Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I want to express my disappointment that the Minister, Deputy Foley, is not present. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for dealing with the matter.
I have raised the issue of redress for victims of historical abuse in Irish national schools numerous times in my five years as a Deputy. I have spoken specifically in regard to survivors of sexual abuse at Creagh Lane national school in Limerick. I am deeply frustrated by the glacial pace of progress on this issue so we can imagine the frustration of the survivors. To quote Professor Conor O’Mahony, the Government special rapporteur on child protection, he recently stated that we are quick to criticise other countries who ignore international law but our Government has openly flouted a decision of the European Court of Human Rights on its liability for sexual abuse for seven and a half years and counting.
It is disgraceful how long these men have been waiting for answers. In 2009, their abuser was convicted but they were excluded from any redress. In 2014, Louise O'Keeffe won her case in Europe. The fact that she had to bring her own State to the courts of Europe is a shame on all of us. The men from Creagh Lane travelled to Brussels in 2017 with the then MEP, Liadh Ní Riada, and myself, and they highlighted their case at the European Parliament to a number of MEPs. In 2018, the Government of the day had to be defeated in a Dáil motion from Fianna Fáil to ensure that the obnoxious prior complaint requirement was waived. The then Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, apologised to victims in July 2019. That same summer, the Minister, Deputy McHugh, stated he was happy to meet with the survivors of Creagh Lane and he said that it is what we do next that counts. What we did next was to erect new barriers to redress and no meeting has taken place.
To move on to the Thirty-third Dáil, in July 2020, I raised the issue directly with the Taoiseach, who said he would meet with the Department of Education that week with the intention of providing me with a timeline for the roll-out of a new redress scheme. In September of the same year, the Taoiseach told my party leader that we were still awaiting the outcome of the review. We are still waiting. Since then, I twice raised the issue with the Tánaiste in December 2019 and in March of this year. My party raised the issue and I subsequently wrote to the Taoiseach in March 2021 but, to date, I have not received a reply.
They are no longer young men. Their childhood and youth was stolen from them by their abuser. Those who were abused did not just suffer in childhood and this violent intrusion affected many throughout their lives. For some, there were family breakdowns and they were robbed of an education. They carry the ramifications of this evil with them every single day. They were children and now they are ageing men. Some, unfortunately, are not with us anymore as they have passed away. They do not have time to wait for an outcome. They should not have to wait this long for a decision on redress. This is about a sense of closure to the trauma they have lived with for their entire adult lives. These men feel utterly abandoned by the State. Is it any wonder when we consider how callously the State has treated them?
In 2015, an ex gratiapayment was offered but claimants were required to prove a prior complaint of sexual abuse had been made. This was impossible. Thankfully, in 2019, Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill reviewed this and deemed it to be a wrong interpretation which closed off redress to many sexual abuse survivors. In the Dáil in 2019, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, made an apology to the survivors on behalf of the State. It was important and long overdue. The apology was appreciated by the survivors and suggested to them that action would follow. I stated as much in my remarks to the House that this action and work was needed. It is now June 2021, 23 months later, and there has been no progress at all on including these men in the redress scheme.
There should not have been a need for review for the former pupils of Creagh Lane. Their abuse was proven in court and the onus of prior complaint has been rightly removed, yet these men had to fight for every inch they have travelled on this journey towards justice. They have been outside the gates of Leinster House protesting, they have had to talk about these painful incidents with the media and they have travelled to Brussels to highlight their mistreatment. The State made Louise O'Keeffe jump through the courts system before she was provided with justice. Is the Department playing a new game? To take almost two years to complete a review suggests it is. I ask the Minister to use the weight of her position to fast-track this review or to intercede directly to ensure redress is provided to the former pupils of Creagh Lane.
I thank the Deputy for setting out the timeline from his perspective. It is important to say the legacy of sexual abuse against children, whether in residential institutions, day schools or in any other setting is harrowing. I understand the review of the ex gratiascheme is ongoing and it is the Minister, Deputy Foley’s intention to bring proposals to Government shortly in this regard.
It has always been the contention of the State that it bears no strict liability for abuse in day schools, given the unique context of ownership and management of the schools in the system. This has been strongly supported by key rulings in the domestic courts relating to the proceedings brought by Louise O’Keeffe against the State in 2005 and 2009. Following the Supreme Court judgment, 203 cases against the State were discontinued by litigants with a commitment by the State that costs would not be pursued against them. In 2014, as noted by Deputy Quinlivan, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the State bore partial responsibility for what happened to Ms O’Keeffe because it had no system in place to act on the complaint that had already been made against her abuser. In response, and without legal obligation, the State settled the 22 cases where prior complaints had been made and not acted upon. It also opened an ex gratiascheme for those who had already discontinued their cases - there were 203 cases of those - and therefore had no way of coming back into the court system to establish their case that a prior complaint had been made against their abuser and not acted upon because of a lack of a system to address such a complaint. The scheme received 50 applications, none of which was successful.
The State appointed an independent assessor, retired High Court judge, Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O’Neill. The role of the independent assessor was to assess cases of those who applied for the ex gratiascheme but were declined by the State Claims Agency. In 2019, Mr. Justice O'Neill was asked to review 19 cases which had not been successful in their application to the scheme. He concluded that 13 were entitled to a payment from the ex gratia scheme. These applications were originally declined because they failed to furnish evidence of a prior complaint. The State undertook to abide by the determinations of the independent assessor. All 13 applicants whom the independent assessor determined should be entitled to a payment from the ex gratia scheme have been offered payment. The current position is that 16 offers of payment have been made and I understand that, to date, all 16 have been accepted. The other six cases referred to the independent assessor are not entitled to a payment from the ex gratiascheme because they failed to meet the additional criterion of having discontinued their litigation cases. It should be noted that the report of the independent assessor is not a legal ruling or judgment.
It is important to recognise the scheme is addressed towards a specific cohort of historic discontinued day school sexual abuse cases which were impacted on by the European Court of Human Rights judgment in the O’Keeffe case.
The crux of the Deputy's question was on the ex gratiascheme. Work on this was delayed for a period due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the Department of Education and the Office of the Attorney General are devoting significant resources to progressing this matter and there has been intensive engagement on the most appropriate revisions for the ex gratiascheme, including examining in great detail the complex legal questions involved.
I thank the Minister of State for her response but it seems from her remarks that these men are no closer to achieving an answer on this. They still do not know if they are included in the review of the scheme, despite numerous parliamentary questions we have put in. The Taoiseach himself has met these survivors. He made both public and private commitments to them on this. He was vocal on the matter in opposition and before the general election. The time for review has long passed. These men deserve and, as a matter of fairness, must be provided with redress. It is long past the time for the Government to act. The abuser of these men was convicted in court in 2009.
I will ask the Minister of State some questions and I would appreciate direct responses. Will she confirm that the ex-pupils of Creagh Lane are to be included in the redress scheme? Does she anticipate the review being extended further? Will she provide me and, more importantly, the survivors with a date by which the review will be completed?
As the Minister of State will be aware, the State is facing a court case on 7 July. The matter needs to be addressed before then. The State cannot bring all these people in front of the courts; it is so unfair. Frankly, it is embarrassing the State is resisting and prevaricating on many of the issues of redress and the survivors see no alternative but to go to court to get justice that should be awarded. The Minister has to intervene to stop this. I ask the Minister of State to give the survivors a definite answer, give them hope and peace of mind and not to let the State fail these citizens again. The former pupils of Creagh Lane do not need to be included in any review or any other scheme. Their case is clear cut. There is a conviction and, if the political will is there, the issue for them can be resolved. I hope we can get a better answer than the Minister of State gave in her first reply. It was very disappointing to come back with legalese. We are dealing with just 19 people specifically in the Creagh Lane case. It is clear cut with a conviction in court and commitments from the Taoiseach that he would intervene personally. We need to hear answers on that.
I hear the Deputy's concern and his genuine compassion for the people on whose behalf he is speaking. It is important to stress the issues involved are highly sensitive and complex and therefore require careful deliberation before any proposals can be finalised or brought to the Government. It is important to have a complete awareness and understanding of the extent of the issues that are arising, the number of people who could potentially be involved, the legal implications of any course of action, and an accurate estimate of likely costs before a new or modified scheme is determined. As I mentioned earlier, my understanding is the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, will bring a proposal to the Government. The review is ongoing and the Minister hopes to be in a position to bring forward a modified scheme once the review is fully completed.
I am not in a position to comment on individual cases or schools. I am aware, however, 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. I am not in a position to comment on whether it could be extended in the future or to give a date. I can only reiterate that it is a priority for the Minister.
Recognition is important. As Deputy Quinlivan noted, the former Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, apologised on behalf of the State in July 2019. It is important that everyone is looked after as well as they can be. Having said that, the issues I outlined must be taken into account.