Louise O'Keeffe: A woman vindicated - Why make it so very hard for victims?

Louise O’Keeffe deserves our respect, admiration, and congratulations, though she would prefer it had she never been obliged to make her cause, her decades-long fight against stone-walling officialdom, so very public.

Louise O'Keeffe: A woman vindicated - Why make it so very hard for victims?

She joins that precious and admirable minority who fought the system and because of her conviction and courage — and her loyal and very able legal team — was vindicated.

That her ordeal, and the agony suffered by thousands more Irish people in similar positions, was exacerbated by an officialdom more concerned with damage limitation than the pressing human obligations arising from the fact that she was abused by a State employee in a State institution — albeit under the management of local clergy — is another chilling reminder of how very dark, how very disturbing this country was for very much of its history.

As a national school pupil in 1973, Ms O’Keeffe was sexually abused by then school principal Leo Hickey. After parents complained to the Catholic priest responsible for Dunderrow National School in the early 1970s, Mr Hickey moved to another school where he taught for another 20 or so years. Neither the Department of Education or the gardaí received complaints about Hickey until an 1990s investigation was opened. Hickey was then charged with 386 criminal offences of sexual abuse involving some 21 pupils of Dunderrow National School near Kinsale. In 1998 he pleaded guilty, and was jailed.

After a long, difficult, and dispiriting process, Ms O’Keeffe’s battle to seek some form of redress reached the Supreme Court in 2009. Her contention, now vindicated, that the State failed in its obligations to protect her while in national school was rejected. Five years later, and what a test of her resilience that half decade must have been, the European Court of Human Rights overturned that decision and ruled in her favour.

Her odyssey is exceptional and it points to all of those silent abuse victims, those not robust enough or those without the support needed to recover the equilibrium denied them by their abusers and, later, possibly by an overly meticulous and almost hostile officialdom. Some of these lives end in tragedy, others remain shadows of what they might have been, but there are those who endure and Louise O’Keeffe is one of those.

Her case also raises questions about how very ardent the State and its officers can sometimes be in defending cases that might create significant liabilities. It is right that public resources be protected, but sometimes, very often in cases involving maternity services, it seems that the tragedy that led to a court action is made even more painful by defensive authorities who must know where the liability lies and the consequences of that reality.

Responding to yesterday’s final ruling, Ms O’Keeffe described it as a victory for the children of Ireland. It would be a victory for all of us if it gave the authorities and those who represent sections of our health services a moment’s pause to consider a more humane approach, in cases where it is obviously justified and possible, to those who challenge them in the courts.

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