By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Political Reporter
The gardai and revenue commissioners need to become directly involved in resolving the ongoing scandal at suicide prevention charity Console, Health Minister Simon Harris has warned.
The senior cabinet member outlined the situation as he insisted his and Government's "absolute priority" remains ensuring services continue for vulnerable people affected by suicide in Ireland.
Speaking at the launch of a €57m cross-border congenital heart service at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, Dublin, yesterday, Mr Harris said he remains appalled at the "disturbing" events surrounding a small number of the charity's key officials.
Hitting out at the "serious breach of trust" which has taken place between the organisation and the public - and will be examined by the Dáil's public accounts committee next week - he said there are "potentially significant matters" that gardai and revenue must now fully investigate.
"I'm very conscious there is an ongoing garda investigation, and I'm very conscious elements of that audit report will be in my view a matter for the gardai.
"I think there are potentially significant matters for the revenue commissioners, there are obviously also matters for the HSE.
"As Health Minister my absolute priority is the continuation of services for people who find themselves in a very vulnerable time in terms of bereavement counselling and access to a helpline.
"Unfortunately the Irish people have been let down at the highest possible level within that organisation," he said.
Mr Harris told reporters that while Irish people have "a great tradition of supporting charities" this public support is based "on the belief and the understanding there is the highest level of governance in those managing them".
The Health Minister said "you couldn't read the audit report [on Console] without being deeply concerned at the very blase way the organisation was run".
Mr Harris stressed "Irish people can be assured" this approach is being stamped out by the new Charities Regulator, which will be given additional powers to strip groups of their charity status in September.
However, when asked moments later if the separate St John of God's top-ups financial crisis could be repeated again and is proof problems still remain three years after the Central Remedial Clinic and Rehab controversies, he admitted he cannot definitively say all issues in the charity sector have been resolved.
"I cannot categorically say it is an isolated incident, and that is why we need a Charities Regulator who can regulate.
"I'm very disappointed with what I'm reading about St John of God's, where it seems there were efforts to conceal what was happening.
"You can put all the structures you want in place, but when somebody signs on the dotted line and says I am in compliance with those rules, there does have to be an element of presuming they are intending to fulfill what they are signing up to," he said.
Meanwhile, former junior minister with responsibility for mental health Kathleen Lynch has revealed she and other officials "got an inkling" of irregularities at the charity in "April or May last year".
The ex-Labour TD, who lost her seat in the February 26 general election, said she learned a HSE audit was taking place more than a year ago, and continually made inquiries about what it found until last autumn when "I was aware there were irregularities".
Ms Lynch repeatedly told RTE Radio's Drivetime programme the issue is about the Console organisation "not the service" and that vulnerable people need to know they can still depend on its support.
"It [the financial scandal] was in the back line, not the service," she said.