State ‘withholding redress’ from school abuse survivors seven years after court ruling

Irish human rights body urges greater action on implementation of Louise O’Keeffe judgment

Ireland continues to withhold redress from alleged victims of sexual abuse in schools seven years after the European Court of Human Rights judgment won by campaigner Louise O’Keeffe, the Council of Europe has been told.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) has 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.

The State has adopted an unduly restrictive and narrow approach to the category of “victim” in its interpretation of the ruling, according to the commission.

Under the State’s “restrictive” interpretation of the judgment, a victim of child sexual abuse is required to establish the existence of a prior complaint before the State’s liability was triggered.


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.

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

But the Government interpreted the ruling as meaning it was only liable for damages in cases where there had been a prior complaint against an abuser.

In its submission to the Council of Europe, IHREC said the State’s commitment to open a new revised redress scheme later this year offers potential applicants little consolation.

Legal submissions filed in ongoing legal proceedings indicate that any new scheme may be very narrow, raising the possibility of further disputes about eligibility and the scope of the O’Keeffe judgment, it said.

“The fact that the question of execution of the O’Keeffe judgment remains live more than seven years later demonstrates that the current European Court of Human Rights supervision mechanism is inadequate,” IHREC said.

“The commission is concerned that the Council of Europe may be given the incorrect impression, from the information supplied by Ireland, that the question of reparation for victims of historic abuse in schools has largely been resolved.

“In fact, the State’s operation of the scheme has compounded the situation as victims are now unable to obtain even such limited satisfaction as an award under the scheme might afford them.”

The State’s delay in reopening the redress scheme is especially regrettable given the advancing age of the victims, it said.

“As the Government is preparing to publish its proposed redress scheme for victims of mother and baby homes, it’s frankly shameful that seven years after Louise O’Keeffe won her legal battle for redress for survivors of sexual abuses in schools, the State continues to deny access,” said Sinéad Gibney, IHREC Chief Commissioner.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

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