Galway TD Catherine Connolly has said that a redress scheme for victims of child sexual abuse in schools was “designed to fail”.
The Independent TD was speaking in the Dáil after Minister for Education Joe McHugh apologised to victims of child sexual abuse at days schools for the failure of the government to take responsibility for what happened to them, echoing remarks made by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar the day before.
It comes after Mr Justice Iarfhlaith O’Neill ruled that the government wrongly interpreted a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Cork woman Louise O’Keefe.
Lousie O’Keefe fought a 15 year legal battle that went through Irish courts, and eventually to the ECHR, to prove that the state did have some liability for the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a teacher while in school.
The state interpreted that ruling to mean there must have been a prior complaint of abuse for people to access the redress scheme set up for victims from before 1992, and denied almost all claimants on those grounds.
In the Dáil this week Minister McHugh acknowledged that “as a matter of fact that this proved to be too difficult a hurdle for applicants to cross.
“Put simply, the scheme did not work,” the Minister said, adding that this led to 19 people who were deemed ineligible applying to Mr Justice O’Neill for a review of their cases, 13 of which were successful.
The Minister said that those 13 cases would now be paid their compensation “as a matter of priority”.
However Galway West TD Catherine Connolly said that while the government’s apology was welcome, the conditions the redress scheme was set up with made it impossible to comply with.
“Paragraph 62 of the judge’s findings outlined that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Article 13 rights under the convention continue to be infringed.
“Yet the Minister gave a speech today in the manner I outlined. He stated, ‘Put simply, the scheme did not work.'”
“Put simply, the scheme was designed not to work; it was designed to fail. We know that because conditions were put into it that were impossible to comply with.”
“The Government put the victims of abuse through a vicious circle, knowing well that they could not succeed,” Catherine Connolly said.
“Within that vicious circle we know that of the 50 persons who applied to the State Claims Agency, 44 were refused and six cases are pending.”
“Of the 44 refused, all failed on one particular reason, and in some cases another, namely, that they had no evidence of a prior complaint.”
Responsibility for historical sexual abuse
During his statement Minister McHugh reiterated that past judicial decisions have found that the state has less than full liability for abuse that took place in schools.
“Largely because of our history, we have a somewhat unique school system which reflects the constitutional position that the State provides for education, rather than being the provider of education.”
“The arm’s length nature of the system has been recognised by the domestic courts when considering issues of the State’s liability for wrongdoing in schools.”
However, he acknowledged that the ECHR found in its ruling that the state does bear liability in this case.
The ECHR ruling, as reinforced by Mr Justice O’Neill’s findings, could affect the cases of hundreds of people who suffered sexual abuse in schools before 1992.
But the Minister also deflected some of the blame, saying “The truth is that if more people in decades past had been willing to speak out about issues such as sexual abuse, the State and those of us who hold positions of authority would have been better placed to act to prevent abuse and better protect children.”
Deputy Connolly rebutted the point that more people should have reported abuse, saying “There was no provision to even report complaints, notwithstanding the fact that the courageous Louise O’Keeffe reported a complaint.”
“The context is that Louise O’Keeffe said the State fought her tooth and nail, as it fought all the other victims. After a legal journey of 15 and a half years, she had to go to the ECHR, and she is still fighting.”
“What did the State do? It fought her every step of the way and it fought her in its submissions to Mr. Justice O’Neill. It set up an ex gratia payment that was designed to fail, to exclude and to heap abuse on abuse. Nobody succeeded at that.”