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Friday 18 October 2019

'Sorry' Varadkar pledges payouts for victims of sex abuse in schools

Louise O’Keeffe: Won court battle after she was abused by teacher. Picture: Collins
Louise O’Keeffe: Won court battle after she was abused by teacher. Picture: Collins
John Downing

John Downing

The Taoiseach has apologised to victims of sex abuse in schools and pledged an early move on compensation.

Leo Varadkar's statement to the Dáil follows an arbitration determination on Monday by Judge Iarfhlaith O'Neill. The judge said the Government had misinterpreted a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in a case taken by Cork woman Louise O'Keeffe.

Ms O'Keeffe won a marathon battle in the Strasbourg court in 2014 to establish that the Irish State had responsibility for sexual abuse of her by a teacher while she was a pupil in a day school.

The State argued responsibility lay with local school management.

But it later transpired that people with similar cases were being obliged to show they were abused by a school employee about whom there was a previous complaint about sex abuse. This effectively blocked them from a compensation scheme.

The Taoiseach said the State would now make payment to the 13 people whose appeals had so far been successful. It is understood that up to 350 people could ultimately be affected.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the retired High Court judge's assessment showed that the authorities were wrong in their interpretation of the European Court ruling. He also said the State had seriously failed brave people like Ms O'Keeffe, placing unreasonable barriers to their achieving justice, and he challenged Mr Varadkar to explain what action was now proposed.

Replying to Mr Martin, the Taoiseach said he deplored sexual abuse - especially that done to children. He formally apologised in the Dáil to Ms O'Keeffe and others in similar circumstances. "I wish to apologise on behalf of the State to people who were sexually abused in day schools before 1992," he said.

Mr Varadkar also said an apology was no good without action and that Education Minister Joe McHugh would make an announcement on the issue tomorrow. He said the compensation scheme would be reopened to deal with these cases.

The Taoiseach said he accepted that people like Ms O'Keeffe were originally failed by the denial of State responsibility - and failed secondly when the stipulation of the need for a prior complaint was invoked.

"We will not fail them a third time," Mr Varadkar said. In reply again to the Fianna Fáil leader, the Taoiseach said it was undoubtedly the Government's intention to reopen the compensation scheme and amend it appropriately.

Mr Varadkar said the authorities' intention may have been honourable in trying to provide for abuse survivors, while also protecting the Irish taxpayer who ultimately had to foot the bill for things for which they were never responsible.

"But it was wrong to make the terms of the ex-gratia scheme so restrictive so the State will now make payments to the 13 people whose appeals have been successful without undue delay," he said.

The Taoiseach said procedures should have been in place before 1992 to record and act on allegations of sexual abuse by teachers and staff.

Figures revealed earlier this year showed that none of 50 applicants to the compensation scheme had been successful. All of these refused cases had been declined on the grounds of a failure to show evidence of a prior complaint against the abuser.

Irish Independent

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