Tuesday 25 October 2016

Latest scandal is devastating, but we can't let it destroy our faith in essential charities

Published 06/07/2016 | 02:30

A delighted Shane Ross arriving for yesterday’s Cabinet, where Enda Kenny conceded a free vote on the Fatal Foetal Abnormalities Bill. Photo: Tom Burke
A delighted Shane Ross arriving for yesterday’s Cabinet, where Enda Kenny conceded a free vote on the Fatal Foetal Abnormalities Bill. Photo: Tom Burke

It is devastating to see the already damaged Irish charity sector take another serious battering in the last week due to the allegations concerning one individual.

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Barely recovered from the wounding CRC/Rehab salary top-up controversy in 2014, the sector is rocked by a new tsunami of revelations over the Console suicide charity.

Claims centring on Paul Kelly make for stomach-churning reading. The allegations that Kelly and members of his family spent hundreds of thousands of euro -donated in good faith to support those affected by suicide - on a lavish lifestyle are sensational.

It seems incredible that Kelly, a quirky individual with a fondness for dressing up as an airline pilot, and with a criminal record for posing as a hospital doctor, could set up a national charity.

Along the way he managed to get some of Ireland's most high-profile personalities to support him. The money rolled in from the State and the public, and much-needed counselling services were set up around the country.

Despite concerns raised by different individuals over the years, he continued to operate until finally he was rumbled through an audit which revealed several credit cards were used to buy designer clothes, pay restaurant bills, purchase tickets to sports matches and to fund foreign travel.

One card was in the name of a nun who worked at one time for the organisation.

Even when the game appeared to be up, he hired a lock-up facility near his home to hide files and a computer. Following a tip-off by a concerned whistleblower a court order was secured to break into the lock-up and the files were taken away for examination.

This is not a thriller, sadly it is real life. And this was not the work of an amateur do-gooder who got in over his head as the charity he founded got bigger and bigger. This all appears to be calculated.

It is gruesome stuff and questions hang in the air over how Kelly survived for years, given the fact that concerns have been raised about his activities several times since Console was founded.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the new Charity Regulator is still very much a toothless animal. The Charities Act came into being in 2009 and so far up to 8,000 varied organisations have registered with the regulator. Another 1,500 charities are currently going through registration.

But despite the furore about Rehab and the CRC a few years ago, the Charities Act has not been implemented in full. Part 4, which gives power to investigate charities following complaints, and Part 6, which governs how charities fundraise and administer corporate governance, have not commenced.

Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has promised to expedite the process and says the bill should be in place by September. But it took the Console scandal to force this.

As someone involved in the charity sector for the last three years, this scandal really hurts me. I worked in a paid position with the Irish Hospice Foundation in Dublin as Head of Communications and Advocacy, and since January I have been volunteering in Kampala with Hospice Africa Uganda, an inspiring organisation that works with the seriously ill and dying.

I have seen at first hand the generosity of Irish people, who have donated more than €25,000 to Hospice Africa Uganda since the beginning of this year, through my Facebook page alone. I have been posting regular mini blogs and video stories about our patients.

It is understandable that I got some messages this week from supporters asking about governance and transparency. They were perfectly entitled to do so. I was very happy to explain that monies I have raised are channelled to Hospice Africa Uganda through Hospice Africa Ireland, a registered charity with full transparency and governance and run by a group of dedicated Irish volunteers.

I am not getting paid for my work here. But since March my accommodation costs have been paid for by Hospice Africa Uganda. And I am happy to declare that.

Hospice Africa Uganda has audits and is transparent. Funds are very tightly controlled. In fact, I sometimes get frustrated at the paperwork I have to go through to have some funds released. Last week the credit on the mobile phone used in the communications department ran out - and before it was topped up we had to account for the spend.

But that is comforting and the way it should be. Every Ugandan Shilling counts here.

Accountability was equally as tight when I worked in the Irish Hospice Foundation, a charity so dedicated to transparency it posts the salary of its CEO, Sharon Foley, on its website.

People who set up and run charities are driven and consumed by a passion and a sense of justice. One leading charity person who comes to mind who has done amazing work over the years is Adi Roche of Chernobyl Aid Ireland. Her energy is boundless.

As someone who works with a charity, I implore people not to lose faith.

Don't let allegations concerning an individual have an impact on the entire sector. Try to still see good in the vast majority of charities doing amazing work.

The reality is many charities are offering services that should be provided by the State.

And many are supported by dedicated volunteers keen to give back to society.

Irish Independent

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