Michel Roy served as secretary general of Caritas Internationalis (CI), the Vatican-based umbrella group of Catholic aid agencies, from 2011 to 2019.
Roy is now retired but continues to be active on a number of fronts, including acting as secretary general of Justice et Paix France.
Given his background, Roy was watching closely when Pope Francis intervened dramatically in CI in November 2022, relieving the organization’s leadership of office and appointing an Italian management consultant to serve as a temporary administrator.
It was Tagle who was called upon to read out the papal decree to stunned CI members at a meeting in Rome. At the time, Vatican News quoted Tagle as saying that the papal intervention was “a call to walk humbly with God and to a process of discernment.”
Much of the media coverage suggested that the move was directed principally at CI’s then-secretary general Aloysius John, after staff complaints about his management style, which he robustly defended. But Roy was disturbed in the months that followed by commentaries suggesting that Tagle had been ousted because of ill-defined shortcomings.
In an email interview with The Pillar, Roy challenged that interpretation of the events of November 2022, offering a critique of the sweeping changes to CI.
To grasp his criticisms, it’s important to know that CI is a confederation of more than 160 members working around the world. Members meet every four years for a general assembly, which elects a new CI president (or re-elects the current president for another four-year term), as well as a secretary general, a treasurer, and members of a representative council.
CI has an executive board with seven members: The president, the vice president (who is chosen by the president), a person selected by the representative council, and three people appointed by the Holy See.
The confederation is overseen by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, led since 2022 by Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In a Nov. 22, 2022, decree, Pope Francis removed the leadership of Caritas Internationalis. Among those relieved of office was the organization’s president Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle.
In a press release issued that day, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development said that the pope took the step due to ‘real deficiencies … in management and procedures.’
Some observers put the decree and the press release together and concluded that Cardinal Tagle was being removed due to bad management. Do you think that was the correct interpretation?
Knowing Cardinal Tagle for a long time, and particularly since 2015 when he was elected president of CI, I can clearly say those were not the real reasons for removing him and the whole leadership of CI.
The real reasons are unknown as the investigation report initiated by the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development was kept secret.
But what was obvious when the decree was published was that the dicastery took the occasion of a series of complaints about the secretary general’s management style to take over the confederation.
How can you suspend the whole leadership — president, board, representative council, secretary general, and ecclesiastical assistant — to punish the bad management of one person? And with what right?
The dicastery has an accompanying role regarding CI, the same as it has with other organizations that have a canonical status, such as the ICMC [International Catholic Migration Commission]. The right to suspend has been given by Pope Francis at the request of the dicastery. And because it is the pope that takes that decision, it cannot be contested, as Cardinal Czerny wrote to me.
At a time when clericalism is pinpointed as an evil, and when synodality is promoted as the best way forward for the Church, this decision is totally incomprehensible.
I should add here that the investigation carried out by the dicastery at the request of CI was entrusted to the person who would then become the commissioner with full power.
I see here a major issue of deontology: You direct an investigation — clearly, an unequal one whose result was already written before — and then you take the lead of the organization of which you have had the leadership ousted.
All this being said, the issue that brought this revolution — the supposedly bad management style of the secretary general — was of course discussed with the board, as staff had complained of it.
The board and its president, Cardinal Tagle, had the opportunity to discuss this and take action. This was not what was expected by the complainants, who took the complaint higher, to the dicastery.
How can such action by the board be qualified as showing “real deficiencies in management and procedures,” and lead to a revision of the statutes and rules that have actually given the dicastery all the power it wanted?
In particular, it must be stressed that the statutes were written by the all-powerful commissioner, who consulted but retained what he wanted only: That the secretary general of CI can be suspended and removed by the dicastery; and that the new statutes and rules were signed and promulgated by Pope Francis 10 days before the general assembly, thus ignoring the status of CI as a confederation whose members have the power to decide on statutes and to lead the work.
Where are the “real deficiencies in management and procedures”? For my part, I see them in the process led by the dicastery…
I must add that Cardinal Tagle not only did not complain about the decision taken but also accepted it “out of humility” and as “a call to conversion.” He agreed to read the decree to the whole assembly on that day, and to support the commissioner, as the decree stated.
His silence should not be taken as a sign of weakness — on the contrary. It may be difficult to understand for Western minds, but harmony and respect are prime values in his East Asian culture. He may take strong and difficult decisions, but they will never be presented as opposing or challenging people.
Cardinal Tagle’s second four-year term as CI president would have ended in May this year.
Would it have been more fair, in your view, for the Vatican intervention to have intervened after he had completed his term?
Yes. Where was the need to correct the situation six months before the general assembly, which takes place every four years? Was it that bad? Cardinal Tagle was ending his second and last term. The secretary general could have been targeted, but not the president.
That makes me think that Cardinal Tagle was also a target. But why? No one has the answer, except those who decided to remove him.
Why do you think the intervention was made so suddenly?
The secretary general was ending his term at the same time as the president at that general assembly. The fact that he presented his candidacy to go on for a second term in early November may have hastened the decision of the dicastery.
But as stated above, that was also an opportunity to slap Cardinal Tagle.
After the Vatican intervention, the statutes of CI were revised under the guidance of a temporary administrator. The pope then approved the revisions before the organization’s general assembly in May.
Did the intervention and the rewriting of the statutes alter the identity of CI, in your view?
Yes, it made CI a complete entity of the Holy See. Up to then, CI was first a confederation of national Church organizations, 162 of them, grouped in seven regions and at the international level.
In 2004, Pope St. John Paul II gave CI a canonical identity. That made it a public juridical person.
In my view, and as I experienced it during the eight years of my mandates, the balance between the civil and the canonical identities was dynamic and respected. The dicastery had a voice on the board and the representative council, and any important texts of doctrinal content had to be approved before being published.
The complementarity between this representation of national Church organizations and the Holy See was rich and fruitful. The relationship was not only with the dicastery of reference, but also with the Secretariat of State, particularly the Second Section, with the dicastery for Christian unity, the dicastery for interreligious dialogue, the dicastery for the family, youth and life, etc, and of course with the pope himself.
Now, with statutes given and not approved by the members, with the role that the dicastery has given itself over CI, I can imagine those flourishing relationships will be more difficult. One will have to go through the dicastery.
It is as if CI has become an office of the dicastery. And this is grave for the confederation members and for the Church as a whole, especially when the synodal dynamics lead to exactly the opposite of what has been done.
It’s no secret that there have been tensions between CI members in the Global North and the Global South over the organization’s direction.
What impact has the Vatican intervention had on relations between northern and southern members?
CI has over 70 years of existence. In those years, the number of members has increased from 13 at the beginning — all from the colonial North at the time — to 162 today.
For a long time, CI helped to coordinate and stimulate the support given by the “donor” Caritas members toward the needy ones in the South. But over the years, most of those southern members grew and became solid. Management standards were elaborated and members have to comply with them. Decisions taken by the representative council — the majority of whose members are from the South — may not reflect the expectations of the donor Caritas members.
Many donor members from the Global North ask for and receive money from their respective governments or the European Union. This financing is subject to strict rules for implementation — which encourages donor members to oversee projects directly, not through local partners — challenging the spirit of partnership in the confederation. Some “donor” Caritas members have opened offices in the South, not always with a good spirit of cooperation with the local Caritas and often competing with them.
Over the years, the spirit of partnership, known as fraternal cooperation, has evolved toward more mutual respect and recognition of the primacy of local organizations.
The papal decree was published on the days when a global meeting was held in Rome on the principles and methods of fraternal cooperation, putting an immediate end to it.
What followed was a “gap” that led to the general assembly in May this year which renewed the leadership of CI, as happens at all general assemblies. The new president, Archbishop Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo, comes from a donor Caritas. The new secretary general, Alistair Dutton, comes from a donor Caritas (Scotland). The vice president, who was chosen by the president in line with the new statutes, is Kirsty Robertson, from a donor Caritas (Australia). The treasurer, Patrick De Bucquois, is from a donor Caritas (Belgium).
I see that the leadership roles are back in the hands of the Global North, and that the South has vanished. Moreover, the Global North sees CI more as an international NGO than as a Church entity.
I am not sure that was the plan of the dicastery. Time and life will say whether that can work, with a strong donor leadership in front of a dicastery that should be attentive to making sure that the peripheries are at the heart of it all.
CI was heavily criticized for its handling of the case of clerical abuser Fr. Luk Delft.
Was Cardinal Tagle responsible for the errors made in this case?
The error, as we would see it today, would have been to not make public the past of Luk Delft when we got to know about it. It was dealt with by myself as secretary general and Cardinal Tagle as president in a discreet way with those in charge of Luk Delft — that is, the president and board of Caritas Central Africa.
CI has no power over its members, no power to dismiss anyone, but for sure the capacity to press those responsible to act, which we did. It took some time, and when the issue came out, it created an outburst of misunderstanding and opposition.
The case has been recently judged by a Belgian court, which has condemned Luk Delft for abuse in Belgium in earlier years but not for abuse in Central Africa.
Do you believe that Cardinal Tagle did enough to address complaints about the management style of your successor as secretary general?
As I wrote above, I think he did, as chair of the board which discussed those issues.
Overall, how would you assess Cardinal Tagle’s tenure as CI president? Was he an effective leader? Was he a responsible steward of money? Did he help to raise the organization’s profile?
He was an effective leader in his role as president, with no executive function: Directing the confederation through speeches and messages, piloting the work of the board and representative council, listening and encouraging, visiting the members and the people and communities they serve, and accompanying in their human growth, and advocating at the UN or elsewhere.
As secretary general, I would not have expected him to engage in implementing actions as that was not in his role.
On money: The person in charge is the treasurer, not the president.
Cardinal Tagle would oversee the adoption of the budget and approval of accounts in the governance meetings, but not engage in management. He did bring a few times money he had collected from meetings at which he participated, showing his support to action.
As for raising the organization’s profile, it’s difficult to say, as CI depends a lot on its members and their capacity to act together. But in line with the presidency of Cardinal Maradiaga, his predecessor, he did bring CI to its best levels.