Louise O'Keeffe: State had inherent obligation to protect pupils from abuse

 Louise O'Keeffe with solicitor Ernest J Cantillon, after the European Court ruled in her favour. Picture: Dan Linehan

THE European Court of Human Rights has found in favour of an Irish woman who sought to hold the State liable for sexual abuse she suffered at a Catholic-run primary school in 1973.

In a landmark judgement, the court awarded damages and costs of over €100,000 to Cork woman Louise O’Keeffe. She — along with 20 other schoolgirls — had been sexually abused by her school principal as a nine-year old girl at Dunderrow National School near Kinsale.

Ms O’Keeffe, 49, took the case to the European Court after the Irish Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the State was not liable for her suffering because the school had been run by an independent board under Catholic Church patronage.

In a majority decision, the court of 17 judges ruled that the structure of primary education in Ireland in the 1970s failed to protect Ms O’Keeffe from sexual abuse by her teacher.

Six of the judges dissented partially from the main judgment, taking issue mostly with some of the reasoning while supporting the result. The only judge to dissent from all aspects of the decision in Ms O’Keefe’s favour was the Irish judge, Peter Charlton, who delivered an extensive dissenting judgment outlining his reasons for disagreeing with the majority verdict.

The court held, by 11 votes to six, that there had been a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment, and Article 13, which sets out the right to an effective remedy.

The State was ordered to pay Ms O’Keeffe €30,000 in damages and €85,000 for costs and expenses.

The court held unanimously that there had been no violation of Article 3 of the European Convention as regards the investigation into the complaints of sexual abuse at Ms O’Keeffe’s school.

It also found that complaints made under Article 8, Article 2 of Protocol No 1 and Article 14 “did not give rise to any issues separate to those already examined”.

In the judgment, delivered at a public hearing in Strasbourg, the court ruled that it was an inherent obligation on a government to use special measures and safeguards to protect children from ill-treatment, especially in primary education when they are under the exclusive control of school authorities.

A state could not absolve itself from that obligation by delegating to private bodies or individuals.

It ruled that this obligation had not been met by the Irish State “which had to have been aware of the sexual abuse of children by adults prior to the 1970s through, among other things, its prosecution of such crimes at a significant rate”.

The court found that, notwithstanding this knowledge, the Government continued to entrust the management of primary education of the vast majority of young children to national schools, without putting in place any mechanism of effective state control against the risks of such abuse occurring.

“On the contrary, potential complainants had been directed away from the state authorities and towards the managers (generally the local priest) of the national schools. Indeed, any system of detection and reporting of abuse which allowed over 400 incidents of abuse to occur in Ms O’Keeffe’s school for such a long time has to be considered ineffective.”

The court rejected the argument of the Irish Supreme Court that Ms O’Keeffe should fail for not first exhausting all legal remedies in Ireland as she had not sued the Bishop of Cork and Ross who was responsible for running the school. The European Court ruled that Ms O’Keeffe was entitled to choose from a variety of legal remedies available to her.

In his dissenting judgment, Peter Charlton outlined his reasons for disagreeing with the verdict. “A dissent from the majority opinion is necessitated on three grounds: firstly, the approach of the majority to Article 35 of the Convention which requires the exhaustion of domestic remedies; secondly, the finding of the Court that Ireland is responsible under Article 3 of the Convention for subjecting the applicant to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and, finally, on the finding of the Court that the applicant was left by Ireland without an effective remedy under Article 13 of the Convention.”

Ms O’Keeffe’s abuse came to light in 1973 after the parent of another pupil informed the local canon that her daughter had been sexually abused by Leo Hickey, the lay principal of Dunderrow National School.

Following complaints by other parents whose daughters had been abused, Hickey resigned, moving to another school where he taught until his retirement in 1995. Following a Garda investigation in the 1990s, Hickey was charged with 386 criminal offences of sexual abuse involving 21 former pupils of Dunderrow. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to 21 sample charges and was jailed for three years.

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