State to reopen redress scheme for school abuse victims

Move comes seven years after human rights case won by Louise O’Keeffe in Europe

The European Court of Human Rights found Ireland had failed to protect Louise O’Keeffe from teacher Leo Hickey. Photograph: Garrett White/Collins Courts

The European Court of Human Rights found Ireland had failed to protect Louise O’Keeffe from teacher Leo Hickey. Photograph: Garrett White/Collins Courts

 

The Government is to reopen a revised scheme for victims of sexual abuse in schools following pressure from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

The commission complained to the Council of Europe in recent weeks that the State was withholding redress from alleged victims of sexual abuse in schools seven years after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment won by campaigner Louise O’Keeffe.

It asked the European rights organisation to transfer the O’Keeffe case to an “enhanced supervision” process, which would see Ireland more closely monitored on its implementation of the 2014 ruling.

Ms O’Keeffe was sexually abused by primary school principal Leo Hickey in Dunderrow National School in west Cork in the early 1970s. He was later convicted of abusing her, but the State denied any civil liability.

Ms O’Keeffe brought a case for damages but the courts ruled that the Department of Education was not liable because the school was under the management of the Catholic Church, even though the State paid Hickey’s salary.

Failed to protect

In 2014, the ECHR found that Ireland had failed to protect Ms O’Keeffe from Hickey when she had been at school aged five.

The subsequent redress scheme was paused in 2019 following a report from retired High Court judge Iarfhlaith O’Neill who reviewed the cases of a number of unsuccessful applications. Payments were made to 16 individuals following his determinations.

Mr O’Neill also asserted that the criteria to qualify for a payment was too restrictive for applicants, specifically the requirement to provide evidence of a prior complaint against their abuser.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said on Wednesday the ex gratia scheme would be reopened. She said the decision was on foot of a detailed review of the scheme in consultation with the Attorney General.

Under the revised scheme, applicants may receive an ex gratia payment of €84,000 if they meet new criteria.

“I want to first of all to extend an apology to all victims of abuse and in particular to Louise O’ Keeffe who has rightfully received a full apology on behalf of the State,” said Ms Foley.

“Protecting children from harm should be the foremost ambition in any society and many children were failed in this respect in the past in this country.

“I also want to emphasise that Ireland takes its obligations to the European Court of Human Rights extremely seriously and the revised terms of the scheme should remove any doubt about Ireland’s ongoing commitment to implement the ruling in full.”