesterday he can start breathing again. So there’s that sense of rebuilding trust now, and to look to the future.”
Commenting on what has happened, he said: “I think that while there have been some changes to the statutes, in terms of the essential essence of Caritas, nothing has changed. In terms of the mission, in terms of what Caritas is, we are the same today as we have always been. There are questions about how things were done, and we don’t know the details of the past….We’ve come together, saying, ‘Let’s see where we are now,’ ‘let’s look at what we learned from what’s happened,’ ‘let’s look at what’s in the statues.’ Let’s look at our priorities and let’s coalesce around that and move forward.”
“We really want to look to the future in that way, and that’s been the spirit among the delegates,” he said. He admitted that before he came to Rome, he thought “it could have been a really difficult assembly, with people being frustrated and looking backwards and trying to pull that apart.” On the contrary, however, he discovered that “there’s been a sense of, let’s come together…. I know the past is there, but we really haven’t dwelt on it, we’ve been trying to look to the future.”
In his conversation with America and a few other journalists, Mr. Dutton revealed that when his predecessor, Mr. Aloysius John, was removed from office, he felt he must have been “very, very hurt,” and so sent him a quick note saying, “I don’t know the details; I hope you’re O.K.,” and now following his election Mr. John sent him a message of congratulations. “It’s a moment of reconciliation,” Mr. Dutton remarked.