Friday, April 29, 2011

Court closer to hearing in school abuse case

THE European Court of Human Rights has moved a step closer to launching a full hearing into a Cork woman’s appeal against a ruling the state was not legally liable for the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a primary school teacher.

Louise O’Keeffe, a 46-year-old mother of two from Bandon, is challenging a Supreme Court ruling from 2009 that the Department of Education was not liable for the abuse she suffered when a pupil at Dunderrow National School, near Kinsale, in 1973.

Ms O’Keeffe has lodged papers with the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights against that ruling on the basis the state is vicariously liable for the abuse at the hands of school principal, Leo Hickey, whom she argues was an employee of the Department of Education.

A ruling by the ECHR in favour of Ms O’Keeffe could have major cost implications for the state, as it is being regarded as a test case by hundreds of others who suffered sexual abuse while in school.

Ms O’Keeffe has complained that the state has breached a number of articles of the European Convention on Human Rights through its failure to have a structure to protect children in national schools from abuse and to protect her from being subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.

She has also claimed she was discriminated against under Article 14 of the Convention on the basis that the state has accepted responsibility to compensate children for the same abuse suffered in industrial schools and other institutions.

The ECHR has now asked the Government to provide detailed information about the number of primary schools in Ireland in 1973, including the number operated under religious patronage. The court has also sought details about the primary education options available to parents in 1973.

Both the Government and Ms O’Keeffe have been asked to outline their understanding of the precise role and responsibilities of inspectors of national schools in that period, as well as structural changes to the management and administration of such schools which were introduced by the Education Act, 1998.

Critically, the ECHR has requested details of the "precise mechanisms, safeguards and procedures" which were in place to ensure that any complaints of ill-treatment, including sexual abuse reported by school managers, were acted upon by the Department of Education.

Ms O’Keeffe was awarded €305,104 in compensation by the High Court in 1999 in a civil action taken against Hickey.

However, she subsequently lost both High Court and Supreme Court cases in which she sought to make the state liable for the personal injuries she suffered as a result of the abuse.