Former Order of Malta board member raised concern over handling of child sex abuse allegations

Prof Declan Downey said ‘grave matters’ would not ‘come to light’ without regulator’s intervention

A former Order of Malta board member raised concerns that “grave matters” about the handling of child sex abuse allegations in the first-aid organisation would not “come to light” after its board was dismissed.

Declan Downey, professor of history at University College Dublin (UCD), wrote to the Charities Regulator last November to express deep concerns with the governance of the organisation.

The correspondence followed its board being disbanded by FJ McCarthy, a senior New York-based figure appointed by the religious order’s headquarters in Rome to oversee the Irish organisation.

The move came amid tensions between some board members and Mr McCarthy over the status of an internal report investigating the handling of abuse allegations about a former volunteer.


Scott Browne (32), from Co Kildare, was jailed for 9½ years after he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two 15-year-old boys in separate incidents in 2018.

The organisation’s board commissioned an internal review into the case last May, which was to include an examination of the handling of two prior complaints about Browne allegedly sexually assaulting other young men in the ambulance corps.

In a November 21st, 2022 letter, Prof Downey told the Charities Regulator the internal review was commissioned to be provided to the board. However, Mr McCarthy “countermanded” that instruction and received the report himself, he said.

It was a “matter of grave concern” that the findings were not shared with the board, but instead first sent to officials of the order in Rome to review, he said.

A number of former board members were “no longer confident” that “grave matters” about the handling of sexual abuse complaints “will ever come to light” unless the regulator took action, he wrote.

The review had been carried out by the organisation’s chief executive, John Byrne, his predecessor Peadar Ward, and former Garda assistant commissioner Fintan Fanning.

Prof Downey called on the State’s charity watchdog to launch a “complete and thorough investigation” into the ambulance corps.

He said he believed the legality of the decision to disband the board was “questionable” and that Mr McCarthy had acted outside of his authority.

The assertion that a decree from the order’s headquarters in Rome had “superiority” over Irish company and charity law was also “a cause of great concern”.

The letter from Prof Downey noted the organisation’s registered charity, Malta Charities, did not have any provision for it to be run by an overseas appointee.

He said the directors of the charity could not be automatically removed on the basis of a “unilateral intervention of dubious legality”.

Mr McCarthy disbanded the board on November 2nd and replaced it with an executive steering group, which he said would ensure “efficiency of purpose”.

James Kelly, the regulator’s head of investigation and enforcement, wrote to Order of Malta directors the following week, seeking details about who was in charge of the organisation, and the basis for the board being dismissed.

Richard Duc de Stacpoole, former president of the Irish organisation, responded to the regulator on November 22nd, confirming there had been a change of governance.

Correspondence between the regulator and the Order of Malta, as well as former board members, was released to The Irish Times following a Freedom of Information Act request.

When contacted for comment, Prof Downey said his letter was sent on foot of correspondence to directors from the regulator.

A spokeswoman for the Order of Malta said it could not comment on correspondence from former board members to the regulator.

The internal review had now been shared with the new executive steering group, “whose primary concern is the health and wellbeing of the volunteers of the organisation and the public it serves,” she said.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times