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European Court of Human Rights to rule on Irish child sex abuse case

Can the Irish State be held responsible for the abuse suffered by children at the hands of former National School principal Leo Hickey?

Image: Christian Lutz/AP/Press Association Images

THE EUROPEAN COURT of Human Rights (ECtHR) will deliver a Grand Chamber judgement in a case taken against Ireland by a citizen over child sexual abuse next week.

The ruling in Louise O’Keeffe versus Ireland will be revealed in a public hearing at 10am (Irish time) on Tuesday, 28 January in the Human Rights Building in Strasbourg.

The Cork woman, now aged 49, is seeking damages from the State for abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of a primary school principal.

She was indecently assaulted by Leo Hickey at Dunderrow National School in Kinsale for a number of months in 1973 when she was just nine years old. During a criminal investigation into a separate complaint about the principal, O’Keeffe was contacted by authorities and made a statement about the offences in 1997.

It is understood that she had suppressed the sexual abuse until then, not linking her psychological difficulties with the events of her past.

Hickey was charged with 386 criminal offences involving 21 former pupils of the national school. He pleaded guilty and was jailed for three years.

Having heard evidence from other victims during the criminal trial, the victim realised the connection between her psychological problems and the abuse.

In October 1998 she applied to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal for compensation and was awarded €53,962.

The same year, she brought a civil action against her abuser, as well as the Minister for Education and the State. She sought damages for personal injuries claiming Ireland had failed to put in place appropriate measures and procedures to prevent and stop Hickey’s systematic abuse; and that it was vicariously liable as his employer.

The High Court ordered Hickey to pay out €305,104, a sum he said he cannot afford. It was arranged that he would pay €400 a month to the victim and, to date, she has received about €30,000 from him.

In 2004, the claims of direct negligence against the State were dismissed and, two years later, the High Court found that the State was not vicariously liable for the assaults.

The claim was also dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2008.

It found that “the Irish primary school system had to be understood in the specific context of early 19th Century history and that, while the State funded the system, the management role of the church was such that the State could not be held vicariously liable for the acts of the teacher in question”.

Dunderrow National School was managed by a priest on behalf of the Bishop of Cork and Ross.

The priest was made aware of allegations against Hickey in 1971. Further complaints were made in 1973, the year O’Keeffe was targeted.

A parents’ meeting was called, after which, the principal took sick leave and resigned. A number of parents had also removed their children from the school. The Department of Education was told about the resignation in January 1974 but not about the complaints.

Gardaí were not informed about the incidents or complaints.

Hickey took up a job in another national school where he taught until his retirement in 1995.

Following the failure of her case in the Supreme Court, O’Keeffe took it to Europe, stating that the Irish State failed to structure the primary education system so as to protect her. It also failed to investigate or provide an appropriate judicial response to her ill-treatment.

According to her complaint, she also says she has “suffered discrimination given the refusal to compensate victims of abuse in National Schools while accepting to do so as regards abuse victims from reformatory or industrial schools”.

The right for O’Keeffe to bring her case before the ECHR in Strasbourg, France was challenged by the State which argued that she had not exhausted all legal remedies in the country as she had not sued the Bishop of Cork and Ross which was responsible for running the school.

But the ECHR declared her case admissable in June of last year saying that it was not necessary for her to also sue the bishop having already taken legal action against the State.

The Grand Chamber heard her case on 6 March last year.

European Court of Human Rights to hear Cork woman’s abuse case

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