State still not responding to scale of sexual abuse

Opinion: One in five women has reported contact abuse in childhood

Louise O’Keeffe: apology to her was a meaningless contrivance. Photograph: Garrett White / Collins Court

Louise O’Keeffe: apology to her was a meaningless contrivance. Photograph: Garrett White / Collins Court

Wed, Feb 5, 2014, 12:01

The responses of Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore to the European Court of Human Rights judgment in the Louise O’Keeffe case may have been a contrivance, simply to avoid further embarrassment for their own conduct in the case. But it seems also to betray a profound misunderstanding of what is involved here. Both Kenny and Gilmore apologised to Louise O’Keeffe for what she suffered when, aged eight, she was abused by the principal of her national school, Leo Hickey. Neither Kenny nor Gilmore had any responsibility for that abuse. The apology was meaningless.

What they did have responsibility for and what they should have apologised for was their part in permitting the State’s lawyers to persist in claiming the State had no responsibility for protecting O’Keeffe when she was a child at a primary school funded and supervised by the State; for attempting to obstruct her access to the European Court of Human Rights; for seeking to evade the State’s responsibility, suggesting that somehow it was the fault of O’Keeffe’s parents in sending her to the school where she was abused; and for threatening penury on other abuse victims at primary schools, should they pursue claims against the State.

The contention that they were merely acting in accordance with the judgment of the Supreme Court in the same case is no excuse, for that court decided against O’Keeffe on grounds that would seem questionable even to a lay person.

Four of the five Supreme Court judges held that the State did not have liability for the wrong perpetrated by the teacher who abused O’Keeffe, because the State did not directly employ the teacher; the manager of the school, the local bishop, did, even though the State funded the school, paid the teachers and had a strong supervisory role via the inspectorate.

But the primary point was also evaded by the Supreme Court: that the State had direct knowledge of widespread sexual abuse of children from at least the 1930s and had failed to provide the appropriate protections for children.

But even if Kenny and Gilmore were satisfied with the Supreme Court judgment from a legal standpoint, there was the moral point: the State had failed to protect O’Keeffe by providing even elementary precautions against an abuse the State knew was widespread. And for that basic injustice, neither Kenny nor Gilmore can utter a word of apology or even regret.

But there is more.

Widespread abuse
The State now has knowledge of widespread sexual abuse of children and is failing to respond in anything like a proportionate manner to the scale of the abuse that has become known.

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