Euro court to hear appeal over sex abuse liability

The European Court of Human Rights is to hear an appeal next year by a Corkwoman against a Supreme Court ruling the State was not legally liable for the sexual abuse she suffered as a child by her teacher.

The Strasbourg-based court has set Mar 6 for a hearing in the case taken by Louise O’Keeffe, despite opposition by Irish authorities to the admissibility of her application.

Ms O’Keeffe, aged 48, unsuccessfully tried to sue the Department of Education over sexual abuse she suffered as an eight-year-old during music lessons by her teacher, Leo Hickey, at Dunderrow National School in Co Cork in 1973.

Next year’s hearing by the court is seen as a major test case as a ruling in Ms O’Keeffe’s favour could lead to a flood of appeals from abuse victims in similar circumstances.

It is estimated more than 200 other abuse victims dropped or postponed their legal actions against the State following a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court against Ms O’Keeffe in 2008. It upheld an original High Court ruling that the State was not vicariously liable for the sexual assaults.

However, it said Ms O’Keeffe should not be held liable for the State’s legal costs as there were “exceptional reasons” why she had taken the case.

Her application to the court was strongly resisted by the State, which argued on the basis that her failure to sue the Diocese of Cork and Ross, which owned the school, constituted a significant mistake on her part and a failure to exhaust all legal remedies within the Irish courts system.

It also claimed she could no longer claim to be a victim as she had accepted an award of £53,000 in 1998 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal.

Last January, she accepted a Government offer of an ex gratia sum of €12,000 as well as €3,500 for costs and expenses to settle her complaints to the court relating to the length of her civil proceedings and that she had no effective remedy through the Irish courts.

However, the court ruled in June that the remainder of Ms O’Keeffe’s complaints raised serious issues of fact and law under the European Convention on Human Rights which warranted a full hearing of the case.

It said her complaints were “manifestly not ill-founded”.

In 1998, Hickey pleaded guilty to 21 sample charges of sexual assault and was sentenced to three years in prison.

In 2006, the High Court ordered him to pay Ms O’Keeffe over €305,000 in damages. In subsequent enforcement proceedings instituted after Hickey claimed he had insufficient finances, he was ordered to pay Ms O’Keeffe €400 per month.

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