School abuse survivors offered up to €84,000 in cases against State

Louise O’Keeffe criticises limiting of compensation

Louise O’Keeffe who was sexually abused by her teacher in a Co Cork primary school in the 1970s. Photograph: Garrett White / Collins Court

Louise O’Keeffe who was sexually abused by her teacher in a Co Cork primary school in the 1970s. Photograph: Garrett White / Collins Court

 

Only a small minority of people who were sexually abused in schools are set to receive compensation from the State under a settlement deal that will cap payments at €84,000.

Abuse survivor Louise O’Keeffe, whose 20-year legal battle against her abuser and the state, has described the offer as “discriminatory” and “outrageous”.

Under the terms, announced by Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, survivors will be offered up to €84,000, plus legal costs, to settle their claims but only where it is shown that the school authorities failed to take action in response to a complaint of abuse.

The scheme will also only apply to abuse that took place prior to 1991, when child protection measures were introduced, subject to the statute of limitations.

Some 45 cases against the State were outstanding last year, while a further 90 were withdrawn after the department of education threatened to pursue them for legal costs

The Minister said she had asked the State Claims Agency to examine grounds for payment in these “discontinued” cases and it would report back to her in early 2015.

The maximum settlement payment is based on Ms O’Keeffe’s award of €30,000 from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), combined with the €54,000 she received from Criminal Inquiries Compensation Tribunal.

Ms O’Keeffe, who was sexually abused by her teacher Leo Hickey at Dunderrow National School in west Cork in the 1970s, successfully brought her case to the ECHR last year after the Supreme Court had ruled that Ireland was not liable for the abuse.

Ms O’Sullivan defended the scale of the awards, saying they compared to an average payment of €62,000 under the redress scheme for victims of institutional abuse.

However, lawyers for abuse victims pointed out that the maximum payment under the redress scheme was €300,000, with a facility for exceeding this in exceptional cases.

Criticising the scale of the offer, Ms O’Keeffe said the €30,000 award from the ECHR “wasn’t compensation for sexual abuse. It was compensation for the lack of protection for me as a child in a national school”.

She said the Minister’s offer failed to acknowledge the extent of the damage caused. It would also mean that two pupils abused by the same teacher would be treated differently if one of them had been abused prior to a complaint being made.

“It’s a shocking discrimination, and it’s like I told the Minister: she is giving a settlement to one and she is telling the other to go to hell,” she said.

Ms O’Keeffe told The Irish Times the decision by the Government to make out of court settlements to those abused by teachers after the state failed to act on a complaint effectively meant that somebody had to be abused by a teacher before other abuse victims could be compensated.

“It beggars belief that you could have two children abused by the same teacher in the same school and the state is willing to make a settlement in the case of one pupil but not in the case of the other and it all depends on whether a complaint was made or not.

“Essentially the state is saying that they will make a settlement offer to the pupil who was abused after a complaint was made but was not acted upon but they won’t make any settlement offer to the pupil who was abused before any complaint was made – it’s totally discriminatory.”

Ms O’Keeffe said the Cabinet decision effectively seemed to ignore the European Court of Human Rights judgment.

“Under this decision, the majority of the 21 girls who gave evidence in court against Hickey would not be entitled to compensation if they took cases because nobody had made a complaint about him so the state didn’t know about it and therefore couldn’t be responsible for failing to protect us.

“That’s the worst aspect of this – the state seems to be trying to wash its hands of any responsibility for the abuse that took place on the grounds that it didn’t know about it and therefore it wasn’ t responsible rather than recognising that it was its job to identify and prevent abuse.”

Ms O’Keeffe said the Government seemed to be “absolving itself of any blame except when complaints were made and it didn’t act”.

“It almost seems to be saying to victims who didn’t make any complaints that it was their fault that they were abused. It’s like blaming victims for their own abuse which is outrageous.”

Ms O’Keeffe said the school inspector who gave evidence for the state in her case in the High Court told how when he was being trained he was told to accept and investigate only those complaints of abuse made in writing so the state was well aware of the possibility of abuse.

“The State is completely ignoring the European Court of Human Rights judgment because nowhere in that judgment does it say anything about complaints or about the state failing to act on a complaint. It says the State failed in its duty to protect me from sexual abuse,” she said.

“It’s the same attitude that I encountered all the way through the court system here in Ireland - that I should have sued the church, that my parents shouldn’t have sent me to that school, that it’s everybody’s fault but the State’s. They really seemed to have learned nothing.”