Cork woman wins legal challenge against State in Europe over school abuse

Government failed in duty of care towards pupil

Mr Justice Peter Charleton was one of 17 judges who heard the case. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Mr Justice Peter Charleton was one of 17 judges who heard the case. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Cork woman Louise O’Keeffe has won a landmark legal challenge against the Irish State with the European Court of Human Rights ruling that the Government failed to meet its obligation to protect her from the sexual abuse she suffered while a pupil in national school.

Ms O’Keeffe had brought her case after the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the State was not legally liable for the abuse she suffered from her school principal while a nine-year-old girl at Dunderrow National School in Co Cork.

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear her case, despite the Supreme Court’s view that she had not exhausted all legal remedies in Ireland, as she had not sued the bishop of Cork and Ross who was responsible for running the school.

In its judgment published yesterday, the court found that Ireland was in breach of two articles of the European Convention on Human Rights – article 3, which prohibits “inhuman and degrading treatment” and article 13, which sets out the right to an effective remedy.

State ‘aware’
The State “had to have been aware of the level of sexual crime against minors through its prosecution of such crimes at a significant rate prior to the 1970s”, the court said.

While taking into account the unique model of State-provided primary education in Ireland, the court noted that it was an “inherent obligation of a Government to protect [children] from ill-treatment, especially in primary education when they are under the exclusive control of school authorities, by adopting special measures and safeguards.”

The crucial question, the court said, concerned the State’s responsibility and whether it should have been aware of a risk of sexual abuse of minors such as the applicant in national schools at the relevant time and “whether it had adequately protected children, through its legal system, from such ill-treatment”.

In a sign of the seriousness of the action, the case was heard by the Grand Chamber, the highest echelon of the Strasbourg court. Seventeen judges – including Ireland’s representative Peter Charleton – heard the case. Its decision is final and cannot be appealed.

The court held, by 11 votes to six, that Ireland was to pay Ms O’Keeffe €30,000 in respect of pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage and €85,000 for costs and expenses.

Ireland has six months to present an action plan to implement the judgment to the Council of Europe’s committee of ministers. The committee will then check to see that the compensation has been paid and that any necessary measures have been taken to avoid similar violations in the future before the case can be closed.

Ms O’Keeffe’s case concerned her abuse by the former principal of Dunderrow National School, Leo Hickey, in 1973. Following an investigation in the 1990s, the former principal was charged with 386 criminal offences of sexual abuse involving 21 former pupils of the national school near Kinsale. In 1998 he pleaded guilty to 21 sample charges and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Following complaints in the early 1970s by parents to the priest responsible for the management of Dunderrow, Hickey moved to another school where he taught until his retirement in 1995. However, no complaints to the Department of Education or the Garda were made until the investigation in the 1990s.

High Court action
Ms O’Keeffe had previously brought a High Court action for damages against the Department of Education in 2006, but lost, with the judge awarding costs to the State.

However, the judge found in favour of her action against Hickey and ordered the former principal to pay damages of just over €300,000. Following enforcement proceedings, he was then ordered to pay Ms O’Keeffe €400 a month. According to the Strasbourg-based court, some €30,000 had been received by Ms O’Keeffe to date.