O’Keeffe v. Ireland examines state responsibility for sexual abuse in a state-supported parochial school in Ireland. The petitioner, O’Keeffe, alleged that the Irish State failed to protect her from abuse in violation of Articles 3, 8, 13, and 14 of the European Convention and Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the Convention. The Court found that Ireland failed to protect the applicant from sexual abuse. The lack of effective mechanisms in place to protect students from sexual abuse at school, including religiously run schools funded by the state, was a violation of the petitioner’s Article 3 rights (prohibition of torture).
The petitioner, O’Keeffe, attended Dunderrow National School in 1968. National Schools formed part of the Irish schooling system that were state funded, with some oversight mechanisms, but mainly run by religious groups (majority of them being catholic).
From January to mid-1973 the petitioner, Ms Louise O’Keeffe, was subject to close to 20 sexual assaults by LH, a married man and the school principal, during music lessons in his classroom. At the time these events took place, both the applicant and her parents were unaware of an allegation made in 1971 about LH. In September 1973, other parents brought to the applicant’s parents’ attention similar allegations concerning LH. The teacher was put on sick leave and reassigned to a different National School the following year, where he taught until 1995.
In 1996, police investigating abuse complaints against the teacher contacted O’Keeffe, who related the 1973 abuse. In 1998 the teacher was sentenced in 21 sample cases out of 386 criminal offenses charged. The petitioner subsequently filed for and received compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal.
In September 1998, the petitioner instituted civil proceedings at High Court against LH, Ireland and the Irish Attorney General, in an attempt to establish state responsibility for the sexual abuse she had suffered. Moreover, she claimed damages as result of assault and battery including sexual abuse by LH. She named the teacher, the Irish State, and the Irish Attorney General in her suit. While default judgment was entered against the teacher, the State defendants successfully argued that they did not have vicarious liability for the offenses, given the schools were largely under religious control and they had no reason to know of the potential for abuse. O’Keeffe appealed the vicarious liability issue to the Irish Supreme Court, where her appeal was dismissed.
While default judgment was entered against the teacher, the State defendants successfully argued that they did not have vicarious liability for the offenses, given the schools were largely under religious control and they had no reason to know of the potential for abuse. O’Keeffe appealed the vicarious liability issue to the Irish Supreme Court, where her appeal was dismissed.
In 2009, O’Keeffe brought her case to the European Court of Human Rights, where she alleged violations of Article 3 of the European Convention, which protects against torture and inhumane or degrading treatment, Article 13, which provides the right to an effective remedy for violations of rights protected in the Convention, Article 8, which covers the respect for private life, Article 14, which protects rights on a basis of non-discrimination, and Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the Convention, which covers the right to education.
Article 3 (Prohibition of Torture)
The Court first examined the Article 3. O’Keeffe argued that the State knew or should have known of the risk of abuse at schools, and put in place minimal oversight over the National Schools to protect children. Their failure to do so was a violation of the positive obligations of the State to protect against torture and inhumane and degrading treatment. The State first argued the National Schools operated independently and abuse there should not trigger state responsibility. The State further argued that at the time, in the 1970s, when the risk of sexual abuse was not as publicized, they did not have reason to implement an oversight program. In evaluating these arguments, the Court notes the obligatory nature of primary education in Ireland and the fact that the vast majority of children attended National Schools, finding O’Keeffe essentially without other options. The Court also examined the rates of prosecution for sexual abuse and reports on sexual abuse from that time period, concluding the State should have been aware of the risk. Because the State entrusted the education of the majority of Irish children to non-State actors without providing for their protection in any substantive way, the Court found Ireland violated O’Keeffe’s Article 3 rights.
Article 13 (Right to an effective remedy)
The Court next addressed the Article 13 allegation, as to whether or not there were effective remedies available to the petitioner. The State argued that the petitioner should have raised additional arguments in other forums domestically that could have satisfied her complaints. However, the Court found that not all these remedies would have established State responsibility, which is what the petitioner sought, and that the State could not show they would have been successful either. The Court therefore also found a violation of O’Keeffe’s Article 13 rights.
The European Court of Human Rights that there had been a violation of the substantive aspect of Article 3 of the Convention in regards to the State’s failure to fulfill its obligation to protect the applicant. Moreover, it also held, that there has been a violation of Article 13, taken together with the substantive aspect of article 3 of the Convention on account of the lack if an effective remedy as regards the State’s failure to fulfill its obligation to protect the applicant.
However, it determined unanimously, that there has been no violation of the procedural aspect of Article 3 of the Convention. As well as, establishing that there was no need to examine separately the complaints under Article 8 or under Article 2 of Protocol No.1, whether alone or in conjunction with Article 14 of the Convention.
The Court awarded 30,000 euros in damages and 85,000 euros for court costs.