Shortly after Chris Bain was appointed Cafod director in 2003, the charity experienced one of what he calls its “wobbles”. The aid agency came under fire for its policy on condoms and HIV. It favoured the “ABC” strategy, which recognised that condoms can prevent HIV transmission. Cafod insisted that it neither funded nor distributed condoms, but some Catholics – including priests – called for a boycott. The fiery journal Christian Order accused the charity of “condomania”.
Bain was barely a year into what he calls “the best job in the world”. He knew that if he bungled the response, Cafod could alienate the community it depended on.
“Our strategy was to get the support of the bishops’ conference for it,” he tells me when we meet at Cafod’s eco-friendly offices near Waterloo. “We created a policy paper which had the support of the conference, particularly Cardinal Cormac [Murphy-O’Connor] and Archbishop Patrick Kelly. We took it to Rome.
“I can probably say now – I couldn’t at the time – that we took it to [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger when he was at the CDF. He said it was consistent with Church teaching. It had that balance of Church teaching and the pastoral.”
Bain returned to England knowing that he had the backing of the Vatican’s doctrinal tsar (who a year later became pope). The protests fizzled out.
This year the aid industry has suffered not so much a wobble as a seismic jolt following revelations that Oxfam workers sexually exploited aid recipients. More than 1,000 people cancelled their direct debits to the charity in a single weekend. Allegations of sexual abuse and harassment also emerged at other charities. Cafod, however, largely evaded the crisis (it suspended one staff member who had previously worked for Oxfam). Bain thinks this is due to Cafod’s distinctive philosophy: it distributes aid via local “partners”, rather than parachuting in Westerners. He felt this was the right approach when he arrived at the charity. The events of the past 15 years have only strengthened his conviction.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection