Former Console chief Paul Kelly described as a ‘Walter Mitty’
Founder of suicide prevention charity posed as doctor and claimed to have been ordained
Former Console chief Paul Kelly who is no longer involved with the suicide prevention charity. Photographs: The Irish Times/Getty Images
“Walter Mitty-esque” is the most common description used to describe the astonishing revelations about Console founder Paul Kelly over the past week.
Like the fictional character, Kelly comes across as having a vivid fantasy life. Numerous anecdotes have him walking down Grafton Street dressed as an airline pilot, soliciting funds as a priest and making a real-life court appearance for impersonating a doctor.
It was almost comic.
“Cracked as a cricket,” says one woman who knew Kelly during his St John of God period. “He was funny all the time. He’d be telling all about dressing up as a nun, smoking on the bus, or going into the chemist’s trying to buy condoms. Delighted, telling you what he’d done, all for the shock value I suppose.”
However, some of those who knew him describe an altogether darker figure, one who repeatedly exaggerated and fabricated the involvement of others in Console, who was money-hungry and always prepared to shove others aside in the cause of his own advancement.
Then there were the shocking revelations about lavish spending in Console by Kelly and family members, even as counsellors went unpaid and the suicide helpline was downsized. Console wouldn’t be the first charity to find itself run by a family clique raiding the coffers for their personal use, but the breadth and scale of the spending, on everything from dental work to rugby tickets, was staggering.
The fact this was happening in a charity dealing with suicide made it all the more poignant. Here was an organisation helping people on the edge, manned largely by volunteer counsellors and reliant on public generosity, and yet much of the money raised appears to have been used for purposes far removed from the original charitable purpose.
Before last week, the public knew another Paul Kelly: leader of the best-known suicide prevention charity in the country, an eloquent advocate on the issue, someone feted for his vision and achievement and oft pictured alongside the great and the good.
In time, Kelly may wish to give his side of the story but, for now, his fall from grace is complete and the future of Console, despite efforts to “right the ship” in recent days, is far from certain.
After parting company with the order, he spent time in Scotland and then worked for a time as a porter in St James’s Hospital. In June 1983, he ended up in Dublin District Court after he was caught pretending to be a doctor. He admitted to the offence and was given the benefit of the Probation Act.
According to a newspaper report of the case, Kelly responded to a newspaper advertisement for the post. He told the interviewing doctor he was educated at Trinity College, and was told to turn up for work the following Monday.
When approached for his qualifications he used the registration number of another doctor with the same name. The ruse lasted three weeks before he was caught out.
Kelly had a succession of jobs in recession-hit Dublin in the 1980s, including security work and in Dublin Airport. In 1989 he founded a charity, Christian Development Services (CDS), which became embroiled in a controversy very similar to the one currently engulfing Console.
CDS provided low-cost counselling for those unable to afford private treatment, but it closed after a financial scandal prompted staff to oust Kelly. The charity had failed to pay tax or PRSI and owed the Revenue Commissioners £100,000 when it went out of business. The company was dissolved in 1993.
One of the counsellors recalled in a 1990 RTÉ programme how Kelly was “great with words” and “came across as very concerned”.
“He used me as a counsellor to get money in. It was more important how much money was coming rather than who was coming for help,” he claimed.
CDS falsely listed Bertie Ahern as a trustee, forcing the then minister for labour into a public denial of involvement in 1990. The lists also referred to Kelly as Fr Paul Kelly, Order of San Damiano, Brother Paul Kelly and Rev Paul Kelly, Servants of the Poor.
Kelly also claimed to have been “ordained” in December 1988 into the Order of the Mother of God, set up by self-styled bishop Michael Cox.
After Kelly’s exit from CDS, he spent time in Australia where, it is believed, he was involved in setting up another charity. He then returned to Ireland, where he worked as a recruitment consultant in Dublin Airport for a time.
In 2001, his 21-year-old sister Sharon died by suicide. “Console was born out of my own grief and loss,” he said in a 2014 interview. “With death by suicide, there is an element of choice, and that contributes to very protracted grief for families and for friends. After Sharon died, my mother and father gave up on life, they were crushed.”
Kelly founded Console a year later and the organisation grew rapidly in tandem with heightened concern nationally about the problem of suicide. Eloquent and persuasive, he became the best-known spokesman on the issue. Politicians and celebrities alike responded to calls for help and support.
Former president Mary McAleese became a patron of the charity, a role now occupied by her successor, Michael D Higgins. Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the opening of Console’s centre in Co Mayo and delivered a Christmas message on its behalf.
But with more than 100 groups active in suicide prevention, relationships with other charities were often tense.
In 2009, Console teamed up with another suicide charity, 3Ts, run by developer Noel Smyth, to establish the 1Life 24-hour helpline. Smyth provided the premises and infrastructure, at a cost of over €500,000, while Console supplied the staff. However, the collaboration quickly turned sour when Console set up its own helpline, funded by the HSE, effectively in competition with the original service. The short-lived service was forced to close following the withdrawal of Console’s staff.
Cullen says Console threatened legal action over its provision of a US-developed training programme in suicide prevention. The larger charity claimed to have exclusive rights on the programme, even though Talk to Tom was the first to offer this training in Ireland and the person who developed the programme denied any such exclusivity deal existed.
Still, Console prospered and expanded. A network of counselling centres was established around the country and although staff were sometimes paid late, this wasn’t considered too unusual for the charity sector.
Kelly, too, prospered. The awards rolled in – a Princess Grace humanitarian award, presented to him in Monaco in 2008, a People of the Year award in 2014, and an award from the British Labour Party, presented in the House of Commons last year.
He was a keynote speaker at a conference in Auckland, New Zealand, in September 2012, one of many foreign trips listed in a subsequent HSE audit.
The organisation expanded into the UK after, Kelly claimed, he was approached by the National Health Service and also by the London Metropolitan Police, who were said to be concerned about the number of suicides on Tube lines.
In the UK, Console’s directors are Kelly, his wife Patricia and son Tim, and counselling is provided in London from rooms donated by the family of former Welsh football manager Gary Speed. The likes of Michael Owen, Alan Shearer and Gordon Strachan helped finance the rooms by taking part in charity golf days and they were launched by Baroness Heyhoe Flint.
Amid all this success, the storm clouds were gathering. People who knew Kelly from his early days recognised him on television when receiving the People of the Year award, and were incredulous. An application for funding from the National Office for Suicide Prevention aroused the suspicion of officials and an internal audit was ordered by the HSE.
This was hardly before time. As far back as 2006 the office had been warned, by a departing staff member, of governance problems at the charity. In 2009, officials expressed concern over Console’s accounting standards and governance; far from cutting funding, the HSE increased it.
Kelly appears to have inspired contrasting reactions in different people. A journalist who interviewed him recalled being on the verge of tears, so inspired was she by his declarations about tackling suicide.
This writer found him courteous and helpful, as well as articulate on the issue of suicide.
One public relations professional who provided free services for Console recalls Kelly as “arrogant and aggressive”.
The HSE audit was substantially complete by the end of last year and set off alarm bells in health circles. But nothing happened for over six months, as the report shuttled over to Kelly and back for his response and further input from the HSE.
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Then came leaks of the HSE audit, with its revelations of massive spending by Kelly and family members on groceries, designer clothes, foreign travel and other items not immediately associated with charitable endeavour. Unpredictable as ever, Kelly resigned, according to a statement from Console’s solicitors, and then, within days, claimed to staff he was still running the organisation.
The scandal will have serious consequences for the wider sector, but for Paul Kelly, it surely spells the end of his colourful career in the charity business.