A WOMAN who was abused by the principal of the national school where she was a pupil 40 years ago "endured months of inhumanity and degradation", the European Court of Human Rights has been told.
Louise O'Keeffe (46), a mother of two from west Cork, yesterday began her appeal to the Strasbourg court against a decision by the Supreme Court that the State was not legally liable for the abuse she suffered.
Ms O'Keeffe was abused at Dunderrow Primary School, Co Cork, in 1973 by Leo Hickey, who was sentenced to three years in jail in 1998 after being convicted of assaulting a number of girls in the 1970s.
She sued the State, saying the Department of Education was liable as it paid Hickey's wages, supervised the curriculum and inspected the classrooms, but she lost her case in the High Court and Supreme Court.
Speaking at the European Court of Human Rights, counsel for Ms O'Keeffe, David Holland, told the 17-judge court: "Ultimately, the case was about human rights and a child's right to have the State protect it with reasonable steps from sexual abuse by an adult placed by law in coercive power."
Mr Holland said that Hickey, as headmaster of Dunderrow National School, was a "pillar of the establishment" and was "invested by the State with a power that seems to an adult unremarkable but is to a child awesome and terrible".
He said Ms O'Keeffe had been abused from January to September 1973 and had to "attend that school daily . . . constantly watching, fearing, hoping, worrying . . . she endured months of inhumanity and degradation".
Ms O'Keeffe subsequently found out that in 1971 a parent complained to the school manager of abuse of another girl.
"Louise O'Keeffe could have been saved, but nothing was done," said Mr Holland.
"All she needed was a simple instruction to school managers that where they learned of serious abuse of children, they must report it to the authorities."
The failure to issue that inst-ruction is sufficient to engage the responsibility of the State, he said. Mr Holland said the State's argument that it was not informed of the abuse was the "two monkeys defence" of "we saw no evil, we heard no evil".
"Unless the State satisfies you that they had in place an effective, preventative system designed to bring the evil to its attention, 'we saw no evil, we heard no evil' is not a defence. It is an admission of liability," he said.
The State denies liability.
Counsel for the State, Feichin McDonagh, said at issue was what the State knew or ought to have known of the risk that a primary school child being sexually abused by a teacher who was "a pillar of society", where the State had no knowledge of any such propensity on the part of that teacher.
He said the State had not invested this man with power.
Ms O'Keeffe took a civil action against Hickey and was awarded a monthly payment of €400.
The court will make its judgment at a later date.