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The scandalous death of Catholic Welfare and Development: Strategic mismanagement or criminal negligence?

Chris Moerdyk looks into the sudden and tragic closure of Catholic Welfare and Development (CWD), which was by far the largest NGO operating in the Western Cape and providing services for the province’s poorest. Moerdyk suggests that the reasons offered by the Archdiocese of Cape Town for the fall of CWD are scant — and months later there is still little further justification for its untimely demise. This comes at a time when the worldwide Catholic Church is in a profound crisis as more and more revelations of sexual abuse and cover-ups hit the headlines. The Church has been discredited enough — and these are but one kind of the grave sins that have been committed.

For decades, CWD was the shining light of Catholic poverty relief in South Africa.  It was by far the biggest NGO in the Western Cape, bringing aid in myriad forms to thousands of impoverished families.

The CWD succeeded in garnering millions of rands in funding from overseas and local donors.

It owned more than 20 properties in the poorest areas of the Cape from where it provided regular food, clothing, counselling and many other support services to the poor.

But, in December last year, it announced that it was shutting down.

According to a statement from the Archdiocese of Cape Town; “the financial crises that have led to the agency’s collapse can be ascribed to a combination of factors, including rapidly diminishing funding and strategic misjudgements.”

The reaction from many of the people who were previously involved with the CWD in its heydays was stunned disbelief.

In my opinion, “strategic mismanagement” is putting it mildly.  Criminal negligence would be closer to the truth and as for the lack of funding, the cause of this was a complete lack of understanding of the fundraising process.

I have evidence of a US funder being booted out of the CWD’s chief executive’s office, for having the temerity to question the CWD policy with regard to staff at one of its centres.

By late February, there had been no public reaction from either the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) or the Archdiocese of Cape Town.

It took a somewhat misguided media outburst regarding rumours of the closure of a CWD centre in Athlone to prompt the Archdiocese to issue a media statement.

Reassuring though this statement might have been regarding the closing of the Athlone Centre, there has been no word from either the Archdiocese or the SACBC with regard to any form of transparent investigation into those responsible for the closing of the CWD.

The rot started about a decade ago.

Up until then, the organisation had been a well-run, well-funded NGO with immaculate credentials. But then, the board made one calamitous appointment after the other. Either they were trying to be politically correct or simply didn’t bother to do their homework properly. The board members entrusted the running of the organisation to people who clearly lacked the experience and skills for the job and who floundered from one crisis to the other.

The organisation boasted some experienced staff, such as an extremely efficient marketing director, who moved to another Catholic charity that is flourishing today.

While other Western Cape NGO’s succeeded in raising, increasing and at worst maintaining funding in admittedly tough times, CWD went from bad to worse.

My first inkling of things beginning to go wrong was when I was invited by CWD to join two leading Catholic businessmen at regular meetings with the CEO, to develop ways of bringing big business into the funding fold.

This initiative was halted after only three meetings. I assumed at the time, that this was simply because the CEO had neither the time nor inclination to continue.

My next shock came when, as Chairman of the The Southern Cross, I was asked by the CWD CEO to dismiss a board member, who also happened to be a staff member of the CWD and The Southern Cross editorial columnist employed by the CWD. I refused point blank to do this, with the support of Archbishop Stephen Brislin, the archbishop of Cape Town.

The next CWD debacle was the way the organisation handled staff at a property they owned in Masiphumele, on the Southern Peninsula.

A wonderful place called “The Pink House”. It was staffed by people who made an enormous impact on this settlement, that was beset by crime and poverty.

My home parish of Saints Simon & Jude in Simon’s Town supported the Pink House with weekly donations of food and regular donations of clothing.

Then, about three years ago, we were approached by one of the Pink House Funders, who told us that the CWD had suddenly stopped paying the municipal account, in spite of money for these having been transferred to the CWD by Pink House staff.

What followed can only be described as systematic harassment, by CWD, of longstanding Pink House staff.  The situation escalated to such a degree that one of the Pink House funders was forced to appoint a labour lawyer to prevent what was believed to be a completely unnecessary and arbitrary reassignment.

Our parish contacted Archbishop Brislin to communicate that we believed there was something very wrong at the CWD executive level. He arranged to have the CWD CEO and deputy visit us at our parish.

I attended that meeting along with a parishioner of ours who was responsible for liaising with the Pink House. Afterwards, we wrote a report for Archbishop Brislin which included the following:

In short, given all the evidence, our parish has unanimously decided that for the moment we will not continue our support of the Pink House if management of the centre is taken back by the CWD. Nor will we be supporting any other CWD initiatives. The plans put to us by the CWD for the future running of the Pink House are, in our opinion, unworkable and indicate a lack of understanding.”

The Archbishop responded to this report, saying that he would “keep an eye on things”.

During the course of our investigation, it was also alleged that the CWD’s previously well run “Buckets of Love”, an annual campaign to give the poor a bucket of food and other essentials, had been abused: a substantial portion of the money intended for this campaign was used for other purposes.  

Likewise, another parishioner who had previously been requested to visit all of the CWD’s properties and report back on particularly the financial status of each, told me that what he found was “shocking.”

In spite of the Archdiocese of Cape Town insisting that no financial mismanagement or criminal activity caused the demise of the CWD; there seems to be overwhelming evidence that all was not as above board as the archdiocese might think.

What is criminal is that thousands of poor families in the Western Cape have been unceremoniously cut-off from what was a veritable lifeline. Calling that criminal is actually understatement.

My own opinion with regard to this disaster was contained in a letter published in the Southern Cross in early February of this year (see below)

At the very least, the Church must, as I have said before, order “a full, transparent and independent investigation into all the factors and individuals contributing to this disaster.”

The failure to offer a full disclosure into what happened suggests that the Church has colluded and covered-up potentially nefarious activities at CWD.

Letter published in the South African Catholic Weekly – The Southern Cross (6-12 February 2019)

I would hope in all sincerity that the deafening silence on the causes of the demise of the CWD does not mean that this catastrophe is being swept under the carpet.  The announcement on the front page of the Southern Cross some months ago gave very little detail except for a comment from the Archdiocese of Cape Town that “the financial crises that have led to the agency’s collapse can be ascribed to a combination of factors, including rapidly diminishing funding and strategic misjudgements.

Frankly, calling these “strategic misjudgements” is misleading in the extreme. Considering the fact that this once largest and most successful NGO in the Western Cape was allowed to collapse completely, could hardly be swept under the carpet as a “strategic misjudgement” but rather the result of negligence on a massive scale. Given the thousands of poor and underprivileged who depended on the CWD for their very existence, those responsible for this debacle should not allowed to quietly disappear in anonymity. If only because of the danger that they might wreak havoc somewhere else.  

No matter how little influence Archbishop Brislin might have had on the CWD due to its constitution, the fact is this was very much a Catholic institution and as such the buck has to be placed at the door of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Hopefully, the SACBC will not sit back and wish this tragedy away. I fear that without a full, transparent and independent investigation into all the factors and individuals contributing to this disaster, the SACBC might well find themselves in the same situation as the ANC under the Zuma administration, swamped with accusations of cover-ups and whitewashing.

It is also an extremely lame excuse to suggest that the downfall of the CWD was in part due to a lack of funding. Other charitable institutions have continued to succeed in raising funds in spite of tough times. The paucity of funding at the CWD was quite plainly the result of lack of effort, lack of skills and a complete lack of commitment.

It is clear now that the people on the executive of the CWD these past few years lacked the management skills and aptitude to do the job. So those who appointed them should be held to account.

The Catholic Church worldwide, has been widely accused of cover-ups and obfuscation and one hopes that here in South Africa those who administer the affairs of our church will not succumb to the same temptation.

The millions of poor people who have one been deprived of help along with the many good people who worked so hard to build the CWD into something so formidable, deserve answers to how and why the CWD carpet was swept so unceremoniously from under their feet. Unless this happens, donors will start avoiding Catholic Charities like the plague.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.