Lybicheva Nina, 72, along with her grandchildren receives food items during a distribution to about 3,000 people by the local branch of Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic charity organization, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Sept. 27, 2022. / Credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Rome Newsroom, May 10, 2023 / 16:20 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis on Thursday will meet with delegates of the Vatican’s main charitable organization six months after he dismissed its top leaders in what the group’s ousted general secretary now calls a “brutal power grab.”

Members of the General Assembly of Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of more than 160 Catholic charities operating in 200 countries and territories, have come to Vatican City this week to elect a new president and general secretary.

Adding to the drama surrounding the body’s deliberations are newly aired criticisms by two of its former leaders of the pope’s November decree removing the organization’s administration. A press release issued at the time said there was no finding of any misapprorpriation of funds or sexual abuse but cited deficiencies in Caritas’ “management and procedures, seriously prejudicing team spirit and staff morale.”

A provisional administration, led by a former Bain Capital management expert, has run the global organization ever since.

Pope Francis’ decree stated that Caritas would undergo a review “to improve its management rules and procedures — even if financial matters were managed well and fundraising objectives regularly achieved — and thereby better serve its member charities around the world.”

Yet in a pair of open letters sent to the delegates, obtained by CNA’s Italian-language news partner ACI Stampa along with other media outlets, Caritas’ two prior general secretaries — Aloysius John and his predecessor, Michel Roy — level sharp criticism at the pope’s actions.

John, describing the move as a “brutal power grab,” says in his eight-page letter he considers it an “incomprehensible act” in the face of the synodal process underway in the worldwide Church.

In his view, the leadership changes stemmed from “a deliberate will on the part of some superiors of dicasteries who think and act in a logic of control of the institution, the people, the resources.” He also blamed a “colonialist” attitude on the part of some members of the confederation, saying they saw him as an outsider because he is of Indian origin.

In his letter, John recalls that the external inspection had begun in the summer of 2022, following a letter that he had sent to Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, on June 23. The inspection was requested because “some employees, unhappy with the changes, had written anonymous letters and a signed letter to the vice president of Caritas International.”

The inspection had the task of “helping to understand the situation,” John writes in the letter. Yet, the final report of the inspection was classified as “confidential,” he notes. At the same time, when Caritas’ management was removed, it was underlined that there had been “neither misappropriation of funds nor sexual abuse but a flaw in management.”

These were “surprisingly vague” words that are “unfounded” and “the result of an investigation that was solely incriminating,” John maintains.

The provisional government, John asserts, humiliates “the members of the Confederation, who place their trust in this institution and its future.”

John underlines that “the announcement of this suspension, made in haste, with incredible violence and little public communication, has discredited the Church and one of its jewels.”

In his letter, Roy warns that “the confederation is in danger of becoming a mere platform subject to decisions from above and not from its members.”

He writes that “there is no doubt” that “those in charge” of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development are responsible for trying to centralize control over Caritas. He adds: “The fact that the decision taken cannot be questioned because it is subject to a decree of the Holy Father cannot hide where it comes from.” 

Electing new leaders

The General Secretariat of Caritas Internationalis is based in Vatican City. From there, the organization’s leadership “coordinates emergency response, policy and advocacy, communications, international representation, and capacity building,” according to Caritas’ website.

National Caritas organizations are linked to their bishops’ conferences. Every four years, representatives from these organizations gather for a general assembly in Vatican City to elect a president, vice presidents, secretary general, and treasurer. The last assembly was in 2019.

Possible successors to Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who was removed as Caritas president in November, include Cardinal Soane Patita Patita Paini Mafi, archbishop of Tonga; Archbishop Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo; the Maronite archbishop of Tripoli (Lebanon) Joseph Soueif, who was a candidate for the presidency of Caritas in 2015; and Monsignor Gabriel Hatti, president of the Middle East and North Africa office.

Candidates for general secretary include Cristina Calvo, consultant to Caritas America Latina, and Alistair Dutton, executive director of Caritas Scotland and former humanitarian director of Caritas Internationalis.

CNA contacted Caritas Internationalis for comment about its former leaders’ criticisms Wednesday but did not receive a response before publication.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Caritas said it has spent the past six months on a “journey of renewal and communion” in response to Pope Francis’ call for reform.

“We are preparing for [the general assembly] to be a time of joyful encounter, of sincere dialogue and mutual listening, aimed at building together the future path of fraternal cooperation, at the service of the poor and the most vulnerable,” the statement said.