Sex abuse victim begs for mercy over costs

A MOTHER-OF-TWO who was sexually abused by her school principal as a child has begged for mercy over the legal bill of more than half a million euro she faces after losing a battle to make the State take responsibility for her suffering.

Louise O’Keeffe, of Thoam, Dunmanway, Cork, lost her last chance to force the Department of Education and the State to accept liability for convicted abuser Leo Hickey’s actions when the judges of the Supreme Court ruled against her by a four to one majority.

The tearful 44-year-old said the decision was outrageous. “There’s nobody responsible for what happened to me as a child. There has been more support for Hickey than there has been for me from the Department [of Education], ” she said.

Ms O’Keeffe faced a legal bill of €500,000 when she lost her case in the High Court two years ago. Having lost her appeal to the Supreme Court, that figure is likely to rise, and the separated mother-of-two said it was more than everything she owned.

“I really don’t know what I’m going to do. At the very least I’d hope that they [the State] would not continue to seek those costs and I would beg and plead with them to waive all costs.”

Four of the five Supreme Court judges ruled that while Leo Hickey was paid by the State as principal of Dunderrow National School in Co Cork, he was employed by the Catholic diocese of Cork and Ross through the school’s board of management.

In judgments that could affect around 200 other abuse victims currently considering action, they found that the State could not be “vicariously liable” for the actions of an individual it had not directly employed.

The one dissenting judge, Mr Justice Hugh Geoghegan, said that the close relationship between Church and state in primary schools meant the State should not be exempt from liability.

Ms O’Keeffe said afterwards the State, through the Department of Education, had trained Leo Hickey, approved his appointment to Dunderrow, paid his salary, set out the curriculum he taught and, since his retirement, paid his pension, yet refused to take responsibility for his behaviour.

“I see this as an unfortunate development, and an attempt by the department to put a quango by way of a board of management between it and the pupil, as a way of evading its responsibility,” she said.

A spokesperson for Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe said the judgment was still being considered and it would be inappropriate to comment on costs, which would be handled by the State Claims Agency.

Ciarán Breen, director of the State Claims Agency, said costs would be decided by the Supreme Court in the new year and the agency would not move before then. “We will be both sensitive and measured in relation to Ms O’Keeffe in the event that the court was to decide that costs were to go with the State,” he said.

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