BY MARK GREAVES
THE BISHOPS of England and Wales met this week to decide the fate of Caritas after it emerged that the social justice agency had racked up a £170,000 debt.
The crisis dominated discussions on Tuesday afternoon at the bishops' Low Week meeting in Leeds. But as the Herald went to press it was unclear whether the bishops had decided to axe the agency or to mount a rescue attempt.
Nor was it clear how Caritas had drifted so far into the red just three years after it was launched as an umbrella body for the Catholic voluntary sector.
The disclosure of the debt comes just months after the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales issued a "sales document" seeking more than £10 million in donations from wealthy Catholics.
A leading Catholic commentator said the Caritas crisis was "symptomatic" of the wastefulness of the bureaucracy at Eecleston Square, the headquarters of the bishops' conference.
Robert Whelan, deputy director of public policy think-tank Civitas, said that Caritas was not a worthy destination for money from parish coffers. "Caritas is symptomatic of Catholic Church bureaucracy," he said. "It struck me as empirebuilding from the start. They seem to want more agencies without realising that they already have agencies fit for the purpose.
"There is a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction in the parishes with these quangos. The money should stay in the parishes and not be spent on trips to conferences and consultants."
But spokesmen for two Catholic voluntary agencies argued that the campaigning work of Caritas was vital to. front-line Church social services.
Paul Marriott, the chief executive of the Depaul Trust, one of Caritas's member organisations, said: "While the Depaul Trust helps to combat the symptoms of family breakdown and social injustice, Caritas works against the causes, and ensures that the voices of the people we work with are heard by policy-makers and law-makers."
Joe Mannion, the head of training at Marriage Care, another member group, argued that Caritas enabled grass-roots Catholic charities to work together more easily.
He said: "Caritas represents the whole social and pastoral aspect of the Church, and helps everyone involved in the area of social work to unite behind one name."
Sarah Lindsell. director of Caritas, was unavailable for comment. But in an interview with The Tablet last week she said that the agency hoped to clear the deficit by the end of the year.
Asked if she believed that the future of Caritas was at stake, she replied: do personally, yes. Our board has had a number of discussions about it."
Caritas has been at the centre of controversy since it was established in March 2003, bringing together a range of Catholic organisations and individuals to promote welfare and justice under one strategic body.
In July 2004 the agency was heavily criticised for appearing to suggest that the bishops supported its campaign to outlaw the smacking of children. Billing itself as "the official voice of the Catholic Church on social justice and care", Caritas issued a press release urging members of the House of Lords to vote for a clause in the Children Bill that would give children the same protection as adults from being hit.
But the stance did not have the full backing of all the
bishops of England and Wales. Bishop John Jukes. a retired Southwark auxiliary, told the Herald at the time that Caritas did not speak on the bishops' behalf.
"An agency of the bishops' conference can offer its opinion, but that should not be seen as a statement of the bishops' conference," he said. "The press, and sometimes the agencies, don't always understand this."
In the same year Caritas was accused of "diluting" the bishops' "Day for Life" celebrations — a charge that it strenuously denied. The brochure accompanying the event focused on migration, foster-parenting and the "Listening 2004" project aimed at families, while neglecting "life issues such as abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research.
At their plenary meeting at Hinsley Hall in Leeds the bishops of England and Wales were expected to decide whether they should call for Britain's nuclear deterrent to be scrapped.
The bishops were also planning to review the Nolan guidelines on child protection and to discuss whether a replacement should be found for Plater College, the flagship adult education centre which closed suddenly last year.