A Corkwoman who was sexually abused by her school principal has won a landmark lawsuit against the Irish state for failing to protect her.
Louise O’Keeffe took Ireland to the European Court of Human Rights claiming inhuman and degrading treatment while aged nine at Dunderrow National School in Co Cork in 1973.
The Strasbourg-based court ruled today that her rights were breached on two grounds in a judgment that could have massive ramifications for other survivors of abuse, including in terms of compensation.
Ms O'Keeffe's former principal Leo Hickey was prosecuted in the 1990s for historic abuse against pupils.
He was charged with 386 criminal offences of sexual abuse involving 21 former pupils of the school, near Kinsale, Co Cork.
In 1998 he pleaded guilty to 21 sample charges and was sentenced to three years in jail.
The European court found that Ireland’s system of detection and reporting of abuse was ineffective in the 1970s as it allowed more than 400 incidents of abuse over such a long period.
It said if adequate action had been taken in 1971 when the first complaint against Hickey was made, Ms O’Keeffe might have not been abused by him.
The court ruled that Ms O’Keeffe’s rights had been violated under article three of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment and of article 13 which gives rights to an effective remedy.
The result could pave the way for claims against the State from hundreds, if not thousands, of people who were abused in schools.
Dunderrow National School was a state national school owned by the Catholic Diocese of Cork and Ross and its patron was the Bishop of Cork and Ross.
Ms O’Keeffe began legal action against the State after a compensation award of just IR £53,000 in 1998 for psychological problems caused by the abuse and a civil action against Hickey, the minister for education and science, Ireland and the Attorney General.
She claimed the State had failed to put in place appropriate measures and procedures to prevent and stop Hickey’s systematic abuse. She also claimed the State was vicariously liable as the employer.
The High Court in Dublin ordered Hickey to pay €305,104 in damages. The court arranged for it to be paid at €400 a month and only €30,000 has been recovered.
Ireland’s Supreme Court ultimately threw out the case against the State in 2008.
Hickey was forced out of Dunderrow school in the 1970s after an increasing number of complaints but went on to teach in another school in Cork until he retired in 1995.
The ruling from the Strasbourg court is final.
Ms O'Keeffe said, as far as she was concerned, the case was being fought by an eight-year-old.
“It’s quite obvious in the way the state has fought me in the last 15 and a half years,” she said.
“If what happened to me happened to a child in 12 months’ time or even tomorrow the state are quite willing to not own up to responsibility for that abuse. They would still have fought the case the way they fought me.
“They were quite prepared to continue fighting an eight-year-old child.”
Ms O’Keeffe said she hopes 135 people who suffered abuse in school and were written to by Ireland’s state claims agency after she lost her cases in the Dublin courts will now receive an apology.
The Department of Education said lessons have been learnt from the past, including the conditions in schools in the 1970s.
“Since that time, Irish society has faced the scourge of child sexual abuse in a wide range of settings, from within family homes, to residential settings and in the wider community settings, such as schools and sports clubs, as well as in specific Catholic Church contexts,” a spokesman said.
“This is a deeply shameful part of our recent history.”
Maeve Lewis, executive director of abuse survivors charity One in Four, said: “The Department of Education lays down the requirements for teacher training and registration. It employs inspectors to monitor the quality of teachers’ work.
“It provides funding for the running of schools and pays teachers’ salaries. In everything but the legal sense, it is the employer of teachers.
“Today’s judgment will ensure that the Department of Education must now be responsible for the conduct of teachers and for the safety of children attending school.”