Tuesday, 14 May 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Residential Institutions Redress Scheme
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue and I acknowledge the Deputy's intervention with the Taoiseach today. The legacy of sexual abuse against children, whether in residential institutions, in day schools or in any other setting, is appalling. The Government calls on those who have evidence of prior complaint of abuse to bring that evidence forward in an open and transparent way to the appropriate authorities. There is an onus on all those who have information or knowledge in relation to child abuse that may bring closure to a survivor to come forward with that information.
Prior to the Louise O’Keeffe case to the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, the domestic courts, up to and including the Supreme Court, had found that the State had no liability for day school abuse as it was not the owner or manager of the schools and, while it paid school teachers, it did not employ them. The European Court of Human Rights found on the facts of the O’Keeffe case that the responsibility of the State was engaged in certain circumstances. A central facet of this case was that there had been a prior complaint of abuse in respect of the teacher who abused Ms O’Keeffe. In 2015, the State responded to the ECHR judgment by setting up an ex gratiascheme to specifically address the position of persons who had discontinued their proceedings against the State the wake of a number of High Court judgments and the Supreme Court judgment in the O’Keeffe case. In 2017, an independent assessor, retired High Court judge, Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O’Neill, was appointed to assess applications declined under the scheme. As of today's date, 50 applications have been submitted to the scheme, 45 have been declined and the remaining five cases have not yet been determined. A total of 20 applicants have sought an independent assessment. The assessor’s decisions are awaited in respect of these cases. I look forward to receiving the assessor’s decisions on the cases and his findings will be abided by.
It is important to recognise that the scheme is addressed to a specific cohort of historic, discontinued day school sexual abuse cases which were impacted on by the ECHR judgment in the O’Keeffe case. I am aware that survivors of day school abuse are pursuing cases through the civil courts and are receiving settlements, either through the courts or on an out-of-court basis. The judgments have been secured against the actual abuser and-or the school management or patron. In the latter case these have generally been religious congregations. The Department is also continuing to receive notices of discontinuance, reflective of the fact that the domestic courts will not find the State liable where there is no evidence to support that liability. In addition, the State Claims Agency has, to date, made settlements in 22 cases many of which also involve authorities responsible for schools. In these cases, more than half the compensation paid has come from non-State parties. This is reflective of the shared liability in these cases.
We have learned from our dark history of child abuse and put in place a set of measures to enhance child protection and make sure abuses of the past cannot recur. We are constantly reviewing these measures and strengthening them, wherever possible. As part of this ongoing process of reviewing child protection measures, significant developments include the following: the creation in 2012 of a criminal offence where a person fails to disclose to the police information in relation to certain serious offences, including sexual offences against children and vulnerable persons; the introduction of statutory vetting arrangements for people involved in working with children and vulnerable adults, including those working in schools; and the enactment of the Children First Act 2015.
As part of my Departments ongoing work to improve child protection measures across the education sector, the Department’s inspectorate introduced child protection and safeguarding inspections in February 2019 as a new form of specialised child protection inspection. These child protection and safeguarding inspections are designed to check that school boards and staff members are implementing the 2017 child protection and safeguarding procedures and will provide a further level of inspection in primary and post-primary schools.