EU court to consider school sex abuse case

The European Court of Human Rights has decided to consider the case against the State by Louise O’Keeffe for sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her primary school principal.

The High Court and Supreme Court previously rejected the West Cork woman’s claim for damages against the Education Minister after she was abused by Leo Hickey at Dunderrow National School in 1973.

Complaints had been made about abuse of other pupils before that, although the Supreme Court noted that the Department of Education did not appear to have been informed.

The State had successfully argued responsibility for staff rested with the school’s board of management.

Following the rejection of her appeal, the Supreme Court did not make an award against her for the State’s estimated costs of €750,000, as it had been an important test case on whose outcome hundreds of others already depended.

Ms O’Keeffe’s solicitor Ernest Cantillon lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights in June 2009. The case has now been admitted for determination before the court. However, it is likely to be early next year before the case progresses.

“For me, the first stage has been completed and they have decided they will hear the full case. So it’s good that it’s going to the next phase,” Ms O’Keeffe said.

“I have always maintained that the State has a responsibility and the only way I have of making sure the children of today and of the future are protected in our schools is by making the State accept that responsibility,” she said last night.

The Department of Education said it has been told by the Attorney General’s office of the decision that the case is admissible.

However, it made no comment as the matter is due before the courts.

The European Court of Human Rights usually does not hold hearings but decides cases based on written submissions.

Ms O’Keeffe’s complaint relates to a number of human rights articles, including prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment, right to respect for private life and right to an effective remedy.

Under an article prohibiting discrimination, her application argued the State tried to avoid responsibility regarding the vast majority of children in national schools, while accepting responsibility to compensate children for the same abuse in residential institutions, claiming that the difference of the two groups determined by residence is irrelevant to the abuse.

Leo Hickey was jailed for three years after pleading guilty in 1998 to 21 sample charges out of 386 sexual abuse offences he was charged with against 21 former pupils at the school.

He was ordered by the High Court in 2006 to pay Ms O’Keeffe €305,000 in damages. But she had to take a case in 2007 to force him to pay, resulting in an order that he pay her €400 a month after a District Court judge was told he had insufficient means.

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