Tusla launches case review two years after sisters questioned why social workers didn’t act on neglect
Eleven members of a Traveller family who were raped and abused by the father of the household are to sue the gardaí and the child-welfare authorities who they allege failed to protect them.
James O’Reilly was convicted two years ago of sexually abusing and raping his sister and seven of his daughters over two decades, in one of the most brutal cases to come before the courts in recent years.
O’Reilly, originally from Thurles, Co Tipperary, raised his family in squalor and starved and beat them, despite the family’s regular interaction with social services and the authorities.
After a harrowing trial, O’Reilly’s victims gave up their anonymity to call for a public inquiry into the inaction by state authorities. They claimed their being Traveller children contributed to the failings. Several government ministers raised concerns about the case.
However, a public inquiry never happened. Members of the family have been seeking access to their case files held by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Eleven members of the O’Reilly family are now taking a High Court action.
The legal action is being taken by seven sisters who gave up their anonymity to highlight the sexual abuse, their aunt — who was also raped and abused by their father — and three other family members.
They are suing James O’Reilly and other relatives, and are also suing the Child and Family Agency, the HSE, the Minister for Justice, the Garda Commissioner, as well as local authorities in Tipperary and Kilkenny.
O’Reilly (77) died in prison last Monday, two years into his 20-year-sentence. His death prompted one of his victims, Helen O’Donoghue, to comment on Twitter: “After all the pain he put us through for years, how could he get such an easy way out?”
Tusla said this weekend it has released all relevant files to some family members on request. It is also in the process of commissioning an external review of the case files, a statement said.
James O’Reilly sexually abused his children and his sister from 1977 to 2000 — raping, beating, degrading and starving them.
He raped his sister, Christine Rooney, when she was just 13, and continued to abuse her over several years.
One of his daughters became pregnant by him when she was aged 16. Her father continued to rape her through her pregnancy, and after she gave birth to a daughter he insisted she blame another man for raping her.
He drove another daughter to a bog and raped her when she was just eight years old. Another of his children said he raped her in his van if it was raining, and in a field if it was not.
The court heard another daughter was raped from the age of 10, and he continued to do so three times a week for six years. At one point she was admitted to hospital because of the head injuries he’d inflicted on her during a beating.
In an interview after O’Reilly’s conviction, Helen O’Donoghue, who is the eldest sister, disclosed more details about a horrific life of abuse, trauma, beatings, starvation and neglect.
The court heard she was raped, starved and beaten all her life. She said she never knew a Christmas present or Christmas dinner.
She described the starvation of the children, and how they robbed food from dustbins in nearby gardens, and ate scraps thrown from a window.
The children were also denied an education. Ms O’Donoghue described being sent to school for a week or two so she could make her Holy Communion and her Confirmation and was then taken out.
She accused various state agencies of witnessing the neglect but staying silent. She said a social worker visited the family once a month at one point. She said another sister had reported the rape and sexual abuse to a social worker 23 years before.
At the time of O’Reilly’s conviction in 2020, Tusla announced it was conducting a trawl of its case files on the family. The then children’s minister Katherine Zappone said she was shocked by the details of the abuse and sought a report from Tusla.
However, this weekend Tusla confirmed it is only now beginning an external review of case files.
The agency said this was for legal reasons. A statement said while Tusla doesn’t routinely comment on individual cases, it recognises the “ongoing distress” experienced by the victims in this case.
It said it is working with the Department of Children and “some family members” to agree the most appropriate way to ensure “future learning” from the case.
“We have worked to ensure that all relevant documents and records — including those that transferred from the former South Eastern Health Board and Health Service Executive before the establishment of the agency — have been made available to some family members on request,” the statement said.
“In addition to the complexity of the case, both in history and the number of people and locations involved, any active review could only be considered when all criminal proceedings had concluded, which was in recent months.
“We are in the process of commissioning an external review of relevant case files, and the findings of this review will inform future practice.”
Tusla said it is also implementing the recommendations of the national Traveller and Roma inclusions strategy.