Just six of 350 cases of alleged school abuse settled under State scheme

Louise O’Keeffe accuses State of trying to minimise its legal responsibilities

Louise O’Keeffe: has strongly criticised the scope of the  compensation scheme, saying  the small number of cases processed so far was a sign of the State’s narrow interpretation of the law. Photograph: Garrett White/Collins Court

Louise O’Keeffe: has strongly criticised the scope of the compensation scheme, saying the small number of cases processed so far was a sign of the State’s narrow interpretation of the law. Photograph: Garrett White/Collins Court

 

Just six of out more than 350 cases of alleged sexual abuse in schools have been settled by the State under a State compensation scheme. The scheme was set up last year after Louise O’Keeffe won her case in January 2014 in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), following a 20-year legal battle.

The court ruled that the State was liable for abuse carried out by Ms O’Keeffe’s teacher at a national school in west Cork in the 1970s, when she was eight years old. The State’s compensation scheme applies to abuse that took place before 1991, when child-protection measures were introduced, subject to the statute of limitation.

Ms O’Keeffe has strongly criticised the scope of the compensation scheme, accusing the State of trying to minimise its legal responsibility. She said the small number of cases processed so far was a sign of the State’s narrow interpretation of the law. This includes a condition that survivors of abuse can qualify only where it is shown that the school authorities failed to take action in response to a complaint of abuse.

“There is no legal basis for suggesting that it is necessary to establish a prior sexual abuse, before one can succeed. This is simply not the law,” she said. “This has been done opportunistically to minimise the liability of the State to these unfortunate victims. I find that deplorable and disheartening.”

She also expressed concern at legal proceedings initiated by the department last week to strike out a decision permitting it to be sued, along with the Christian Brothers, by three alleged sexual abuse victims.

A spokeswoman for Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan declined to comment on the latest legal case on the basis that the matters were before the courts. She added that the Department of Education would this week lodge an updated action plan with the European Court of Human Rights on the Louise O’Keeffe ruling.

This, she said, would affirm the Government’s commitment to implementing the court’s judgment, as well as strengthening child-protection policy. While the State must be satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that there was a prior complaint in all cases, it had adopted a flexible approach in determining this, according to the department’s statement.

“Claimants are not required to come up with a specific type of proof and the State does not insist on a strict evidential standard in assessing the material put forward by an applicant,” it added.

In total, ex-gratia payments are being offered to 210 individuals who came within the terms of the court’s ruling but who discontinued their cases. Many did so after the department threatened to pursue them for legal costs after a failed High Court action by Ms O’Keeffe but before her successful ECHR case.

Each individual can apply for a maximum ex-gratia payment of €84,000, although it is not known how many cases satisfy the terms of the court’s ruling. In addition, there are a further 140 new claims in relation to historic abuse which are being handled by the State Claims Agency.

The agency has been authorised to make settlement offers in these cases similar to the terms of the damages awarded in Ms O’Keeffe’s case.

Ms O’Sullivan has previously apologised to all children who were sexually abused as schoolchildren and for the “collective failure” to protect them. While there was no legal obligation to address the situation of some survivors, she said an ex-gratia scheme was a fair and balanced solution.

Ms O’Keeffe, however, said attempts by the State to portray itself as acting in a sympathetic way were not accurate.