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Court: Irish primary education system failed to protect schoolgirl from sexual abuse

Human rights judges say structure of primary education in Ireland in the 1970s failed to protect a schoolgirl from sexual abuse by her teacher.

In today’s Grand Chamber judgment in the case of O’Keeffe v. Ireland (application no. 35810/09), which is final, the European Court of Human Rights held:

by 11 votes to 6, that there had been a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) and of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the Irish State’s failure to protect Ms O’Keeffe from sexual abuse and her inability to obtain recognition at national level of that failure;

and

unanimously, that there had been no violation of Article 3 of the European Convention as regards the investigation into the complaints of sexual abuse at Ms O’Keeffe’s school.

The case concerned the question of the responsibility of the State for the sexual abuse of a schoolgirl, aged nine, by a lay teacher in an Irish National School in 1973.

The court found that it was an inherent obligation of a Government to protect children from ill-treatment, especially in a primary education context.

That obligation had not been met when the Irish State, which had to have been aware of the sexual abuse of children by adults prior to the 1970s through, among other things, its prosecution of such crimes at a significant rate, nevertheless continued to entrust the management of the primary education of the vast majority of young Irish children to National Schools, without putting in place any mechanism of effective State control against the risks of such abuse occurring. On the contrary, potential complainants had been directed away from the State authorities and towards the managers (generally the local priest) of the National Schools.

Indeed, any system of detection and reporting of abuse which allowed over 400 incidents of abuse to occur in Ms O’Keeffe’s school for such a long time had to be considered ineffective.

Article 41 (just satisfaction)

The Court held, by eleven votes to six, that Ireland was to pay Ms O’Keeffe 30,000 euros (EUR) in respect of pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage and EUR 85,000 for costs and expenses.

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