The compensation package announced by the state for people who were sexually abused in schools has been described by Louise O’Keeffe as “the worst possible Christmas present”, and indeed it is hard not to see it as miserly. The cap of €84,000 in an individual settlement is a fraction of the €300,000 maximum award under the redress scheme for institutional abuse.
That’s not where the differences end. Under the redress scheme, people could apply confidentially for compensation for historical abuse in a non-adversarial forum. What is being offered by the Government in this instance is to deal only with abuse survivors who have initiated legal action through the courts, and within that number to settle with those who meet certain criteria.
Specifically, payments will be made only to those where it is shown that the school authorities failed to act on a complaint of abuse, and where the abuse took place subsequent to such a complaint. This narrows the number of eligible cases significantly and may result in settlements in a small proportion of the 135 cases which were initially taken against the state.
Some 90 of these cases were withdrawn after the department of education issued a letter to them in the wake of Ms O’Keeffe’s failed High Court and Supreme Court hearings, saying that they would similarly face legal costs from unsuccessful actions.
The bill to the Exchequer from the redress scheme appeared to have weighed heavily on the Government’s decision.
While Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan defended the size of the proposed settlements, she said “one of the things we did learn from the redress board is the state found it very difficult to ensure that others took their responsibilities. So in this case we’re being clear in relation to the State’s responsibility”.
In short, people are still free to sue other bodies, like school patrons, religious orders and the abusers themselves.
As of last July, religious congregations had paid less than a quarter of the €352.6 million which they had agreed to contribute to redress for victims of institutional abuse. The Government had been looking for a total of €725 million from the religious orders to cover 50 per cent of the expected cost of redress but it has no legal hold over them because of a 2002 indemnity deal.
Ms O'Keeffe and her solicitor Ernest Cantillon, who both met the Minister in advance of her announcement, have also criticised Ms O'Sullivan for failing to address perceived weaknesses in the current child protection system.
Recent figures, for example, show that 40 per cent of registered teachers have yet to be vetted by gardaí.
Cantillon further noted that the designated officer for child protection in schools was the principal “but what if the principal is an abuser?” In their discussions with the Minister they had proposed the creation of “child-friendly” protection officers on a regional basis but this appeared to have been rejected on cost grounds.
The Minister said her department’s inspectorate would review child protection policies as part of new procedures for whole school evaluations but these take place in only a select group of schools each year.
Cantillon summed up the announcement as “minimalist . . . It gives the veneer of doing something, and it has left a very bad taste.”