News & Events

Parliamentary Questions – 6th July 2017

Below are questions asked in the Oireachtas, relating to Caranua and other areas relevant to survivors

Land Acquisition

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he has received a response from the Christian Brothers regarding the playing pitches at a school (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Richard Bruton): My Department has written to the Congregation in response to its correspondence on the matter of the Clonkeen lands, seeking clarification on a number of points including whether the land in question is, as advised, the subject of a legally binding agreement with a home builder. The Congregation have acknowledged the correspondence concerned and indicated that it would be in further contact with my Department before the end of June. My officials have since written further to the Congregation seeking an early response.

European Court of Human Rights Judgments

Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will discuss the execution of the European Court of Human Rights judgement in a case (details supplied); and if he will address concerns that the planned redress for survivors of child sexual abuse that took place in national schools is mean spirited and against the spirit of this judgment.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: This question relates to the sorry legacy of sexual abuse in our schools and the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to that on a limited number of cases, and the implementation by the State of that judgment, which is proving deeply unsatisfactory and is leaving many former pupils who were sexually abused without any form of redress. It is creating significant difficulties and the State is not only failing to comply with obligations under the European Court of Human Rights, but it is failing to show common decency to some of the individuals involved in this case. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Richard Bruton): I thank Deputy Byrne for raising this issue.

The legacy of sexual abuse against children and young people, whether in residential institutions, in day schools, or in any other setting, is appalling. It is impossible to even imagine what some of these people have gone through. It has been a major project of this Governments and those before it to deal compassionately, humanely and fairly with the victims and survivors of abuse. It is obviously important to distinguish between those cases where the State has some fault or liability as a result of its failures in the past to intervene to protect children and those cases where it does not. We must be bound by the judgments of the courts in this respect.

The European Court of Human Rights judgment in the case of Louise O’Keeffe, delivered on 28 January 2014, determined that there had been a violation by Ireland of certain articles of the convention and awarded the applicant €30,000 in respect of pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages and €85,000 in costs and expenses. The Government agreed in December 2014 that out of court settlements will be offered in those extant cases of school child sexual abuse being brought against the State where the cases come within the terms of the judgment and satisfy the Statute of Limitations. In this regard, the State Claims Agency, which manages such cases on behalf of the State, has made settlement offers which have been accepted in six cases.

In July 2015, the Government approved proposals to offer ex gratia payments up to a maximum of €84,000 to those who initiated legal proceedings in such cases against the State but who subsequently discontinued their claims against the State where, similarly, the circumstances of the claims come within the terms of the European Court of Human Rights’ judgment and where the claims were not statute barred prior to the proceedings being discontinued. In addition, where other plaintiffs institute claims against the State in relation to historic school child sexual abuse which are not statute barred and their circumstances come within the terms of the court’s judgment, the State Claims Agency is authorised to make settlement offers in those cases.

Persons who believe that their cases come within the criteria can contact the State Claims Agency and provide supporting evidence. Where there is a disagreement between the agency and the individual as to whether their circumstances come within the terms of the European Court’s judgment, provision will be made for the application to be reviewed by an independent assessor.

I am aware of the view that the State’s interpretation of the judgment is overly narrow, because of the requirement of a prior complaint of sexual abuse. I do not accept this. It is the State’s view, based on advice from the Attorney General, that the court’s judgment, in assessing whether there was a breach of Article 3, took into consideration the failure to act on the prior complaint of sexual abuse and that our interpretation of the judgment is a reasonable interpretation.

There has been consistent legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General, State Claims Agency, solicitors to the State Claims Agency and senior counsel to the effect that the approach being taken by the State is legally sound and our interpretation is consistent with the circumstances of the Louise O’Keeffe ruling.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: The Minister has tried to pre-empt what I was going to say, which is fair enough, because as I said to him when we met privately, there is a narrow interpretation of the Louise O’Keeffe case. The Louise O’Keeffe case is about the State’s failures in general in the education system with regard to inspection, supervision and child protection. There was a prior complaint in that particular case. I do not think it is reasonable in any way to say that for everybody else there must be a prior complaint exactly as it was in the Louise O’Keeffe case. It is completely unreasonable. There are people there who have been abused by people who have been subsequently convicted. There is no doubt about these people’s cases. These are not the floodgates opening. These are people who have had abusers convicted and cannot get redress from the State. What is happening to these people is that they are being forced through the courts by the Department – I would say in a wholly cruel way – where eventually, if they have the resources, willpower and physical and mental ability, some will end up in the European Court of Human Rights again, and the State will lose again in my view. In my view, a clear reading of that judgment puts a much wider obligation on the State. Nobody is looking for floodgates to open or to create a bonanza for anybody, but merely to get justice for those people who were abused in schools and let down by failures of the State and Irish Government.

Deputy Richard Bruton: I understand what the Deputy is saying, but the advice I receive is consistent. Where the liability of the State fell clearly on the State, that occurred in residential institutions, where the State was responsible for overseeing these institutions. As the Deputy knows, the liability, which was met by the State, came to €1.5 billion and continues to grow. We have sought, to some degree unsuccessfully, contributions from the religious orders in that respect. My understanding is what the Attorney General and others have said is that the reason, in the Louise O’Keeffe case, that liability fell on the State was because there was advance knowledge about this person. There had been prior complaints against the individual. That is what created the liability for the State. The State should have been in the position when there was such a complaint to provide protection. That is why a claim was successfully achieved against it, and that is the principle that is being applied in these other cases. If the State was not aware or there was not prior knowledge of this complaint, the establishment of liability on the State for sexual abuse in primary schools – which is what we are talking about and which is a very substantial number of children over many years – is not established, so I cannot make decisions that would potentially expose the State to very substantial sums of money, as the Deputy suggests.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: The Minister takes a different view on the Louise O’Keeffe case, but the view that I have expressed is shared by academics as well. In fact, my view is influenced by those academics and the authority they have. In some of these cases, there could not have been a prior complaint because some of the disgusting teachers who did this were straight out of college. In some cases, in some of the orders, they probably did not go to college. They went straight into schools to start abusing, so there could not have been a prior complaint. It simply was not possible. The reading of the Louise O’Keeffe judgment narrows that down and rules those people out completely, and in fact rules in some other students who were abused subsequently. There needs to be a fresh look at this legally. I urge the Minister to consult not only the Government’s legal advisers, but to look at the academic material that exists and research that is being done. It is very serious stuff. I am not in any way being political about it. I am being passionate here because I feel that right is on the side of the case that I am making, and the overly legalistic approach does not serve the State well and I do not think it serves politics well.

Deputy Richard Bruton: I can absolutely understand the concern that the Deputy has for people who were abused in this way. We have, as a State, a responsibility to support them in their difficulties. That has to be done through health services and through all the other services. The issue that the Deputy is raising is whether the State becomes responsible for what occurred in these schools and, therefore, liable to pay damages. The advice coming from the Attorney General there is that what the Louise O’Keeffe case established was that the State could be considered liable where there was such information available in advance and the State had failed to intervene. Where there was no such information available in advance, the State was not in a position to take precautions and therefore the judgment is that it was not liable. That is the interpretation. Of course lawyers will differ, but I have to rely on the Attorney General, the State Claims Agency, and solicitors to the State Claims Agency. These are the people who have to advise. One cannot avoid the fact that once one starts moving the posts and admits other circumstances, moving away from the ruling, there is no end and no principle that one can apply. That is the difficulty. One potentially opens the State to huge claims.