Special report: ‘I was fought every step of the way, and that is as painful as the rapes’

Sean O’Donnell is one of many who the State wrote to, instructing him to drop his civil case against it or be pursued for thousands of euros in legal costs. He tells Jess Casey the effect this has had on his life.
Special report: ‘I was fought every step of the way, and that is as painful as the rapes’

Sean O'Donnell, who from the age of 11 was raped almost daily. Photograph Moya Nolan

Last December, Sean O’Donnell drove to Cork from his home in Dublin to visit the grave of the man he says repeatedly raped him when he was a child.

If his abuser, his former teacher, had been alive when Sean made his first formal complaint to gardaí in May 2018, he would have been prosecuted. But he died, 13 years prior.

At the graveyard, Sean slowly made his way through, checking each headstone for the name of his abuser.

He had hoped the experience might be cathartic. It was an exercise recommended by his therapist, who he sees through a counselling service arranged by the Diocese of Dublin.

He’d worried that he’d be overcome with anger or grief when he reached the grave. 

“But then I saw that he was buried with his wife,” he said.

“Instead, I told him about the affect his abuse had on me, on my whole life. I’d have rathered to say it to his face. I said a prayer and I told him that I hoped God could forgive him because I certainly couldn’t.”

When Sean gave evidence to the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse (CICA) in the 1990s, he opted to appear before the investigating committee.

This was in the hope he would get the chance to face his abuser, to confront him about the harm he had caused. It meant having to tell his parents what had happened to him as a child, because he was afraid his case would appear in the papers.

“They were devastated.” 

His parents felt partly to blame, as they had sent him for extra lessons in his abuser’s home, a set-up arranged by the man himself.

“They thought he was very decent, giving up his time like that,” Sean said.

“It never even entered their head that he had ulterior motives. They thought they were doing the best for me. 

They very rarely spoke about it after they found out, I think they found it too difficult to speak about with me.

Sean, a 56-year-old former driving instructor, retired early a number of years ago due to ill-health.

Suffering from severe social anxiety, clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in the years following his childhood abuse, he has been hospitalised nine times since 2012.

He confronted what happened to him as a child for the first time in the early 1990s, as he was studying for the priesthood with the Redemptorist Order in Limerick.

“In hindsight, the time that I was happiest in my life was when I was studying for the priesthood,” he said.

“The loneliness got to me. I did seven or eight years and I left on good terms. My faith is hugely important to me, but I know I would be different to a lot of people who were abused.” 

During the course of his studies, his class was asked to ask themselves why they were studying for the priesthood, and if they were running away from something in their past.

“I realised I was,” Sean said.

“When you hear the words ‘sexual abuse’ now its nearly too clean a term, generic. It doesn’t portray the savagery of what happened; I was raped.” 

In clear detail, Sean can recall being sexually assaulted, molested and raped at the age of 11 and 12. It happened in the classroom, the school toilets and in two different residences where his abuser, a lay-teacher in his school, lived during that time.

“He came to our school, Monday to Friday, to teach and then went home to his family in Cork on the weekends.” 

From the first time he called to his abuser’s door for extra tuition after school, Sean was raped.

“Everytime it was over, he would turn to me and say ‘Will we have a look at the sums?’” 

“He told me that if I ever told anyone, he would kill me and come after my parents.” 

A number of times, he saw other boys his age leaving his abuser’s residence as he was arriving. 

“I knew it was the same for them.” 

To this day, Sean still suffers extreme physical reactions when he is reminded of what happened to him as a child. 

Everyday I try to get out for a walk with the dogs and everyday I pass the gates of the school, I try not to look but everyday I do.

“My eyes always go to the school and I just get this feeling of terror. It has affected me in every way possible, in so many ways. I suppose the trauma of being abused, of being raped it's bad enough if it happens once. 

“But it happened every day while I was 11 and 12. For that time, it was a constant in my life. Everything after that, I was afraid.

“It coloured how I saw everything, I saw danger in everything and in everybody. I still see the danger. You know the way people say I don’t want to let what happened to me define me? That’s basically what it has done. I’m not the person I could have been if this hadn’t happened to me.

"You can’t foresee the future. I’d love to be able to sit here and say I’m not going to let (my abuser) take anymore away from me but I can’t.

“I’ve tried to get to a point where I say enough is enough and I stop letting him have this power over me, this hold over me. But I’m just not able to. 

"The man is dead since 2005 and yet he’s the first thing I see in the morning and he is the last thing I see at night. I’m waking up with nightmares, I’m having flashbacks to those days.” 

A year after Sean left national school, he remembers his parents attending an evening meeting after a complaint has been made about his abuser by another child.

At home, his parents asked if Sean had a similar experience with the same man.

“Because of the threats that he made against me, about killing me and killing my parents if I ever told anybody, I just couldn’t. I was afraid. I just said no he never did, and that’s the way it was.

“I stayed schtum. It's a matter of huge regret that I didn’t have the wherewithal emotionally or psychologically to say to somebody ‘listen this is what is going on, this is what this man is doing’ and it could have stopped.”

In recent years, Sean has made contact with two other former students who also report being abused by the same man around the same time as him.

Both men told the Irish Examiner they believed the same teacher had abused more students.

One said: “I’m just sorry that we didn’t stand up then and hold him to task but it's not that easy. If I spoke up, maybe somebody after me mightn’t have had to go through what we went through.

“That lives with you, as does what happened 40 years ago. You never forget things like that.” 

In May 2018, Sean went to a garda station and made his first official complaint. After so long, he felt relieved to have his account taken seriously by gardaí.

Following an investigation, his complaint was marked "detected" in accordance with crime counting rules, a garda spokesman confirmed to the Irish Examiner. 

Incidents are marked as detected where an offender dies before proceedings could be initiated or completed, he added.

“In every case, there must be sufficient admissible evidence to prosecute, which if given in court would have a reasonable probability of resulting in a conviction.”

'I just felt so let down’

In the 1990s, in Limerick, Sean spoke to his lecturer privately, telling him “not in any detail” that he was raped as a child.

That was the first-ever time I ever spoke about it. That was in 1992, maybe 1993. I never said anything else to anybody until the abuse commission was set up.

In 1999, the Commission to Investigate Child Abuse (CICA) was tasked with investigating all forms of child abuse in Irish institutions.

Going on to publish the Ryan Report in 2009, the commission scrutinised the pasts of industrial and reformatory schools, children’s homes, hospitals, national and secondary schools, day and residential special needs schools and foster care.

It also looked at abuse in Magdalene laundries and hostels.

It heard evidence from witnesses through two separate committees; the Investigating Committee, which investigated people’s claims of abuse, and the Confidential Committee, which heard and documented people’s experiences of abuse, uncontested.

Sean, who wanted the chance to face his abuser, contacted the Investigating Committee. At this time he believed his case would progress to a public hearing.

When he was first put in contact with the barrister investigating his case, he made sure to specifically ask what would happen in the event that his rapist passed away.

“In my eyes, he was an old man when he was abusing me and this was so many years later, 25 years later.” 

He was assured that the Department of Education had questions to answer, irregardless.

This was mainly to do with the fact that his abuser had retired suddenly due to chronic ill-health. However, a number of years later, he had returned to teaching, cured of all ailments.

He had also taught at a number of different schools around the country - in Cork, Limerick and Dublin.

“Why was he allowed to move from school to school without red flags being raised or questions being asked,” Sean said.

It just seemed to me that you don’t suddenly overnight become a paedophile and that the time that he abused me he was in his 60s.

But in March 2006, Sean was told the investigation into his case was to be dropped after his abuser had died. 

“I just felt so let down,” he said.

“They had been looking for people to come and tell their story, and to get involved with the Child Abuse Commission, to participate in this great thing that was going to finally reveal everything that had been going on in Irish society.

“Here was I, laid my heart open and had told them what had happened, and all for no reason because the whole thing was just dropped. I could have saved my family the torture of finding out about all of this.

“It just felt like ‘God Almighty, I’m after putting them through hell over this’ and the hell that I had to go through, to build myself up to tell them that this had happened to me.

"And then it was dropped and they didn’t give me a reason why.” 

Like all victims of abuse in national schools, Sean wasn’t entitled to apply for redress through the Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB), set up in 2002.

Through this piece of legislation, those who suffered abuse as children while they were a resident at 139 listed institutions could apply for compensation.

This list included industrial schools, reformatories and other institutions, such as hospitals or orphanages, which were subject to state inspections.

The majority of these institutions were run by religious congregations; 18 religious congregations managed some 100 of the institutions named in the Act.

It wasn’t necessary for a person to have been prosecuted or convicted of any criminal offence in connection with the abuse reported to the RIRB.

Each award was made based on the evidence provided, which included evidence of having been a resident, and evidence of any injuries arising out of the abuse suffered.

Pursuing a case through the RIRB was initially billed as a kinder alternative to pursuing civil cases, by avoiding the trauma associated with the courts.

However, it was far from perfect, with many survivors finding it to be an adversarial, traumatic process.

The largest award offered by the RIRB was €300,000, while the average award paid out was somewhere closer to €62,000.

It paid out close to €1 billion by the time it began to wind down in 2017, relating to 15,579 cases. A further 1,069 applications were withdrawn, refused or no award was made.

The State consistently argued that while it was acting in ‘loco-parentis’ for children placed in industrial schools, it wasn’t responsible for what happened in national or day schools.

It argued that even though teachers were on its payroll, responsibility for the day-to-day operations lay instead with each school’s board of management, and not with the Department of Education.

Victims were free to pursue civil cases in the courts, the State always maintained. However, most cases finalised between 2006 and 2019 were unsuccessful, according to figures released by the State Claims Agency to the Irish Examiner.

A settlement was reached in less than 4% of 408 legal actions of historical child abuse outside of residential institutions taken against the Minister of Education and Skills.

Almost 85% of these cases were discontinued, withdrawn or prevented from proceeding due to the statute of limitations.

Indemnity was received in eight of these 408 cases, and a further 40 were dismissed.

The State has treated victims unequally, Sean believes. 

Rape is rape, irrespective of where it happens and irrespective of whether the State was acting in loco parentis or not.

He had initiated civil proceedings in 2001 against his abuser, his former school and the Minister for Education.

After his admission to CICA hit a dead-end, he felt some bit reassured that at least he had his civil case to pursue in his quest for accountability.

Concrete wall of having no one to tell

In June 2009, the 30th Dáil and its deputies were attempting to grapple with the next steps following the publication of the Ryan Report the previous month.

Across five volumes, the report chronicled decades of systemic abuse inflicted on the most vulnerable members of Irish society.

Its publication was a watershed moment, and the work of the commission spanned ten years.

Institutions that received more than 20 complaints were fully investigated, the majority of which were residential institutions.

However, a significant number of witnesses also came forward from other institutions.

Forty witnessess reported sexual abuse at 35 different schools, 23 of which were primary schools.

A further 27 of these witnesses reported chronic sexual abuse that continued over a number of years.

Now in the Dáil chambers in 2009, much of the commentary focused on the refusal of the religious congregations to accept collective responsibility, and of the treatment of the survivors at the Redress Board.

Two Fine Gael TDs, who at that time were in opposition, raised the issue of redress for day school pupils.

“Those children suffered just as despicable a violation of their innocence,” said Olywen Enright.

They faced the same concrete wall of having no one to tell, a society that protected the abuser and not the victim, and living with the shame that they were too young to know.

Charlie Flanagan, the recent minister for mustice, also raised the plight of day school students.

On the Dáil record, he raised the case of Louise O’Keeffe, a Cork woman who was sexually abused by Leo Hickey, her national school principal in the 1970s.

It wasn’t the first time her prominent case was mentioned in the Dáil. At that point, she had fought the State in the Supreme Court, arguing that her abuser alone was not responsible for the abuse she suffered.

Determined to highlight the Department of Education’s failure to put in place appropriate child protection measures, she sued the State for vicarious liability.

But the courts ruled against her, on the basis that her abuser Hickey was employed by her school’s board of management.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the State was to pursue her for legal costs, until the court refused to award them.

“When a victim attempts to find justice in the court, the State throws the kitchen sink to win the case and crush the plaintiff,” Mr Flanagan said.

“We must move away from the traditional notion that allegations are easy to make and difficult to prove or that those who complain are troublemakers.

“The State cannot persist in washing its hands of responsibility for the abuse that was perpetrated by teachers on its payroll. The approach to victims of abuse in primary schools must be changed and we need legislative change in this area to close the legal loophole that is allowing the Department of Education and Science to shirk its responsibilities on a daily basis.”

Louise O’Keeffe persevered with her case. 

“All along, I was told that my situation was the same as Louise’s,” Sean said.

“By the Chief State Solicitor’s office and then subsequently by the legal firm that took over from the State Claims Agency,” he explained. 

“All along.” 

In August 2006, he received a letter from the Chief State Solicitor’s office, reminding him that the State was awarded its costs in the case Louise lost in the High Court in July 2006.

The State was prepared to bear its own costs to date against Sean, but it intended to hold him liable for any costs, outlays and expenditure incurred from that point on.

In January 2009, after the Supreme Court held that the State wasn’t liable for the abusive actions of a teacher, the Chief State Solicitor’s Office again wrote to Sean.

He wasn’t the only one to receive letters like this. After the Supreme Court threw out Louise’s case, the State Claims Agency wrote to others pursuing cases in the courts relating to sexual abuse in Irish primary schools.

One letter Sean received said that his case has the same legal issues as Louise O’Keefe’s case, and as a result could not succeed due to the jurisprudence established in the Supreme Court.

He was asked to sign a notice of discontinuance. If he didn’t sign it by a certain date, he’d be pursued for the costs of the case. However, signing this notice would mean ceasing legal action against the State forever.

The Department of Education did not provide the Irish Examiner with an exact number of people with similar claims who signed these notices of discontinuances after receiving such correspondence, but it is understood to be dozens.

In 2014, 75 people who signed these notices sought to have them set aside.

In 2009, Sean received further correspondence, noting disappointment that he hadn’t signed a notice of discontinuance. Costs would “naturally” be sought.

Then in January 2014, Louise O’Keeffe won a landmark case when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the State failed to put in place effective controls against abuse, or effective reporting mechanisms.

Louise wept as the judgement was announced in Strasbourg. At one point, she had stood to lose her home if the State had pursued her for costs.

She was, rightly, lauded as a hero. This ruling would have implications for hundreds of other victims.

Enda Kenny, then-taoiseach, described Louise as “an example of a woman of extraordinary commitment over a long number of years to follow her case.” 

Apologising, he said the ECHR judgement in her case was “exceptionally complex” and would be studied by the government.

Louise graciously accepted his apology but asked that the government act quickly for the sake of others in similar circumstances.

The ECHR judgement offered hope for many victims, including Sean, considering how he had received a trail of official correspondence, outlining the similarities between the two cases.

“All along they kept saying to me that my case was the same as Louise O’Keeffe’s,” Sean said.

“But then, when she won her European Court judgement, all of a sudden I got a letter saying I was suddenly not in the same position and I wasn’t entitled to access redress.” 

In May 2014, Sean received a solicitor’s letter telling him the decision in Louise’s ECHR case was not applicable to him.

Further correspondence advised him that following a review by the State Claims Agency, his case was “not aligned” to the findings of the ECHR.

He was never given further details as to why his case was suddenly different to O’Keeffe vs Ireland.

“I think they changed the goalposts to suit themselves,” Sean said.

A redress scheme to offer ex gratia [without obligation] payments to victims of sexual abuse in schools who pursued cases against the State was announced in July 2015 on foot of the ECHR ruling.

In a statement, the Department of Education said that some 210 potential cases were identified following a review of the case files held by the State Claims Agency and by the Chief State Solicitor’s Office.

“Following the O’Keeffe Judgement, the State Claims Agency has been notified of many new historic school child abuse claims.” 

Sean was prepared to stand up in court to contest his case. But in 2018, he wasn’t in the best place mentally.

“I was just out of St Pat’s, my mam had just died,” he explained.

The years spent engaged in the legal process had ground him down. The letters he received from the State had scarred him, as had the threat of being put on the hook for thousands of euros in costs.

He believed he faced near certain financial ruin if he lost, and so he consented to letting his case go.

“It was huge money. I was told that they were going to come after me for €100,000 at least, if I failed, and if there was an appeal it could go up to €200,000.

“I just panicked. It was the worst thing that I have ever done. I feel like I have let myself down by giving in. I never got to have my day in court.” 

A year later, it emerged that not one victim had been paid through the redress scheme set up following the ECHR ruling in Louise’s case, despite receiving 50 applications in the four years since her case.

Since its establishment, legal experts had been critical of what they described as the State’s narrow interpretation of the implications of the judgement.

An independent review carried out by retired High Court judge Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill found the State was deliberately misinterpreting the judgement, and imposing “illogical” and “unfair” requirements on victims seeking compensation.

This prompted a State apology, and promises for changes to the existing scheme, to be enacted as soon as possible.

"There is no justification in my standing up on behalf of the State to say we tried our best but failed,” said Joe McHugh, the former minister for education.

“That is what happened. We failed as a State and as a society.” 

Financial settlements have been offered in 16 of the cases considered in the report - nine have been accepted.

The scheme was closed to all other applicants while under review. It still remains closed now, more than one year later.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who was recently urged by Louise O’Keeffe to progress the scheme as he had committed to while in opposition, wishes to progress the matter so that those who were excluded would be catered for in a revised, and re-opened scheme, he indicated this month.

Sean’s solicitor Dermot McNamara believes redress must be put in place for victims of sexual abuse in schools.

“The adversarial nature of the court process is totally unsuited for such claims, and undoubtedly re-traumatises victims,” he said.

Accessing a redress scheme would allow victims to have details of their abuse acknowledged and recorded by the State, he added.

“Most victims just want to be believed, and to have the Government acknowledge what happened to them as children when in the care of teachers employed by the State.” 

In a statement, the department said it continues to engage with legal representatives of victims of day school abuse who were offered settlements and haven’t yet accepted them.

The department said it cannot comment on individual cases “but it is important to note that in many of the litigation cases there are many defendants including the State.” 

“Survivors of day school abuse are pursuing cases through the civil courts and are regularly receiving settlements, either through the courts or on an out of court basis.” 

When asked if there is scope to open up the redress process to reflect the lived experiences of those coming forward about abuse as part of the current review of the ex gratia scheme, the department did not directly respond.

For Sean, who the State deemed ineligible for redress, and remains in limbo along with other victims, it's the apologies he finds galling.

“I just find these apologies would be welcome if they meant what they were supposed to mean, but they have been forced into them because of public opinion. 

All they see is someone looking for money, and all I want is for someone to say we are sorry, this shouldn’t have happened to you.

"This isn’t just somebody looking for a bit of compensation, it's about life. I have tried to take my life a couple of times and it is as a result of what my abuser did to me, and it's as a result of getting those threatening letters.” 

“I was let down by the Child Abuse Commission, I wasn’t given access to the Redress Board, I was fought every step of the way by the State, the State Claims Agency and the Department of Education and ultimately I had to agree to letting the case go because of the threat of these inordinate costs. 

He said the organs of the State have failed him in every way. 

"And that is as painful as the actual rapes. It wasn’t more painful but it was on-par. The total invalidation from the people who should have been caring for me, from the people who were caring for kids that were sexually abused. 

“I don’t know whether I’ll get past this or not but it needs to come out. People need to be told, people need to hear that this evil was happening and it's not long ago. 

“All they are interested in doing is saving themselves, protecting themselves and the institutions that they represent from bad publicity. 

They don’t care about me, they don’t care about people who have been hurt and it's just not fair.

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