The Order of Malta lost more than €50,000 when it attempted to open a hostel for pilgrims near Knock shrine in Co Mayo after agreeing to a “highly irregular and embarrassingly imprudent” lease.
The deal caused a major fallout within the upper ranks of the first-aid organisation, leading its board to suspend one of its most senior members, internal records seen by The Irish Times show.
The charity had leased a site from the Archdiocese of Tuam to open a 17-bed hostel near Knock shrine as a religious retreat.
The Order of Malta Ireland, which is part of an international organisation run by a Catholic religious order, had signed a 15-year lease in 2016 and paid the full rent of €150,000 up front. It spent a further €23,642 on capital costs to do up the bed and breakfast, projecting it would bring in income from travelling pilgrims of more than €76,000 in 2019.
However, a 2021 report from the board’s then-chancellor Desmond Carroll said actual income for 2019 amounted “to a mere €5,875″. Financially, the project had been “the second highest loss” to the organisation, with “serious concerns” expressed by members, it said.
The accommodation had only opened for a short period and there had been a “severe risk of losing a lot of funding” on the project, the report said. The Irish organisation triggered a clause to pull out of the deal after five years, allowing it to recover €100,000 of the rent it had paid up front.
Records show its board, known as the council, had agreed that the project “was not financially viable”.
Much of the infighting over the deal related to the fact a deed of renunciation had been signed with the lease. This meant the organisation gave up its right to renew the lease at the end of the 15 years, despite having spent funds developing the site.
In the fallout the board suspended one of its most senior members, Brendan Lawlor, who had led the negotiations.
A report by an internal disciplinary commission in 2021 found Mr Lawlor had “deliberately withheld information” about the “seriously disadvantageous” renunciation deed from the board.
The report, seen by The Irish Times, said Mr Lawlor maintained he had forgotten about the deed.
The commission, whose members included John Peart SC, said Mr Lawlor had been sent the deed with the lease and it was “satisfied he was fully familiar with the papers”.
The report, the findings of which the order’s headquarters subsequently said should be withdrawn, said the terms of the deal were “highly irregular and embarrassingly imprudent” for the organisation, but this had been concealed from the board at the time.
Mr Lawlor did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.
The tensions over the Knock project came at a time when the Order of Malta was facing a separate child sex abuse controversy. A former first-aid volunteer, Scott Browne (32), from Co Kildare, was jailed for 9½ years after he pleaded guilty in 2020 to sexually abusing two 15-year-old boys in separate incidents in 2018.
The organisation had received two prior complaints about Browne allegedly sexually assaulting young men in its ambulance corps, but he was not removed as a volunteer until gardaí began investigating the abuse of the two underage teenagers.
FJ McCarthy, a senior American figure in the international order, was appointed to oversee the Irish organisation last year and disbanded its board, amid the abuse controversy. Mr McCarthy and another senior figure, Peter van Meeuwen, had previously been sent in to investigate the turmoil in the Irish organisation.
A report from them in December 2021 criticised the findings of the disciplinary commission against Mr Lawlor. It said they believed there was “internal prejudices” against Mr Lawlor and “failures in accusations against him”, concluding that he should not be dismissed.
Following that report, the order’s headquarters in Rome lifted Mr Lawlor’s suspension and directed he be reinstated as “a member in good standing”, with the findings against him withdrawn. In an email dated December 22nd, 2021, Mr Peart said the criticism of the disciplinary commission was “based on an incorrect understanding” of its work.
Mr McCarthy later issued an apology to the members of the commission, acknowledging “errors of fact misstated” in his previous report had maligned their reputations. In a September 3rd, 2022 message, he apologised “for any injury caused to their credit, good name and reputation”.
A spokeswoman for the Order of Malta maintained Mr Lawlor had been “unfairly dismissed” and that dismissal was later lifted. “This issue does not serve the public interest, so we do not have anything further to add,” she said.
On the Knock project the spokeswoman said the charity “regularly explores new activities”, which sometimes cease for various reasons and that was “standard practice”.