A single branch of the Health Service Executive (HSE) spent almost €1.6m on chaplaincy services last year, new figures reveal.
There are 28 chaplains providing pastoral services in hospitals in the Dublin North East region, which serves patients from north of the Liffey to counties such as Louth, Meath and Cavan.
According to figures provided to Blanchardstown-based councillor Kieran Dennison, a total of €1.57m was spent on chaplaincy services in both HSE-managed and voluntary hospitals.
A chaplain is paid an average of €56,500 per annum and is appointed in line with public sector rules, the State agency said.
"Chaplains provide spiritual and pastoral assistance and support to patients, staff and other personnel in the HSE and voluntary hospitals," according to the HSE.
"Chaplains working in HSE facilities are recruited and employed under HSE recruitment processes and are contracted under the HSE terms and conditions of employment.
"Their posts are aligned to the clerical administrative Grade VI for salary purposes only."
However Cllr Dennison told the Herald that he believes it will come as a surprise to most people that the HSE hires chaplains directly.
"I was prompted to ask about chaplaincy services when I saw a proposal to staff the St Francis hospice in Blanchardstown, which included a chaplain at €59,142.
"I was surprised to find that the HSE employ chaplains directly.
"The sum involved is staggering. If this is replicated across the other four health regions, it probably puts the cost nationally at over €5m.
"When did this start? In the North East region, it would easily pay for 70 nurses at the new pay scale."
He added: "I can understand how various churches would wish to send their pastors into hospitals and institutions to provide comfort to patients and their families, but it should not be at the taxpayers' expense.
"I think patients lying on a trolley in an emergency department or confined at home waiting for a hip replacement or heart surgery would easily swap the chaplains' salary for better and faster health care."
The DNE region has been the subject of focus in terms of spending in recent days after it emerged it also spent €8.8m on security at buildings owned by the HSE last year.
The HSE stated in a reply to Cllr Dennison that the sum is "required to ensure that patients, staff, visitors, etc, as well as the valuable premises, equipment, grounds etc. are kept safe and secure.
"Security services provided to HSE include alarm systems and maintenance and security contracts where security services are required to assist in relation to a range of services including building security, access and fire safety."