Judgment in O’Keeffe v Ireland

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has on 28 January 2014 delivered a land-marking judgment in the case of O’Keeffe v Ireland (n. 35810/09) concerning sexual abuses of children in Irish catholic schools in 1970s. It found that Ireland has violated article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) and article 13 (right to an effective remedy).

168.  To conclude, this is not a case which directly concerns the responsibility of LH, of a clerical Manager or Patron, of a parent or, indeed, of any other individual for the sexual abuse of the applicant in 1973. Rather, the application concerns the responsibility of a State. More precisely, it examines whether the respondent State ought to have been aware of the risk of sexual abuse of minors such as the applicant in National Schools at the relevant time and whether it adequately protected children, through its legal system, from such treatment.

The Court has found that it was an inherent positive obligation of government in the 1970s to protect children from ill-treatment. It was, moreover, an obligation of acute importance in a primary education context. That obligation was not fulfilled when the Irish State, which must be considered to have been aware of the sexual abuse of children by adults through, inter alia, 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 non-State actors (National Schools), without putting in place any mechanism of effective State control against the risks of such abuse occurring. On the contrary, potential complainants were directed away from the State authorities and towards the non-State denominational Managers (paragraph 163 above). The consequences in the present case were the failure by the non-State Manager to act on prior complaints of sexual abuse by LH, the applicant’s later abuse by LH and, more broadly, the prolonged and serious sexual misconduct by LH against numerous other students in that same National School.

169.  In such circumstances, the State must be considered to have failed to fulfil its positive obligation to protect the present applicant from the sexual abuse to which she was subjected in 1973 whilst a pupil in Dunderrow National School. There has therefore been a violation of her rights under Article 3 of the Convention. Consequently, the Court dismisses the Government’s preliminary objection to the effect that this complaint was manifestly ill-founded.

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