Louise O'Keeffe: ‘The case should never have gone this far’

IN a room of about 30sq ft, surrounded by paintings of court scenes and old maps, Louise O’Keeffe held her breath for the result she’d wanted to hear for over 15 years.

Louise O'Keeffe: ‘The case should never have gone this far’

The events were unravelling in the office of her solicitor Ernest Cantillon more than 40 years since the sexual abuse she went through in a small Co Cork school many miles west of this city centre office.

Further away still, Ernest’s colleague Mary Scriven was in a Strasbourg courtroom waiting to text the decision of the 17 judges in Louise’s case. As he sat beside her, eyes fixed on the smartphone in front of him, she smiled nervously through the silence as reporters and cameramen waited with them for the outcome.

About four minutes after word that the hearing was starting, Ernest’s phone beeped and, knowing the pre-determined code from his colleague in the Strasbourg courtroom, he said quietly. “We’ve just got one word. Win.”

The weight lifting from her shoulders was almost visible, as she took one enormous gasp of breath, managed to break into a broad smile and at the same time, hold back tears. With hardly time to take in the news, she was asked for her reaction.

“Oh. It’s such good news for the children of Ireland, it really is. It’s not just me, it’s the children attending our schools at the moment, the children who will attend the schools in the future and also those who did attend in the past.”

But rather than victory or jubilation, her overwhelming feeling was relief.

“I couldn’t say joyous, in the sense that it’s a case that should never have had to go this far,” she said.

While Ernest took a call a few minutes later from Ms Scriven after the court had risen, she began texting family and friends; like a schoolchild hiding something under the table, but with excitement and the adrenalin evident in her every movement.

“I think it was totally unnecessary, obviously by the result we have achieved today. The worst of all is that it takes an eight-year-old girl 15-and-a-half years to get this result; it’s simply not good enough. It should have been dealt with 15 and a half years ago and before that,” she said.

She was the eight-year-old girl who in 1973 endured months of sexual abuse at the hands of her school principal Leo Hickey, but who discovered later that there had been a complaint to the school about his abuse of another girl two years earlier. It was the absence of a system by which the priest in charge of the school could report this to the Department of Education which formed the basis of her case made to the ECHR last March; and which the court has now decided was a breach of the State’s obligations under human rights conventions to prevent inhuman and degrading treatment.

And this fact — that what happened to her could have been prevented — is clearly the aspect which most appalls Louise. She had no message for her abuser, when asked, saying that the criminal court had dealt with him.

“What he did shouldn’t have happened and the department did not protect me from Leo Hickey. A complaint was made in 1971, if the State and the department had acted on that claim I would not have been abused,” she said.

The point is reinforced by her solicitor, who said a system needs to be put in place now to prevent abuse and the Department of Education must take responsibility for that.

“In fairness to the priest, he didn’t have any guidelines from the department as to what he should say and there was no provision for onward complaints.”

He also affirms her position that an apology should not be sought or demanded, as a sought apology is worthless. Her words on the matter were very simple: “I shouldn’t have to demand it at all, it should be something that should be immediate. They owe every single child who was abused inside in a national school a comprehensive apology.”

For almost 20 years — since walking into Innishannon Garda Station in West Cork to talk to gardaí investigating complaints of sexual abuse against Hickey — dealing with her horrific childhood experience has been a dominant aspect of her life. But as a mother of two schoolgoing children, it has not been everything.

“Part of my life has been on hold but anyone who has children will know, you have to get up in the morning, they’ll have to go to school, have their lunch, homework has to be done in the evening, training for sports. Whatever activities they’re doing, they have to be done, regardless of what you’re going through,” she said.

Yet surely, the 49-year-old is asked, there were times in the whole period of legal wrangling that the pressure on her and her family must have made her consider dropping the whole case?

There was, after all, the prospect of losing her home if the State pursued her for its legal costs, estimated at €750,000 by the time the case ended in late 2008 with a ruling against her by the Supreme Court.

“There’s always times when that happens but the strongest belief always held through. That was the belief that the children in our schools have a right to be protected and must be protected.”

For the 135 other adults who previously brought cases like hers claiming the Department of Education and the State did not provide that protection or had a liability for abuse they suffered as children in schools, Mr Cantillon says the State told them after that 2008 Supreme Court case to drop their claims or face action themselves for the State’s legal costs.

“Some of those people may well have been frightened off by the threatening letters they got. Those people should be approached and told ‘look, we got it wrong, let’s re-engage’. Those people that hadn’t been frightened off should be approached to settle the case,” he said.

“If they’re not… we’ll have a complaint in a couple of months’ time saying ‘look at the amount of money we’re paying to these people, look at the legal costs because we failed to act’.”

While legal options may reopen for hundreds of others, Louise O’Keeffe was coming to grips with the reality that her battle was over.

“There’s a sense of closure in that the legal side of my life is at an end. There’s a closure in the sense that yes, we have been justified in continuing the whole course with this case.

But, she was asked, is the nightmare now over?

“I still have to live with the consequences of what happened to me in school.”

Legal battle finishes where it started

A legal battle that lasted over 15 years started and ended in the same legal office where Ernest Cantillon guided and his team encouraged Louise O’Keeffe through a series of blows that might have seen any other plaintiff give up hope years ago.

It was here in late Aug 1998 that her determined campaign to get justice from the State for what happened to her in school in Dunderrow, Kinsale, was initiated.

“I’ll never forget the first day I came into Ernest’s office. Before arriving, I had the jitters about coming. How on earth was I going to tell a man what was after happening to me. What on earth was he going to think of me?” recalled Louise.

“How was I going to explain what I felt, where I was coming from? And I went out of the office literally with a weight taken off my shoulders.”

He made quite clear to her the possible consequences if she lost; but he shared her belief in the case enough to see it through to Strasbourg and yesterday’s landmark ruling.

“I’d hoped that the Irish courts would find for Louise in the first place and it was disappointing that they didn’t,” he said.

“The State sought to suggest here that it didn’t have a liability. I think it’s a fallacy of a defence. Another court in another place found that defence does not stand up to scrutiny and I think the European court judgment is the correct judgment.”

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