Wednesday 18 October 2017

Parents' distress at secret payments by St John of God

Aisling McNiffe, pictured with her son Jack, hit out at St John of God payments. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Aisling McNiffe, pictured with her son Jack, hit out at St John of God payments. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Parents of children with special needs, whose hot meals were stopped as part of a range of cost-cutting measures by the St John of God order, spoke of their distress at revelations that secret payments of over €6.2m were made to its senior staff.

A HSE audit found the religious order, providing disability and mental health services, operated a private payroll to top up the salaries of its executives.

Grants

It received €138m in HSE grants this year to provide services for 7,000 adults and children in various centres.

Chief executive John Pepper had a salary of €256,665 and was paid a compensation payment of €649,371 three years ago.

An examination of credit card spending by staff between 2010 and 2016 uncovered €472,718 in payments, most of which went on flights, hotels and parking. Gifts cost nearly €29,000.

One senior staff member spent €480 on alcohol - although this should never be paid for from public funds.

Philip Hannon, whose disabled daughter Mary (11) attends the St John of God-run St Raphael's school in Celbridge, said he was alarmed at the findings.

"I am appalled," he said. The school has suffered cuts, including the ending of hot meals for the vulnerable children, replacing them with sandwiches.

A major fundraising fete, which provides vital money for the school, saw a drop in attendance last year after the initial disclosure of the top-ups by a whistleblower.

Mr Hannon said he hoped the latest financial discoveries would not hit the event this summer as the funds are vital to the "dilapidated" school which needs a new building.

Aisling McNiffe, whose profoundly disabled son Jack is peg-fed and is also a pupil in the school, said the extent of the secret payments is very upsetting.

"The fear is that the land will be sold off,"

''There are older parents in their 70s and 80s, whose children live at the residential centre in the complex, are afraid for the future if they have to move into the community."

The parents of older children, who move into adult services at the complex once they reach 18 years old, are also having to pay for many basic entitlements themselves, she pointed out.

The extent of the top-ups, which were paid for from St John of God private funding over 30 years, raises new questions about the level of oversight of these organisations by the HSE.

It was not the HSE which discovered the private payroll, and it only came to light thanks to a conscientious internal whistleblower.

Asked what level of protection for the taxpayer and vulnerable clients was in place when paying the organisation some €500m in grants since 2012 alone, a spokesman said it relied on accounts which it received from St John of God.

Liabilities

However, the audit said the private payments to St John of God staff were as high as €107,000 a year in some cases.

The €6.24m in payments included a defined benefit scheme of €3.5m.

The audit warned of the risk of leaving the taxpayer liable for executives' future pensions.

In response, the St John of God order said it was warned by the Vatican in settling outstanding liabilities when it was restructured five years ago, accounting for €1.8m of the payments.

In a statement, the religious order said it made the payments in good faith following independent professional advice on discharging a possible future pension liability.

"We do not believe that we have deliberately misled the HSE at any point," it said.

The Irish Independent first revealed internal Department of Health documents on charity top-ups on March 6, 2012.

Irish Independent

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