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New role for Caritas CEO

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Sydney Bishop Richard Umbers and Caritas Australia CEO Kirsty Robertson at the Caritas Uma PAS Shelter in Bacau, that provides a desperately-needed refuge for women and girls fleeing domestic violence, during a visit in January. Photo: Nicole Chehine
Sydney Bishop Richard Umbers and Caritas Australia CEO Kirsty Robertson at the Caritas Uma PAS Shelter in Bacau, that provides a desperately-needed refuge for women and girls fleeing domestic violence, during a visit in January. Photo: Nicole Chehine

Kirsty Robertson says her new role as vice-president of Caritas Internationalis is both a privilege and the fulfilment of an “unbelievable journey.”

Ms Robertson, 45, joined the organisation based at North Sydney in a junior position more than 20 years ago.

She has spent the intervening years dedicated to humanitarian work there and in other organisations, including as CEO of Mary MacKillop Today.

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She returned to Caritas to become its first female CEO in 2019 and has lived, worked and travelled in more than 50 countries.

On 15 May she was elected to the new global senior leadership team at the general assembly of the Caritas Internationalis confederation in Rome.

She was recommended for election by the new president, Archbishop of Tokyo Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi, alongside whom she will serve a four-year term while remaining the CEO of Caritas Australia.

They were joined by the new secretary-general Alistair Dutton, executive director of SCIAF (Caritas Scotland), and treasurer Patrick Debucquois.

The Sydney Catholic said her election was a surprise.

“The vice-president role has never been held by a woman before and never by an Australian or anyone far from the major centres of power, so it hadn’t even crossed my mind,” she said.

“In any role I’ve held at Caritas it feels like it’s my home, so I’m not daunted.

“What I do feel is a weight of responsibility for the women who form part of our confederation because this is a very big step forward in responding to calls for greater diversity at a leadership level.”

She was 15 when she first heard about the church’s international aid and development organisation.

“A woman named Cath Leary came to my school, Loreto College in Normanhurst, about the work of Caritas,” she said.

“Her presentation deeply affected me. This was in the 90s when famine was ripping through Africa and scenes of dying children were on the front pages of newspapers.

“I’d always felt a call to serve and I spent a while considering some sort of religious vocation, not knowing I guess how to respond to that deep sense that this was what I was supposed to be doing.

“And so when I heard Cath I knew I wanted to work at Caritas and that was it.

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

“She planted that seed in me that you can actually make a difference. You don’t have to be a bystander to things that are going wrong in the world.”

In her new role Ms Robertson will share responsibility for making governance decisions and represent the global Caritas network at major international events and other forums exploring solutions to global poverty and injustice.

She’ll also continue spending time in communities to strengthen connections between them and Caritas.

The new global leadership team have already had their first meeting, in part to reflect on Caritas’ mission to be an expression of Christ’s love in the world, and how to keep it at the centre of their decision-making processes.

The new vice-president said they also discussed practical considerations around staffing and governance issues.

Part of their task will be to move Caritas Internationalis forward positively from the crisis which saw Pope Francis stand down its senior leadership and place it into temporary administration last November.

Cardinal Michael Czerny of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development said Caritas Internationalis’ “workplace dynamics” prevented the general secretariat from operating properly, undermined staff welfare, and “represented clear and real dangers” to the global network’s work and reputation.

Ms Robertson said that as Caritas Australia operates independently under the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, there was little impact on its work despite the disruption at the level of the broader confederation.

“I have always felt supported by the bishops conference and individual bishops and dioceses, members of the Catholic community, parishes and schools,” she said.

“I wasn’t part of those decisions or unpacking them [about the former leadership of Caritas Internationalis].

“But what I can say is that having just been at the general assembly, and having the opportunity to meet the pope and talk to him and other members who were part of that decision-making, is that the confederation is now in a really good place.

“We’re united, we have a sense of our vision for where we’re going, and we all have a real commitment to getting back to having the centre of our focus being on the people that we serve and our core mission.

“In fact, I think the general assembly was probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life in many ways, and quite emotional to be honest.

“It’s hard to describe, but if you put 500 people in a room together whose lives are dedicated to the work of bringing joy in some of the darkest places on the planet, you have this amazing feeling of the Spirit being with you and a sense of great joy.”

Ms Robertson said she thought Australians were generally respected in the international Catholic community for contributions to effective leadership.

“I was in Rome with a couple of my staff and they were all quite involved in various sorts of large decisions being made,” she said.

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