European Court of Human Rights rules State liable for Irish girl's abuse

Louise O'Keeffe Image copyright RTE
Image caption The Strasbourg-based court ruled on Tuesday that Louise O'Keeffe's rights were breached on two grounds

The European Court of Human Rights has found in favour of an Irish woman who was seeking to hold the state liable for sexual abuse she suffered as a girl at a Catholic-run state primary school in the 1970s.

Louise O'Keeffe was sexually abused by the principal, who was a lay teacher, at Dunderrow national school in County Cork in 1973.

She took her case to Europe after the Irish Supreme Court ruled the state could not be held responsible because the national school she attended was run by an independent board at the time.

She claimed she had suffered inhuman and degrading treatment while aged nine.

National schools are state-funded primary schools that are privately managed under religious (mainly Catholic) patronage.

The Strasbourg-based court ruled on Tuesday that her rights were breached on two grounds.

Ms O'Keeffe described the decision as a victory for all children.

"It's such good news for the children of Ireland. It really is. It's not just me. It's children attending our schools at the moment, the children who will attend school in the future," she said.

The judgment could have ramifications for other survivors of abuse, including in terms of compensation.

"The court found that it was an inherent obligation of a government to protect children from ill-treatment, especially in a primary education context," the court said.

"That obligation had not been met."

The court found that it was an "inherent obligation" of a government to protect children from ill-treatment, especially in a primary education context.

"That obligation had not been met when 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, nevertheless continued to entrust the management of the primary education of the vast majority of young Irish children to national schools, without putting in place any mechanism of effective state control against the risks of such abuse occurring," the court said in its ruling.

The determination said 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 had to be considered ineffective," it added.

Ms O'Keeffe's abuse came to light after the parent of another pupil informed police that her daughter had been sexually abused by the lay teacher, referred to as LH.

A number of other pupils also came forward.

LH was charged with 386 criminal offences of sexual abuse involving some 21 former pupils of Dunderrow National School.

In 1998, he pleaded guilty to 21 sample charges and was sentenced to imprisonment.

In October 1998, Ms O'Keeffe applied to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal for compensation and was awarded 53,962.24 euros.

In September 1998, she also brought a civil action against LH; the then minister for education and science; against the Republic of Ireland and its attorney general, claiming damages for personal injuries suffered as a result of assault and battery including sexual abuse.

She claimed that the state had failed to put in place appropriate measures and procedures to prevent and stop LH's systematic abuse; that the state was vicariously liable as the employer of LH; and, that the state was responsible as the educational provider under Article 42 of the Irish constitution.

LH did not defend the civil action and in October 2006 the High Court ordered him to pay Ms O'Keeffe 305,104 euros in damages.

In March 2004, the High Court summarily dismissed the claims of direct negligence against the state.

In January 2006, the High Court held that the state was not vicariously liable for the sexual assaults by LH and dismissed her constitutional claim.

In December 2008, the Supreme Court dismissed Ms O'Keeffe's appeal on the vicarious liability point.

As a result of the legal rulings, Ms O'Keeffe lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights on 16 June 2009.