Console scandal: Elaborate web of deceit of an 'untouchable' charity founder
Behind the scenes in the charity world, many had worried about Paul Kelly and his activities, writes Eilish O’Regan
When Paul Kelly, founder of the suicide bereavement charity Console, received a People of the Year award with a glowing citation in 2014, he was publicly revered.
In the charity world, he seemed untouchable.
But behind the scenes, the net was already beginning to close, as many who encountered this man with a string of identities over the years worried about the possibility that it was all a sophisticated scam.
Now, his elaborate web of deceit has unravelled. But more importantly, it has left many well-intentioned people feeling exploited and duped.
The disclosures about extravagant spending on travel, restaurants, match tickets and designer clothes were part of a clever rip-off.
Another €500,000 of charity funds were spent on salaries and cars over a period of just three years.
Kelly has often spoken of how he was motivated to set up Console after losing his sister Sharon to suicide when she was just 21 years old. She took her own life in 1997.
The young woman, who grew up in the family home in Lough Conn Road, in Dublin's Ballyfermot, had a history of mental health problems.
The Kellys were left anguished at her loss.
Paul Kelly, who was in his late 30s at the time, would later say that his personal experience of the lack of counselling tailored to people bereaved by suicide was the main spur that led him to found Console in 2002.
The charity started as a support group but grew rapidly. It came at a time when public concern about our suicide rate was escalating and the HSE was under pressure to generously fund much-needed helplines by outsourcing the task to non-statutory organisations.
Within a decade, Console had centres providing counselling in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Wexford, Tralee and Mayo.
In 2013, it even opened its first counselling centre in the UK at Westminster in London to help the emigrant Irish.
In the three years between 2012 and 2014, Console had an enviable income of €5m, generated by public donations and State funding.
Many who knew Kelly had their misgivings. They dated back to 1983, when he posed as a doctor for three weeks at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital in Baggot Street.
He was rumbled by doctors who soon realised they were duped by his fake credentials. He managed to escape jail with the Probation Act when the case came to court.
His talent for re-invention later led him to set up a counselling charity called Christian Development Services.
He was to use a fundraising ploy that he would later successfully call on again when he headed Console. This involved sending out an impressive list of eminent trustees to donors.
However, the so-called trustees were unaware their names were being used. One of these was a rising political star at the time, Bertie Ahern, who was then Minister for Labour.
He was quick to spot the fiction and put a stop to his name being used.
Another of Kelly's devices was to describe himself as Father or Brother Kelly of the Order of San Damiano. He also christened himself Rev Paul Kelly of the Servants of the Poor.
He insisted he was entitled to call himself a priest after being ordained into the Order of the Mother of God by independent bishop Michael Cox of the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church.
There were other guises too. Tommy Morris, a former parliamentary assistant to Fine Gael TD Gay Mitchell, who grew up with Kelly in Ballyfermot, met him in the street dressed in an airline pilot's uniform.
Kelly also spent several years in Australia, where a number of members of his family still live.
He married Patricia Kelly, and with their son Tim they controlled all of Console's operations, keeping a tight hold on its finances. Kelly always opened the post himself so he had access to any cheques or cash that well-meaning people sent in.
In some of the applications for funding he made to the HSE, he performed the old trick of listing esteemed people, such as the former Senator Jillian Van Turnhout. She had no connection with Console and was unaware her name was being used.
The question many are asking is: how did Kelly escape detection for so long?
It is only in recent weeks, in the wake of the 'RTÉ Investigates' programme, that the intricate plot has been blown.
The most recent board was dominated by Kelly's wife. It included three others, but they had never met and had no say in the use of funds. Kelly himself was a director from 2010 to 2014.
Console has charity status, giving it tax-free status, so directors should not be paid. But Kelly and his wife received more than €200,000.
This was all made possible by keeping these payments hidden. Several sets of different accounts were produced for the HSE and other agencies.
They also broke the rules by having people who were related on the board. This was allowed to continue by using Patricia Kelly's maiden name, Dowling, when signing the accounts.
Other company documents had members of the Kelly family with different dates of birth.
Between 2012 and 2104, some €736,000 was spent on Console credit cards. The charity had 20 credit cards in total and 11 of these were held by Kelly, his wife Patricia and son Tim, who worked in the UK office.
Kelly had two cards in his own name and two held over from a former employee, a nun - who was completely unaware they were being used.
Between them, the Kellys spent €464,777 using credit cards, from 2012 to 2014.
Paul Kelly jetted to Australia, New Zealand, Nice, London, Rome, Hong Kong, Singapore and other European capitals using the cards. He made €28,785 in cash withdrawals. Another €32,900 was spent on restaurants, with €8,377 spent in designer and other clothing shops.
When questioned about the clothing by HSE auditors, he said the charity had a "clothing allowance policy". It was dated 2010. But the electronic properties of the document he sent the HSE revealed it had been created just before it was emailed to the audit team.
Another €2,083 was splashed out on Rugby World Cup tickets. The explanation was that these were for fundraising. But no documentation was provided.
Other evidence showed credit cards were used to buy cinema tickets, pay for Netflix and buy sightseeing tickets.
At a time when Console enjoyed such significant income from State funds and public donations, it cut its helplines from six to two.
Console claimed the cost of running the two helplines in 2014 was €346,560, of which the HSE provided €294,000. But again no documentation was provided to support this.
Kelly and his wife and son paid no tax or PRSI.
He drove a €57,057 Mercedes and his wife a €67,149 Audi.
It seems inexplicable that the HSE, which had received several pieces of information raising concerns about the running of Console at least eight years ago, continued to fund it with little scrutiny.
When former Junior Minister for Health Kathleen Lynch launched the new national strategy for suicide at a ceremony in Farmleigh House in June last year, Console was represented.
It was also credited with contributing to advisory panels drawing up the strategy.
At the same time, a belated HSE audit into Console's finances was under way.
The HSE said it grant aided Console with €252,114 in 2012, increasing it to €598,557 in 2013. It gave Console €855,227 in 2014.
The increase in funding was due to the "urgent need for a suicide helpline," it said.
It is a reasonable explanation but it is not enough to forgive the failure to use all its means to put a break on Paul Kelly's activities.
The charity regulator John Farrelly, for instance, said he only became fully aware of the issue at Console when he watched the RTÉ programme.
Yesterday, the High Court was told of Paul Kelly's attempts to evade injunctions trying to stop him accessing accounts. It is now clear that he has created a mini financial empire, including previously unknown properties.
But behind all of this turmoil, quiet heroes have emerged. They are the counsellors who we now know were poorly and erratically paid.
They remain a rock for the bereaved.