DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland failed to protect a schoolgirl from sexual abuse by her teacher in the 1970s, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday in a further blow to the reputation of the Catholic church.
The court ordered Ireland to pay compensation to Louise O‘Keeffe, who had won her case in an Irish court against a lay teacher who abused her when she was nine, but had her claim that the state was vicariously liable for the 1973 assaults dismissed.
The European Court ruled the state had not met its obligation to protect children even though it must have been aware by then of sexual abuse of children by adults.
“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,” it said in a statement explaining the ruling.
Ireland’s education ministry said the judgment would be assessed for its implications and necessary steps to implement the decision, and that the state had already put robust child protection measures in place.
“The abuse to which Louise O‘Keeffe and many others were subjected to in our recent past is a source of national shame and it has taught us lessons that we as a country must never forget,” it said in a statement.
The authority of the Church in Ireland and its reputation worldwide have been rocked by investigations into clerical sex abuse and state-abetted cover-ups at Catholic-run schools and institutions, labeled places of fear and neglect in a 2009 official report. Ireland has started to address abuse in church-run institutions.
Ireland’s high court ordered O‘Keeffe’s abuser in 2006 to pay her 305,104 euros ($417,200) in damages, of which she has so far received about 30,000.
But she complained to the ECHR after the supreme court dismissed her 2008 appeal that the state was vicariously liable because the assaults took place at a public school, albeit owned by the Catholic Diocese of Cork and Ross and managed by a priest.
In its judgment, the ECHR ordered Ireland to pay O‘Keeffe 30,000 euros in damages and 85,000 euros for costs. It found that Ireland had broken two articles of the European Convention on Human Rights on prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment and the right to an effective remedy.
“There’s no mother or father in the country should be sending their child to school and have the fear, while you’re at home or at work, that they’re not protected. It’s simply unbelievable,” O‘Keeffe told Newstalk radio.
The ECHR said that despite being aware of abuse, the state continued to entrust management of the primary education of the vast majority of young children to the system of National Schools without putting in place any effective controls.
Potential complaints were directed away from state authorities and to managers of the schools, generally the local priest, it said. ($1 = 0.7313 euros)
Editing by Ruth Pitchford