Louise O’Keeffe: Victims of abuse in national school continue to be abused by the State

‘Life for an innocent eight-year-old, who loves her doll and red- covered book, changes when the principal in her school begins sexually abusing her’

Five weeks before Christmas a little girl gets a book, Black Beauty, for her eighth birthday. This was a special book not just because of the story but because it had a red, hard cover. Over the next few weeks nobody was allowed to touch the book in case it got dirty. On Christmas Eve Mammy came home with a baby sister and on Christmas morning Santa had left a new doll for the eight-year-old girl. True heaven, a doll to play Mammy and baby, with a treasured book to read while baby was asleep. Come the end of Christmas holidays there was an innocent eagerness to return to school and tell friends all about dolls and babies.

But in January, life for an innocent eight-year-old who loves her doll and red- covered book changes when the principal in her school begins sexually abusing her and this abuse continues until September when the teacher left, moving to another school. During those months the little girl had no understanding of what was in reality taking place and its future effects. Something was happening that she did not like and she had no words with which to tell. She was afraid and scared someone would see, it was horrible.

Surely this eight-year-old girl should have been protected by the State from such assault while attending national school?

Unknown to the little girl, she was not alone, she was not the only one to be sexually abused by the principal in her school. Abuse had been ongoing for a decade. Also, two years prior to the little girl’s assault, a complaint had been made but not acted on.


Twenty-six years later, at the criminal case hearing against the teacher, there was no support or guidance from the State for 21 girls who gave evidence of abuse. This was a particularly long and harrowing day, full of awful revelations and absolute horror.

The abuser was given a three-year jail sentence having been charged with 386 counts of indecent assault but pleading guilty to 21 sample charges.

When the little girl of eight and her classmates were abused there was no one to whom they could turn. Similarly at the criminal hearing there was no representative of the State to offer support to these victims. It was a case of “hear no evil, see no evil and thus there was no evil”.

There was indeed a grave evil.

Accountability is important

Nobody seemed to care that it took more than 20 years before any girl summoned the courage to make a complaint to An Garda Síochána. Accountability is important, in terms of recognising past errors but also in seeking to prevent their repetition. A civil legal case was therefore taken to get such accountability.

The State denied any and all responsibility for the acts of the teacher. Yet the State dictated how many teachers may teach in a school, it pays their wages and their pensions on retirement, negotiates such pay and working conditions, sets their qualifications, gives them recognition to teach in school (without which they cannot teach) and sets the curriculum.

Surely the eight-year-old girl and her schoolmates should have been protected by the State from sexual assault while attending national school?

As a minimum the children should have been provided with a mechanism to make a complaint. After all, they had no choice but to attend school: if they did not, their parents would have been committing a criminal offence and they would be liable to be sent to an industrial school.

After a long legal battle in the High Court and the Supreme Court the State was not found liable for the teacher’s abuse. An Appeal to the European Court of Human Rights was taken.

Forty-one years after an eight-year-old girl was sexually abused by her principal in school, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in her favour: the State had failed to “put in place any mechanism of effective State control against the risks of such abuse occurring”.

Inherent obligation

The judges said it was “an inherent obligation of a government to protect children from ill-treatment, especially in a primary education context”.

When the State was found not liable in our national courts, the State Claims Agency wrote letters to other victims of sexual assault in national schools who had cases pending. They were informed that if they did not drop their cases they would have costs orders made against them, because their cases had no prospect of success, as the eight-year-old girl’s case had failed and their cases had “the same legal basis”.

Most of the victims yielded to these threats and dropped their cases. Some 45 victims, we are told, continued with their actions.

On November 20th, 2014, the former eight-year-old, now an adult, met the Taoiseach and two of his Ministers. She asked that the State look at the position of those victims of sexual abuse who had initiated claims, and a request was made that they would be dealt with favourably.

On December 16th, 2014, she was asked to meet the Minister for Education to be given the Government’s response. The Government had decided to deal only with those cases pending, and to ignore all those who yielded to the legal threat issued after the Supreme Court loss of the former eight-year-old’s case.

The State Claims Agency has been told to offer up to a maximum of €84,000 to such of those 45 children who can prove that there was a complaint made prior to their abuse.

Notwithstanding the Carrigan and Ryan reports (which clearly demonstrated the State were aware children were being abused in national schools), those victims who cannot prove there was a prior complaint made are to be denied redress. They are being ignored and have been told to continue with the harrowing experience of going through the legal process.

The former eight-year-old girl naively thought that when the State rightly condemned what had happened to Maíria Cahill, and when it invited the former eight-year-old girl to Government Buildings, that there was a new side to the State, a caring side that would acknowledge its wrongs and compensate those wronged.

This turns out not to be so. These victims, once children, continue to be abused by the State. Such abuse is endorsed by the Government through by this mean “offer”. Why continue their suffering?

That sense of foreboding the eight- year-old girl had between January and September some 42 years ago has returned with a vengeance.

Louise O’Keeffe was sexually abused as an eight-year-old girl in 1973 by her school principal, Leo Hickey, while attending Dunderrow National School in Co Cork. In 1998 Hickey pleaded guilty to 21 sample charges relating to 21 girls and was sent to prison for three years. Also in 1998 Ms O’Keeffe commenced legal proceedings in the civil courts against Hickey and the Department of Education/ the State. After the High Court and the Supreme Court ruled the State was not liable, she appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in January 2014 that Ireland had failed to protect her from sex abuse in school.