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Ireland liable for abuse in Catholic-run school: Europe court

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

An Irish woman who suffered sexual abuse as a girl while attending a Catholic-run state primary school in the 1970s won a landmark victory at the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday.

The case of Louise O'Keeffe was the first concerning child abuse in Irish schools that the Strasbourg-based court has ruled on.

O'Keeffe has fought a lengthy legal battle over the responsibility of the state for her treatment at the hands of the principal of Dunderrow National School in Cork in 1973, when she was nine.

The judges said in their ruling 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.

O'Keeffe, now 49, said she was "delighted" that the Irish state had been held accountable by the European court.

"I think it's very important for the schoolchildren in our country. It's the children in the schools that this case was fought for," she told RTE radio.

"It was fought for the protection of the boys and girls at a very young age who should simply be protected."

But her lawyer Ernest J. Cantillon said the fact that the Irish state was "continuing to fight" O'Keeffe was worrying "because it signals an ongoing attempt to distance itself from responsibility".

O'Keeffe had taken her case to the European court after the Irish supreme court ruled in 2008 that the Irish state was not legally liable for the abuse she suffered.

Cantillon said the Irish state should act to address "some 135" other victims who were contacted by authorities and told to drop similar cases after O'Keeffe lost her supreme court appeal or face being pursued for legal costs.

National Schools, attended by the majority of Irish children up to the age of 11, are state-funded but privately managed by religious authorities, most of them Catholic.

The court found that the state had continued to entrust the management of primary education to National Schools despite being aware of the sexual abuse of children by adults before the 1970s.

The judgement said the state had failed to "put in place any mechanism of effective state control against the risks of such abuse occurring".

The head of One in Four, a charity dedicated to helping those harmed by sexual abuse, has said Tuesday's verdict could have huge implications.

The organisation's Maeve Lewis described Ireland's decision to fight O'Keeffe's case as "reprehensible".

"I would say that morally the state has a duty now to put in place perhaps special procedures up to and including special legislation to cater for all those people who were bullied into dropping their cases against the state."

She added: "Now they have a chance perhaps to make amends for that for all the other people who have been waiting for this judgement."

Ireland's Department of Education said in reaction to the judgement that the abuse that O'Keeffe and others were subjected to was a "source of national shame".

It said that under new "robust child protection measures", all schools are now required to follow strict procedures to deal with allegations of child abuse.

O'Keeffe was awarded 30,000 euros ($41,000) in damages and 85,000 euros to cover her legal costs.

Ireland has been rocked by a series of official investigations in recent years that have lifted the lid on decades of sexual, physical and emotional abuse in institutions run by the Catholic Church.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140128/ireland-liable-abuse-catholic-run-school-europe-court-0