State Must Do the Right Thing in Sexual Abuse Case

By Padraig O Morain

December 22, 2008

It is wrong that Louise O'Keeffe, sexually assaulted by her school principal in the 1970s, faces costs of up to 750,000 after losing an appeal in the Supreme Court.

The Minister for Education, Batt O'Keeffe, can remove this wrong by waiving the State's right to costs.

What happened at Dunderrow National School, Co Cork, in the 1970s was indecent assault on a wide scale. Louise O'Keeffe was one of many girls indecently assaulted by their school principal, Leo Hickey. She was eight years old. Hickey was jailed in 1998 for three years. He had pleaded guilty to 21 sample charges of indecent assault against 21 girls. The sample had been drawn from 386 counts.

An extraordinary aspect of this case is that the abuse by Hickey was so prevalent that, in 1973, parents withdrew their girls from the school by way of protest.

Hickey went on sick leave and resigned from the school in January 1974. Guess what? Just a month later he got a new job at a boy's school in Ballincollig. It was only when criminal proceedings were taken against him in the 1990s that he lost his recognition as a teacher.

According to Louise O'Keeffe, she suffered profound consequences from the assaults against her. Her abilities to socialise and to engage in sexual and physical intimacies were affected. She became over-protective of her own children later on. Her marriage broke up.

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal awarded her 54,000 in compensation -- on the condition that she give it back if she got damages in the High Court.

In seeking damages from the State, she made the case that Hickey worked in a school inspected by the State, his wages were paid by the State and he worked to a curriculum and rules laid down by the State.

She lost in the High Court on the basis that Hickey had been appointed not by the State but by the school manager, Canon Stritch. The school was under the patronage of the Bishop of Cork and Ross and, in rejecting her claim, the High Court said that she might have had a more successful result if she had brought proceedings against the Catholic diocese.

She took her case to the Supreme Court and last week she lost there as well. There was a dissenting voice, namely that of Mr Justice Hugh Geoghegan. He argued that the connection between Church and State in relation to the school was so close that it was "not just" for the State to be able to avoid vicarious liability (liability for the actions of another) for what happened to Ms O'Keeffe as a child.

He added this did not mean the Church authorities were not also liable.

It strikes me that Mr Justice Geoghegan's opinion is one which would meet wide agreement among the public.

The other judges indicated they will look again at this whole issue of the vicarious liability of the State for what happens in schools when a more appropriate case comes before them.

Still, this is the end of the road for Louise O'Keeffe and perhaps also for more than 200 cases awaiting the outcome of the judgment. Immediately after the hearing, she sounded understandably frightened at the prospect of legal bills which could run as high as 750,000.

The Department of Education indicated yesterday that it would be seeking its costs. However, the judgment is being studied and a final decision is awaited.

Did Louise O'Keeffe do us a service in testing the liability of the State for the actions of teachers in its schools? I believe she did.

It seems to me that to be faced with a ruinous legal bill in return for doing us that service would be an injustice in itself.

The answer lies in the hands of Batt O'Keeffe and his Department. Let us hope they do the decent thing.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.