Solicitor for abuse victims in schools criticises ‘cynical’ redress plan

James MacGuill says he cannot advise his clients based on information from Government

A solicitor representing claimants against the state who suffered sexual abused in primary school has described the Government’s settlement offer as “extremely cynical”.

James MacGuill said he couldn’t start to advise any of his clients on whether to accept a settlement with the state on the basis of the information available.

The cabinet on Tuesday signed off on the proposals of Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, which caps the settlement payment at €84,000, plus costs.

It will, however, only be offered to those whose circumstances match those of Louise O’Keeffe who took a successful case to the European Court of Human Rights last year.


To qualify, the abuse must have taken place after a complaint was made to the school and where the school failed to act on such a complaint.

In Ms O'Keeffe's case, a complaint was first made against her abuser Leo Hickey in 1971 and she was sexually abused two years later. Another 20 schoolgirls from Dunderrow National School in Cork were similarly abused in the 1970s.

Mr MacGuill said 10 of his clients were among the 45 people who had current claims against the state, while another 10 were among the 90 who withdrew their claims after the department warned them about potential legal costs.

The department issued the warning in a letter to all 135 claimants following Ms O’Keeffe’s defeat in the High Court and Supreme Court. At that stage, the department was pursuing her for the state’s legal costs of around €500,000.

Mr MacGuill said the department had decided to “leave it to the clients” to pursue the religious congregations which ran the schools on the basis that the state had found it difficult to recoup money from this source.

He said this was extremely cynical when one compared the resources the state had to take on such organisations compared to the resources available to individuals.

Announcing the settlement package, Ms O’Sullivan said the state was not taking on all responsibility but was making a balanced and equitable gesture.

“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,” she said.

Mr MacGuill pointed out that the maximum payment was well below the €300,000 cap for victims of institutional abuse. “It’s a totally different basis for addressing the wrong that has been done.”

He said he had contacted the State Claims Agency, which has been charged with negotiating the settlements, and there remained a great deal of uncertainty as to what it would mean for his clients.

Ms O’Keeffe was awarded €30,000 from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for the state’s lack of child protection procedures, combined with €54,000 from Criminal Inquiries Compensation Tribunal which was set up for victims of crime.

She was further awarded €300,000 in the High Court against Hickey, of which he has been paid a nominal amount to date.

Ms O’Keeffe has strongly criticised the Government’s settlement plan which would apply to other abuse survivors, saying the least she expected was for the state to compensate all 135 claimants. She has also accused the Government of trying to minimise its responsibility for child protection.

“What if [the State] seems to be doing is absolving itself of any blame except when complaints were made and it didn’t act. It almost seems to be saying to victims who didn’t make any complaints that it was their fault that they were abused. It’s like blaming victims for their own abuse which is outrageous,” she said.

“It’s the same attitude that I encountered all the way through the court system here in Ireland - that I should have sued the church, that my parents shouldn’t have sent me to that school, that it’s everybody’s fault but the state’s. They really seemed to have learned nothing.”

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column