Ruling means children ‘must be protected in schools’

Call for State to resolve 135 pending cases after landmark judgment in favour of Louise O’Keeffe

Irish woman Louise O’Keeffe, who today won a landmark case against the Irish State, said the ruling meant the Department of Education “must protect children in schools”.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled this morning that the State had failed to meet its obligation to protect Ms O’Keeffe from the sexual abuse she suffered while a pupil in an Irish national school.

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

Speaking from Cork after the ruling Ms O’Keeffe said: “The message I have today for the Department of Education on foot of this ruling is that ‘you must protect children in the schools, it’s a right that the children have and it’s now been recognised in Europe and it must be done.”

Her solicitor Ernest Cantillon said the State had 135 cases pending this judgment and said they should be dealt with by the State as soon as possible.

Mr Cantillon told RTÉ Radio that a wrong had been done to Ms O’Keeffe and that she should be given an apology by the State.

He also said Ms O’Keeffe should not have to ask for an apology from the State. She should be given one, he said.

Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn this afternoon said he would have to consider the judgment and receive advice before he can give a reaction.

The court examined her case in relation to a number of articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. It found that the Irish State was in breach of Article 3, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment, and Article 13 which sets out the right to an effective remedy.

In a landmark judgment, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Irish 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.”

Ms O Keeffe said the judgment was a "win for the children of Ireland. "

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.”

The Court held, by eleven 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.

In its judgment today the court also ruled that there had been a violation of Article 13, though complaints made under Article 8, Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 14 “did not give rise to any issues separate to those already examined.”

The case concerns Ms O' Keeffe's abuse by the former principal of Dunderrow National School, Leo Hickey, while she was a student there in 1973.

Following an investigation in the 1990s, the former principal was charged with 386 criminal offences of sexual abuse involving some 21 former pupils of Dunderrow National School, near Kinsale. In 1998 he pleaded guilty to 21 sample charges and was sentenced to imprisonment.

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

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear Ms O’ Keeffe’s case, despite the Irish Supreme Court’s contention that she had not exhausted all legal remedies in the country as she had not sued the Bishop of Cork and Ross who was responsible for running the school.

Ms O'Keeffe had previously brought a High Court action for damages against the Department of Education in 2006, but lost the case, 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 per month.

According to the Strasbourg-based court, some €30,000 has been received by Ms O Keeffe to date.

In addition, the plaintiff received an ex gratia award from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal of £53,000 in 1998.

In her case before the European court, Ms O’Keeffe argues that the Irish State failed both to structure the primary education system to protect her from abuse as well as to investigate or provide an appropriate judicial response to her ill-treatment.

The judgment was delivered at a public hearing in Strasbourg today.

The European Court of Human Rights was established in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.