Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s department faces the most serious consequences from the finding on Tuesday that it was vicariously liable for the sexual abuse of Cork woman Louise O’Keeffe by her primary school principal more than 40 years ago. He said afterwards that the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) would have to be considered in detail, and this was echoed yesterday by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore.
“The Government is taking that judgment very seriously. We will be discussing it at our next Cabinet meeting next Tuesday. I admire Louise O’Keeffe for what she’s done. The case she took has gone on for a very long time,” he said.
The 49-year-old insisted after news of the ruling in her favour this week that the State must put in place statutory measures, rather than just guidelines, to ensure children are protected from abuse while at school. The ECHR awarded her €30,000 damages and €85,000 towards the costs and expenses, after finding that the State failed in its obligation to protect her from sexual abuse.
Geoffrey Shannon, the Government’s special rapporteur on child protection, said it could be argued that survivors in similar cases should be provided with a remedy. Asked about cases pending in the courts — or those who had abandoned claims after the Supreme Court found against Ms O’Keeffe in 2008 — he said the State must accept responsibility for its failure in the past to implement effective measures to protect and to detect abuse.
“There are two options available. The first is that you’d have a new cause of action. The second would be to establish some sort of redress scheme,” Mr Shannon said.
He said the ECHR ruling clearly says that delegating a key state function to private providers — in this instance, schools under patronage of a bishop — does not absolve the State of responsibility to regulate and protect. While the environment now is much different to that in the 1970s, with today’s launch of the Child and Family Agency and imminent legislation to underpin Children First procedures, he said there are implications from the judgment beyond the individual case for the wider area of child protection.