Tuesday, 14 May 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Residential Institutions Redress Scheme
This is an incredibly important issue, so I thank the Minister for coming in to respond to it today. Today in the Dáil, the Taoiseach said the State could have acted, but did not. It was a very welcome comment. He also said the abuse compensation scheme was not working, which was also a very welcome and significant comment.
This is a topic in which I have a deep personal interest, having worked closely for a number of years with the lads from VOCADS and Creagh Lane in Limerick. To be honest, I am absolutely disgusted at how survivors of historical child sexual abuse have been treated by Fine Gael and by previous Governments. These men are currently barred from accessing compensation for the horrific abuse they suffered and the Government has steadfastly stood in their way of justice. Last July, the Government was defeated by 84 votes to 44 on a Dáil motion which sought to allow victims of primary school sexual abuse to seek redress on the same basis as victims of residential institutional abuse. The Dáil instructed this Government, by a large majority, to change how this scheme operates, but in the arrogant approach that is the trademark of this Fine Gael Government, it ignored it. This, of course, is because Fine Gael knows better than everybody else.
This Dáil motion outlined how the State’s ex gratiaredress scheme, set up after Louise O’Keeffe won her European Court of Human Rights case in 2014, could be amended to include victims in cases who cannot prove a prior complaint. It would only cost about €15 million, which is not that much in the grand scheme of things. The prior complaint interpretation of the Louise O’Keeffe judgment is total nonsense and the Minister knows that, as did previous Ministers. It was designed by officials and lawyers to lock survivors out and keep the compensation bill down for the State, hoping that many of them would die and would not be able to access the compensation. It is a despicable approach to take with survivors of child sexual abuse.
The fight against the State which the men from Creagh Lane have had to put up has been shocking. They were subjected to the most horrendous sexual abuse as children in Creagh Lane national school in Limerick but denied redress due to barriers put in place by Fine Gael. Some of these men have shared their stories publicly. One, who was abused at the age of eight, said "School was about survival, I’d be looking at the teacher thinking "just stay away"". Another, who was abused at the age of six said "I was screaming and had to be tied into a buggy with a rope to be brought to school. The children never spoke about it, we just kept our heads down and our mouths shut". I know most of these lads personally, and many had never spoken about their abuse for years, with families and friends unaware what they went through. This Government has forced these men to protest outside the Dáil gates, to try to get their story highlighted in the media, to travel to Brussels to highlight their injustice in the European Parliament and to have a Dáil debate which the Government has ignored.
Louise O’Keeffe was dragged through the courts before she got justice and compensation, and it seems this Government is content to do the same to the remaining survivors who were locked out of the redress scheme. The Government’s handling of this situation has been shameful. It is clear it does not understand the hurt and stress it is causing to survivors. The abuse these men suffered as children ruined their childhoods and left a terrible scar on their lives. The Government needs to show compassion to these people. Can it please stop fighting these survivors of child sexual abuse in court, and provide them with the compensation that will allow them to get justice and move on with their lives?
On 7 July 2016, the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, told my colleague, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald, that payments had been made and that they would continue to be made under an ex gratiascheme. That is clearly not the case. The Minister told "RTÉ News" at the weekend that no one had been paid. Can he clarify this? It cannot be both and either payments have been made or they have not. Which is it?
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.
I thank the Minister for his response. He confirmed that nobody has been compensated under the redress scheme. I echo the comments of the Taoiseach, which are very important. He said the State could have acted but did not, and he also said the compensation scheme was not working. The Minister is new in this Department and I hoped he would take a different approach from that taken by his predecessors. I wrote to him on 23 October to congratulate him on his appointment as Minister and to ask him to meet survivors of abuse which occurred at Creagh Lane national school in Limerick, as a priority. It should be one of his top priorities but neither he nor anyone from his Department bothered to reply to my letter. He should meet with these men and listen to their horrific stories and hear, at first hand, the horrendous abuse they suffered as children at the hands of their teacher, which has been proven in court. It may then dawn on him that something needs to be done about it.
It is scandalous how these men have been treated by Fine Gael. It ought to be ashamed if it intends to continue this approach. I do not want the Minister's reply to me to be about a previous scheme or any other scheme. He knows the story. He knows this Government is blocking these men accessing the redress they deserve. Their childhoods were ruined by paedophiles and their lives scared by the abuse. The very least they deserve is to be treated with dignity and respect and to be provided for in respect of the hurt and loss they have suffered because of the failure of the State to protect them when they were children. They do not want to empty words or sympathy. They want the Minister to take action. I reiterate my request to the Minister in October last year that he meet myself and one or two of the lads to discuss this matter.
I again thank the Deputy for raising this issue. When discussing this issue it is difficult to articulate the thoughts and sentiments of people who have experienced it. It is not only that their youths were stolen, what happened has had a massive impact on their adult lives and it continues to impact on them. I take this matter seriously. I await receipt of the former High Court judge, Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill's report of the 20 cases, following which I will form my own judgment. I am also interested in the recommendations he will put forward on conclusion of his deliberations, which will be accepted in full. It is important to put the latter point on the record.
It would be remiss of me not to reiterate the Taoiseach's comments that this scheme is not working in that of the 50 applications only five are due for assessment, with the remaining 45 not having been refused. As I said, there is something wrong with this scheme and we need to consider how we can put things right. This is the least we can do to bring peace to people who have borne and continue to bear such a heavy weight. I believe that we can do that collectively. Like many other people in this House who have requested that I meet with particular survivor groups - I have met a number of them at this stage - Deputy Quinlivan has asked me to meet the lads from Limerick at some stage in the future and I am happy to do that.