Alisdair Dutton was elected this week as the secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican-based umbrella body for Catholic aid agencies around the world.
He is the 11th holder of the post — and perhaps the first to be a parishioner of an Anglican church.
Dutton, the chief executive of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF), is described as a parishioner on the website of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, England, which describes itself as a “a vibrant, welcoming, and inclusive church” within the Anglican Church of England.
A spokeswoman for Caritas Internationalis confirmed May 16 that the description of Dutton as a parishioner was accurate, but added that he is “a committed Catholic.”
The new secretary-general, known as Al to his colleagues, faces a daunting task. He is now the figurehead of one of the world’s largest humanitarian aid organizations.
He is responsible not only for coordinating the work of more than 160 groups in 200 countries (including the U.S. Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Ukraine). He must also maintain relations between Caritas Internationalis and the Vatican, which have fluctuated wildly over the past 12 years.
Perhaps most difficult of all, he has to restore a sense of normalcy at the organization’s headquarters in Vatican City, where the aftershocks of Pope Francis’ sudden removal of Caritas Internationalis’ leadership team last November are still being felt.
A Jesuit background
Dutton studied physics at Durham University, and philosophy, politics, and economics at the University of Oxford. He entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus and worked for the Jesuit Refugee Service.
He was seconded to Caritas Nepal, which was founded in 1990 in response to natural disasters in the Himalayan country. There, he worked with refugees who had fled ethnic and political oppression in the nearby country of Bhutan. He has described the experience as his introduction to the international relief and development sector, to which he has devoted his life.
Dutton worked for a year for the Catholic Relief Services, six years as a senior humanitarian officer for CAFOD, the aid agency of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, and three years as head of the humanitarian programs unit at Christian Aid, the relief and development agency of 41 churches in the U.K. and Ireland.
Dutton served alongside the musician and political activist Bob Geldof on an apolitical globalization and global poverty group that reported to the U.K. Conservative Party leader David Cameron in 2007. He was described in 2021 as having “helped write the Tory aid policy.”
In 2009, he became Caritas Internationalis’ humanitarian director, a post he held for five years. In 2014, he briefly served as CEO of the Sphere Project, which promotes universal minimum standards in humanitarian work, before being named chief executive of SCIAF.
While leading SCIAF, he also held non-executive roles with Caritas Europa, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and CIDSE, an international alliance of Catholic social justice organizations, making him a well-known figure in wider Church aid circles.
Although some reports refer to him as Scottish, Dutton was considered an Englishman by colleagues at SCIAF’s headquarters in Glasgow. He is said to have a quirky management style, reputedly playing a techno remix of a Greta Thunberg speech on his phone during one meeting.
‘Knowing everything that is to come’
Dutton was one of two candidates to put themselves forward as secretary-general this week. Also standing was a female candidate from the Global South whose name was not disclosed to the media.
Speaking immediately after his election, Dutton told Caritas members that he knew “how much there is to do.” Dressed in a dark suit, blue shirt, and yellow tie, and somewhat lost for words at his appointment, he noted that he had gone on a retreat before the general assembly,
“A phrase that kept coming up that I discussed with my spiritual director, when Jesus is going toward Jerusalem, you get the recurring phrase, ‘Jesus, knowing everything that was to come,” he said.
“So coming to Caritas, knowing everything that is to come, I’m delighted to be here and I’m honored.”
Dutton stood out in photos of Caritas’ new leadership team, towering over the incoming president, Archbishop Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo, and vice-president Kirsty Robertson, the CEO of Caritas Australia and the first woman to be elected to that post.
Their elections were hailed as a page-turning moment, but sizable challenges remain ahead.
Around 400 members of Caritas Internationalis had gathered May 11 at Rome’s four-star Ergife Hotel for the organization’s general assembly, which is held every four years.
They may have been thinking of that day in November when Pope Francis issued a decree imposing a temporary administrator on Caritas Internationalis. He also announced the removal from office of the organization’s president (the high-profile Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle), vice presidents, secretary-general, treasurer, ecclesiastical assistant, representative council, and executive board.
The decree spoke of Pope Francis’ desire to “encourage” the renewal of the organization, calling for a revision of its statutes and regulations, changes to its regulatory framework, and preparations for elections at the upcoming general assembly.
The Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, which oversees Caritas Internationalis, said it had been placed under temporary administration “to improve its management norms and procedures … and so better to serve its member charitable organizations around the world.”
It explained that earlier in 2022 it had commissioned a review of the “workplace environment” and “its alignment with Catholic values of human dignity and respect for each person.”
“No evidence emerged of financial mismanagement or sexual impropriety, but other important themes and areas for urgent attention emerged from the panel’s work,” the dicastery said. “Real deficiencies were noted in management and procedures, seriously prejudicing team spirit and staff morale.”
Following the intervention, a team led by the temporary administrator — the Italian management consultant Pier Francesco Pinelli — carried out the tasks requested by Pope Francis. It revised the body’s statutes, which were recently approved by the pope.
Caritas members have played down the significance of changes to the statutes, which were presented to them at the general assembly. According to some sources, the revised statutes strengthened the president and representative council’s powers over the secretary-general.
A ‘brutal power grab’
On the eve of the assembly, the ousted secretary-general Aloysius John broke his silence. In an eight-page open letter sent to members April 30, he accused the Vatican of a “brutal power grab.”
He said it was he who had proposed an external audit following anonymous complaints about the workplace environment, hoping to better support staff.
He argued that the decision to remove him was “made in haste, with incredible violence and very poor public communication,” and had “discredited the Church and one of its jewels, Caritas Internationalis.”
John, a French citizen of Indian descent, added that he had left Caritas in good financial and organizational shape, and suggested that Caritas figures in the Global North had never truly accepted a leader from the Global South.
John told the French weekly news magazine Le Pèlerin that he never discovered the precise nature of the criticisms leveled against him. He also said that if he was perceived as demanding, it was “because it is the money of the poor that is at stake.”
“I recognize the work that a person has done and I emphasize its quality when I talk to people, but I don’t go to the person in question to congratulate him or her, that’s not my culture,” he commented.
Dutton told journalists this week that he had received a message of congratulations from John after his election, describing it as “a moment of reconciliation.”
To go forward
In an address to the general assembly, Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Vatican’s human development dicastery, appealed to Caritas members to accept the dramatic papal overhaul.
“Quite simply, some people working in the General Secretariat complained about workplace problems. How many, what was said exactly and by whom … these are details that I need to keep confidential. And in fact, the details do not matter, because the complaints did not lead directly to any changes,” he said.
“Rather, they were the reason for undertaking a systematic investigation. Here I ask you to agree that 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.”
But Czerny noted that the changes ordered by Pope Francis were “drastic” and came at “a delicate moment” as Caritas members gathered for “a convention to celebrate fraternal cooperation.” He said he understood if members still felt “sad, disappointed, or bitter.”
He was acknowledging, perhaps, that the last thing Caritas workers in humanitarian hotspots like Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and Sudan needed was upheaval at their confederation’s headquarters in Rome.
“To go forward as one body with many members worldwide is, of course, inherently difficult,” the Canadian Jesuit cardinal said. “There will be moments when it functions awkwardly, and when the efforts appear costly and ineffective. Please be patient. This is the way families live and grow, even when they are together and especially when they are scattered.”
“Families are based on relationships of mutual care and love, but they are also where tension and sadness can be expressed. CI is a large family with a wealth of potential that is born of faith and differences.”
“There is room for improvement — this will always be the case among real humans in the real world — and everyone wants this Caritas family to prosper and grow, as Jesus said, into ‘the greatest of shrubs, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches’ (Mt 13:33).”
The remaining days of the general assembly were said to be calm. In addition to electing a new leadership team, the gathering also approved, by 146 votes in favor, a new strategic framework for 2024 to 2030, and unanimously backed a financial framework for 2024 to 2027.
‘Dirt under our fingernails’
Why was Dutton chosen as secretary-general? His experience was likely a strong factor. His work in the humanitarian sector has spanned a quarter-century and 70 countries.
As a charity head, he has handled challenging personnel situations — an asset given the problems that arose at the General Secretariat.
Dutton’s stint at Caritas headquarters in Vatican City from 2009 to 2014 may also have recommended him. His extensive travels would have made him a familiar face to many of the voters.
Then there is his background in the Society of Jesus, which will no doubt come in useful in his relations with Cardinal Czerny and Pope Francis.
In interviews after his election, Dutton stressed his determination to realize Francis’ vision within Caritas.
“Pope Francis’ message is a real inspiration for us, and in many ways, it encapsulates our mission and where we all believe we should be,” he told Vatican News.
“Caritas has to be on the periphery. We need to be dirty and bruised. We need to have the dirt under our fingernails and we need to be evangelized ourselves, by the poor.”
“We need to go out and search for where we are being guided by the Spirit, and to really listen to the voice of those who are on the margins, who are on the peripheries, who suffer injustice.”
Timeline of upheaval at Caritas Internationalis
1954 Caritas Internationalis receives official recognition.
2004 The organization is recognized by the Vatican as a “public juridical person” in Church law.
June 2007 Zimbabwe-born Lesley-Anne Knight becomes the first woman to be elected secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis.
May 27, 2011 Knight delivers a farewell speech to the Caritas Internationalis general assembly after the Vatican declined to give her a nihil obstat, allowing her to stand for another four-year term. The Vatican says it is seeking new leadership to highlight the “theological dimension” of Caritas, and “improve communication” between itself and the organization. Michel Roy, director of the international advocacy department at Secours Catholique (Caritas France), is appointed secretary-general.
May 2014 A code of ethics and code of conduct for staff is approved.
May 2015 Michel Roy is confirmed for another four-year term as secretary-general.
May 22, 2019 A decree issued by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin says that the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development is “the competent dicastery with respect to Caritas Internationalis.”
May 28, 2019 Aloysius John, then head of institutional development and capacity building, is elected secretary-general.
Feb. 17, 2020 The Vatican announces that Pope Francis has approved changes to Caritas Internationalis’ statutes and regulations.
Jan. 1, 2021 A document outlining management standards comes into effect.
Nov. 21, 2022 Pope Francis signs a decree imposing a temporary administrator on Caritas Internationalis and removes senior leadership from their posts.
May 11, 2023 Addressing general assembly participants, Pope Francis says: “From the beginning, Caritas Internationalis was conceived and willed as an expression of ecclesial communion, a means and manifestation of intra-ecclesial agape, mediating between the universal and the particular Churches, and supporting the involvement of the entire People of God in the work of charity. Your first task is to cooperate with the universal Church in sowing seeds, proclaiming the Gospel through good works.”
Preaching at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica the same day, Cardinal Michael Czerny says: “Every organization, even an ecclesial federation, has times of conflict and struggle. That’s when it’s hard not to keep track of wrongdoings. Listen to the gentle invitation – to encounter, to gather, to forgive, to unite, as you have been struggling to do these last 5½ months. All this rooted and grounded in love, in the caritas which is your name and mission and mystery.”
May 13, 2023 Archbishop Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo is elected as the 13th president of Caritas Internationalis.
May 15, 2023 Alisdair Dutton is elected as the new secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis.