Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan has asked the Higher Education Authority to investigate the appointment of chaplains at third-level institutions across the country.

In a first step, the HEA has written to the colleges asking for information on how they employ and fund chaplaincy services.

Documents received by the organisation Atheist Ireland under Freedom of Information provisions show most of the country's Institutes of Technology have no public appointment or tendering procedure for the employment of chaplains.

In total, the institutes spend around €800,000 annually on chaplaincy salaries. Most of the money is paid directly to the Catholic Church for chaplains appointed by them.

The HEA has acknowledged that it does not know the detail of how appointments are made. It acknowledged that there are "anomalies" around the funding and that clarity is needed.

The documents also indicate that in some cases the moratorium on public appointments may be being breached in relation to the employment of chaplains. The HEA declined to comment on this, saying it needed to know more.

The HEA said it appreciated the valuable work college chaplains did in supporting students.

The arrangement in most of the ITs seems to be an informal local one.

In the case of Cork Institute of Technology, the Bishop of Cork and Ross nominates a candidate who is then employed by the college on an Assistant Lecturer grade.

The service costs the college just under €50,000 a year. Documents also show that CIT paid half the cost of repainting the house in which the chaplain, a Catholic priest, lives and works.

CIT contributed €2,600 to the Catholic Church for the work.

Waterford Institute of Technology has what it calls "an informal arrangement" with the local Catholic bishop who nominates a candidate for the position.

The Catholic priest is employed directly by the college and paid between €48,000 and €70,000 annually.

The FOI responses show that at WIT, as well as with most of the other colleges, the position is not advertised publicly, and there are no records of any interview process or any decisions related to the appointment.

IT Carlow has one chaplain who is also a Catholic priest. A fee of €40,000 is paid to the local Catholic bishop who makes the appointment.

According to the FOI documents the procedure is the same for Athlone, Dundalk, Limerick, Sligo, and Tralee IT's. There was no public tendering for the service at any of these five ITs.

Galway-Mayo IT is the only institute to have tendered for a chaplaincy service. After a public tender it appointed a lay non-Catholic chaplain to its Mayo campus.

However for its Galway campus the college continues to pay a fee to the bishop who has appointed a Catholic priest to the role.

Letterkenny IT pays €68,000 annually for chaplaincy services from the Catholic, Presbyterian and Church of Ireland churches. A fee is paid to the local bishop who appoints to the role. The bulk of the money, €50,000, goes to the Catholic Church.

Dublin Institute of Technology pays €235,000 annually in salaries for chaplaincy services.

The Catholic Church is paid 80% of that and it appoints chaplains. The rest goes to the Church of Ireland. Again, there is no public advertising or tendering for the service.

Athiest Ireland has questioned why public money is being awarded to churches with no public job advertisements or invitations to tender for the contracts.

It has also questioned why there seem to be no records of board decisions regarding awarding these funds to the Catholic and other churches. It has pointed out that the Institutes of Technology are supposed to be entirely secular entities.

Atheist Ireland said pastoral positions should be open to all people with pastoral and counselling qualifications.

It said there are many women who would be capable of fulfilling such roles but says that out of 12 full-time chaplaincy positions it surveyed, all of them are Catholic, and 11 of them are male.

The body representing the country's Institutes of Technology, IOTI, has said it and the institutes will co-operate fully with the HEA investigation.