Responsibility for protection of pupils in our schools

 

A great deal has changed since Louise O’Keeffe and many other children were sexually abused while attending national school in the 1970s. Public awareness of this crime has grown because of successive investigations. Protection and reporting mechanisms are being put in place. But the State, while bearing responsibility for the protection of children, remains excluded from any robust engagement with how boards of management and their patrons function.

In a definitive judgement, the European Court of Human Rights rejected the State’s contention that it bears no responsibility for the abuse of children in the schools it regulates and finances. While acknowledging the “unique” model of primary education in Ireland, the Court found the State had an inherent obligation to protect children. This responsibility could not be devolved to private bodies or individuals. It found children had been exposed to inhuman and degrading treatment and had been denied an effective remedy. In reaching this conclusion, it not only dismissed the defence offered by the State, it rejected earlier decisions by the High Court and the Supreme Court. They had agreed the management role of the Catholic Church was such that the State could not be held responsible.

Other State-funded bodies may also be affected by the judgement. So it is understandable that the Government and Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn should take time to study its findings. Change is certainly required. The formal establishment of a Child and Family Agency, later today, will go some way in that regard. So will implementation of Children First guidelines, designed for the protection and welfare of children. But the traditional, hands-off approach towards religious-run, voluntary and charitable organisations has to end. It should have occurred years ago. But strenuous resistance by controlling interests, social inertia and political cowardice got in the way.

The State was found to be vicariously liable, as employer, for the protection of Ms O’Keeffe and it was insufficient for the Department of Education to maintain the school board or its patron was responsible. This ground breaking ruling, in a situation that had developed into a legal game of “pass the parcel”, has sliced through a fog of obfuscation and demands official accountability. It raises significant legal issues in this and in other areas. Where direct funding and regulation is involved, accountability should follow through the establishment of muscular oversight measures.

Evidence of various forms of abuse has piled up over decades. A constant component in those scandals was unwillingness, or inability, of those in charge to hold offenders to account. Those failures should be instructive. A hands-off role for Government is no longer acceptable.