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Caritas Australia CEO Kirsty Robertson elected as vice president of Caritas International

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Members of the leadership team of Caritas Internationalis, elected during the organisation’s general assembly, meet reporters at the Vatican press office May 16, 2023. From left: Patrick Debucquois, treasurer; Kirsty Robertson, vice president; and Archbishop Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo. Photo: CNS/Lola Gomez

The CEO of Caritas Australia Kirsty Robertson has been elected as the new vice president of Caritas Internationalis.

About 400 delegates at the 22nd General Assembly of Caritas Internationalis being held in Rome from May 11-16 elected Ms Robertson to serve the 162 national Caritas member organisations for a four-year term.

She joins the new leadership team which also includes the Archbishop of Tokyo Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi as the president and Alistair Dutton, executive director of SCIAF (Caritas Scotland), as secretary general of Caritas Internationalis.

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Sydney Bishop Richard Umbers, who travelled to Timor-Leste as a guest of Caritas Australia in January, welcomed Ms Robertson’s appointment as “wonderful news”.

“Kirsty will bring an Australian voice and her wide international experience in faith-based aid and development organisations, including the last few years leading Caritas Australia as its first female CEO,” he said.

“She is gifted at connecting with people and committed to supporting them in delivering their own solutions to the challenges they face.”

Ms Robertson has more than 20 years of experience in humanitarian aid and development, beginning her Caritas Australia career in the justice resources team she has lived, worked and travelled in more than 50 countries, including in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Gokyo Valley in Nepal.

As a nation, Timor-Leste experienced violence for decades. It’s a legacy that doesn’t just disappear overnight. The Caritas Uma PAS Shelter in Bacau, a city of about 20,000 people, provides a desperately-needed refuge for women and girls fleeing domestic violence. Sydney Bishop Richard Umbers was welcomed to the Shelter during a visit in January. Photo: Nicole Chehine
The Caritas Uma PAS Shelter in Bacau, a city of about 20,000 people in Timor-Leste provides a refuge for women and girls fleeing domestic violence. Caritas Australia CEO Kirsty Robertson and Sydney Bishop Richard Umbers visited in January. Photo: Nicole Chehine

She worked at the Anglican Board of Mission, Act for Peace, and spent five years as CEO of Mary MacKillop Today before returning to Caritas Australia in September 2019 to become its first female CEO.

She will continue in that role in addition to her new appointment.

Ms Robertson said the role was a “wonderful privilege”.

“It’s a wonderful privilege to be taking on this role, a privilege to be serving the members of the Caritas Confederation across the world, and a privilege to be serving the Church and all of the supporters of Caritas Internationalis,” she said in a statement.

“We are an amazing confederation, one united by our mission in service to the world’s poor. As a woman it is a particularly important day for us in the confederation.

“By every measure possible, women are disproportionately affected by poverty. As a confederation we are committed to serving women in villages, parishes, and communities, but also in leadership. My appointment today reflects that commitment.”

She congratulated Alistair Dutton for his election to the role of General Secretary of the Confederation.”

“I believe that Caritas is in safe hands with him leading the Confederation over the coming years,” she said.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development which has some oversight responsibility for the organisation, explained that drastic leadership changes in Caritas Internationalis were essential to repair workplace dynamics that “represented clear and real dangers” to the global Catholic charity network’s work and reputation.

“Quite simply, some people working in the general secretariat complained about workplace problems,” which led to a “systematic investigation” of the organisation’s structures, the cardinal told the delegates at the general assembly.

“The findings revealed patterns of workplace relationships and processes that prevented the general secretariat from operating properly; furthermore, they undermined the wellbeing of staff,” he said. Such dynamics “put the operations, name and reputation at risk, not only of Caritas Internationalis” but of every Caritas affiliate.

Caritas Internationalis is the umbrella organisation for 162 official Catholic charities operating in 200 countries and territories around the world. Its general assembly took place May 11-16 in Rome to elect the new president, secretary-general, executive board and fill other leadership positions.

“The exceptional good work of Caritas doesn’t justify or excuse serious shortcomings in how the general secretariat goes about its daily chores or how it treats the staff,” said Cardinal Czerny.

Relating the organization to a sick patient, he said that for doctors “not to act decisively and vigorously” in response to their diagnosis “would be a dereliction of responsibility.”

Pope Francis issued a decree in November 2022 suspending the secretary-general and other top leaders.

In a statement following its publication, Cardinal Czerny’s dicastery cited “real deficiencies” in management and procedures, “seriously prejudicing team-spirit and staff morale.”

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle was removed from his position as Caritas president but remained involved in the organization to assist a temporary administrator appointed to oversee the transition, a move Cardinal Czerny said was “not a denunciation,” but a “necessary call to repair and fine-tune a body that is essential for the whole church.”

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