Council of Europe asked to review ruling on Irish sex abuse cases

Human rights group claims State is not meeting obligations to victims of school abuse

The Council of Europe has been asked to sanction a review of how Ireland is treating people who allege they were sexually abused at school.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission requested that a landmark decision where the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Ireland and in favour of Louise O'Keeffe, who was abused by her school principal when she was eight years old, be re-considered to see if the way the State has interpreted it is correct.

In a submission to the Council of Europe, the commission argues that the steps taken by Ireland in the wake of the 2014 ruling are depriving other alleged victims of access to an effective remedy. It is the first such request by the commission since it was established two years ago.

Its chief commissioner Emily Logan is seeking to meet Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan to press for Ireland to meet its obligations to the Strasbourg court and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Flanagan is Ireland’s representative on the Council of Europe, which must now decide whether to accede to the commission’s request to refer the case back to the court.

Sample charges

Ms O'Keeffe was sexually abused in 1973 by Leo Hickey, principal at Dunderrow National School in Co Cork. Hickey was jailed in 1998 on sample charges relating to 21 girls. That same year Ms O'Keeffe started legal proceedings against Hickey, the Department of Education, and the State, but the High Court and subsequently the Supreme Court ruled against her.

They found that the State could not be held vicariously, or separately liable for the abuse as the school was not operated or managed directly by the State but by an independent board of management. Ms O’Keeffe appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and was successful.

In the wake of the 2014 ruling, the then government said it would grant out-of-court settlements to certain claims of school child sex abuse that came within the terms of the Strasbourg judgement.

The commission,in its submission to the Council of Europe, has pointed out that just seven such settlements have been made to date and said this is a reflection of the restrictive interpretation being adopted by Ireland of the Strasbourg ruling.

‘Unduly narrow’

The commission, in its submission to the Council of Europe, is arguing that the State Claims Agency’s interpretation of the Strasbourg court’s ruling is “unduly narrow” and this is depriving victims of a means of redress. It wants the court to be allowed decide if the stance being taken by Ireland is supported by its 2014 ruling.

The agency is only granting settlements to claimants who can show there had been prior complaints made against the school employee alleged to have abused them. The commission is arguing that this is a “limited interpretation” of the Strasbourg court’s decision and wants that court to be allowed say if it agrees.

“The commission, as Ireland’s national human rights institution, has an important role to play in ensuring that judgments of the European Court of Human Rights concerning Ireland are fully implemented,” Ms Logan said. “This is the first occasion on which the commission has called for a case to be referred back to the court, a fact that underlines the importance of the issues raised for the many survivors of sexual abuse who are potentially affected by the court’s judgment.”

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent