The Charities Regulator is investigating a number of charities and has secured its first prosecution against a man in Sligo who was pretending to operate a charity and taking money from people.
The regulator's chief, John Farrelly, speaking on the fringes of a charities conference in Dublin, said that last year more than 700 organisations came off the charities register because their details were not up to date, they were decades-old and were dormant, and they had not disclosed basic information.
A further 899 charities went on to the register but there were still charitable organisations that had not yet registered with the regulator, he told reporters at the conference organised by The Wheel, the national body which represents 1,300 Irish charities.
The regulator was set up in 2014 but was granted powers to carry out investigations only in September. Mr Farrelly said that charity trustees had this year disclosed to him alleged theft and fraud.
“If people break the law and we identify significant risk, we will use the law to stop that,” he said.
The regulator said he was also planning to introduce a system within the next couple of years where people could track who was running the charity and how they were spending donations.
“Good vibrant charities have nothing to fear from that,” he said.
Sean Kyne, the new Minister of State for Community with responsibility for charities, said he planned to assess compliance in the sector once his new department was set up.
“The charity sector has weathered the storm but we need to ensure with certainty that it has because we don’t want to see any of the issues that arose in the past arising again,” he said.
Speakers at the conference discussed the challenges still facing the country's charities after the controversies of recent years that have shaken the sector, including massive salaries and benefits paid at suicide charity Console, large salary levels at Rehab and secret salary payments at St John of God.
David Hall, one of two external reviewers appointed to conduct an investigation into financial irregularities at Console last year, advised charities not to "bury their heads in the sand" when problems emerge and to ensure those who were served by the charities continued to be helped.
Mr Hall, chief executive of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation, said 346 people were receiving active counselling and 19 people a day were calling the 24-hour suicide phone line. "Those people were forgotten in the scandal," he said.
Mr Hall said that a year on from what he called “one of the biggest single charitable scandals”, there was still no conclusive report on what happened at Console.
He welcomed the work of the regulator but said that it did not have retrospective powers and while Government talk was about taking charity regulation seriously, it was not matched by actions.
“Do we want to uncover a hornet’s nest here? Because if we start digging deep, we had decades of non-professional activity in the charitable sector – what happens?” he said.
Olympic Council of Ireland president Sarah Keane, who had to deal with a child sex abuse scandal at Swim Ireland and is managing the fallout from the Rio ticketing scandal in her current role, advised charities not to run away from controversy when a scandal hits and to be as upfront as possible.
“It is not nice to be in crisis and it is obviously very damaging for the sector but my own view is you’ve got to try to embrace it because it has an opportunity to bring about fundamental change,” she said.
She warned charities that “being defensive is not good” and that even though she has to deal with legal issues, the council tries to be “as open as we can and not try to hide anything”.
A survey by research firm NFP Synergy presented at the conference showed that trust in the charity sector had reached a low of 43 per cent in November and only slightly recovered in the following six months despite less negative coverage of the charity sector in that period.