New Caritas director’s life a primer in social justice

Features Cecily McNeill31 March 2012 The new director of Caritas is keen to boost the agency’s profile so that whenever Catholics want to support development and humanitarian work through donations,…


Cecily McNeill
31 March 2012

The new director of Caritas is keen to boost the agency’s profile so that whenever Catholics want to support development and humanitarian work through donations, they think Caritas.

Julianne Hickey took over from Mike Smith at the start of the year after a long involvement as a volunteer for the equivalent agency in the United Kingdom, Cafod, and a stellar career in business and public sector consulting in the areas of health, communities and criminal justice.

Born in Rhodesia which had cut 40-year-old ties with Britain in 1964, Julianne grew up in a family of activists – her grandmother often wrote to the newspaper against prime minister Ian Smith’s repressive regime and her mother wrote a children’s newspaper column about a fictitious character ‘Bobby the Bear’ based on Robert Mugabe who became prime minister of the newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980.

At university in Cape Town, South Africa, she was confronted by issues of poverty and injustice while in the Jesuit chaplaincy with street kids just outside the building.

On two nights a week the students would feed the street kids and spend time with them.
‘There is nothing that compares with a six-year-old who has no parents, no clothes, no food. One little boy just wanted to be held.

‘They’re addicted to glue because they’re cold and living through a Cape Town winter which is not unlike a Wellington one. What do you do to change that? How do you then change the overall structure and systems?’

Catholic Social Teaching
As editor of the university newspaper and with the student chaplaincy studying the first social encyclical Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annis a century later, Julianne became aware of the richness of Catholic Social Teaching’s comment on the growing gulf between rich and poor.

She graduated from university with a business degree in economics and organisational psychology and moved into recruiting for Price Waterhouse and then public sector consulting in Britain. In the back of her mind there was always the question, ‘How does what I am doing now contribute to the common good?’

The government in Britain undertook massive public sector reform from 1997 and she says that ‘It was really engaging to see how people were at the heart of that and it was great to work on a number of projects from alternatives to custody for young offenders to changes in the delivery and regulation of health and social care.

Keeping people out of prison and supporting them not to reoffend ‘made a difference to communities, to that person’s community and family’.

The political regime in her own country forced her to look at structural injustice when she discovered that Mugabe, whom she had raved about while an exchange student in Canada, had ordered the killing of thousands of people in Matabeleland (known as ‘Gukurahundi’), a fact she discovered only through reports from the Justice and Peace Commission.

Julianne went back to Zimbabwe on two significant occasions – in 2000 to support civil society action in the constitutional referendum which rejected Mugabe’s bid for two further terms in office, immunity from prosecution for government officials and authorising government seizure of white-owned land. This led to another phase of atrocities. In March 2002, Julianne returned again to Zimbabwe to monitor the presidential elections that were expected to deliver change.

‘We were recording the deaths, the disappearances, the human rights abuses, the way in which ballot boxes were being fixed. Having recorded all of that and knowing what people died for, we were incredibly disappointed to find the result so rigged and fixed. The pain and the hurt from that time hasn’t left me and it’s taken me a long while to find some hope and peace again.’

As director of Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand Julianne wants to see schools who are undertaking fundraising activities to think about activities which connect with our rich Catholic traditions.
‘Equally I want us to be the thinking part of Catholic Social Teaching for New Zealand – to apply church teaching to a local context and ask what it means. How do we challenge what we do particularly for people who have no voice in the system and in society – I’d like us to be an advocate for them.  I would like us to be the Catholic conscience in a sometimes very secular world.’

With a recent change in government criteria leading to a cut in funding for Caritas’ projects, Julianne says the agency must prioritise its work and build on its strengths which include a large and generous Catholic Church community.
‘We need to make sure we are helping those most in need.’

‘While we’re raising money I’d like us to be conscientising people as well but doing it in line with what the bishops want.’

Julianne is also keen to explore the role of volunteers in Caritas. ‘I’ve seen the strength that volunteers bring to an organisation, but equally what CAFOD has done for me in terms of awareness of justice and peace issues, fundraising and Catholic social teaching – it’s been a two-way process of development.’

She is keen to hear from justice and peace groups, and commissions and will attend meetings of parishes and schools around the country to discuss any ideas they have.

To contact Julianne Hickey: or (04) 496 1742.

Image: Julianne Hickey, right, with Claudette Habesch, Caritas’ guest speaker for its Lent Appeal. Claudette is secretary-general of Caritas Jerusalem and a vice-president of Caritas Internationalis. Wel-com will report on Claudette’s visit in the April issue.