There were so many jarring and blood-boiling moments during the appearance of Central Remedial Clinic board members at the Public Accounts Committee this week that it's hard to pick one that is seared most into the public memory.
There was the casual way the use of charitable funds for topping up inflated six-figure salaries and pension pots was explained away. There was the slavish fixation on “entitlements” and “contracts” to explain why top-up funds could not legally be reduced.
Whichever aspect is the most objectionable, the assembled CRC representatives did a damn good job of demolishing public confidence in what – until very recently, at any rate – would have been among our most trusted institutions.
As of today, few people – rightly or wrongly – feel they can fully trust where their money is going when they donate to a charity. We have no regulator. No oversight. And no effective way of scrutinising what they do.
The great tragedy is that charities are an essential part of society – especially in a country such as ours which prides itself on the charitable work done at home and abroad over the years. In the most severe economic recession in a generation, charitable giving has continued at a surprisingly high level.
But when household budgets are under such acute pressure, it is hardly surprising that many are thinking long and hard about how much they are going to give, and to what cause.
That is why it is so important that the donating public should be sure that any charity soliciting funds really is what it claims to be, and does not abuse its status or raise money in morally or legally dubious ways.
If the public is to be assured of the integrity of the charities allowed to solicit donations, donors must have easy access to all the information they need about an organisation before they give money: information about how much staff are paid, administrative costs, how much funding comes from government.
It is the responsibility of the charities, and the fundraisers who work for them, to be transparent.
And it is now up to the Government to fulfil its pledge to establish a charity regulator who can finally provide proper oversight for this much-neglected area.
There was one striking moment during Wednesday's 5½-hour shambles at the Public Accounts Committee which cut to the heart of the problems posed by the CRC debacle.
Board members were asked if they appreciated the fact that they were custodians of public money and had a moral duty to the State, the taxpayer and people with disabilities to ensure it was spent appropriately.
There was precious little sign of it.
Instead, we were treated to a long-winded exposition on company law and how the board members were responsible for running a private organisation; how salaries and the way they were paid were matters solely for board members.
As Deirdre Garvey of the Wheel – a representative grouping for many charities – has pointed out, all funds raised by charity pass into the custodianship, not the ownership, of an organisation's board members. These funds must be treated the same as any public funds under the control of a public entity: full and unqualified transparency.
It’s important to note that most charities or their guardians don’t carry on in the manner we witnessed this week. There are about 8,000 charities who prop up vital services or assist the most vulnerable. Many have signed up to voluntary codes of practice and transparency guidelines.
Handful of paid staff
Surveys indicate that of those charitable organisations which employ paid staff, the majority have just a handful of them. Average pay for charity chief executives and managers is about €59,000.
For years, reputable charities have been calling for proper regulation because they feared they would all get tarnished by the actions or misdeeds of the few.
Now it has happened.
It’s time for the Government to move swiftly and fast-track the introduction of a charity regulator. The Charities Act was enacted – but not enforced – in 2009. Successive governments have pledged, and failed, to introduce the measures. Alan Shatter yesterday insisted that it will be up and running next year.
Under this legislation, the new charity regulator will be charged with ensuring the accountability of charitable organisations to donors and beneficiaries of public funds; monitoring compliance by charities with regulations; and carrying out investigations in accordance with the legislation.
It’s not before time. The work charities do has never been needed more. This is why it is so important that the donating public should be sure that any charity soliciting funds really is what it claims to be, and does not abuse its status.
The alternative is that public confidence in the trustworthiness of charities will melt away – and so will the donations on which so much good work depends.
Carl O’Brien is Chief Reporter