PARIS (AP) — Europe's top human rights court ruled Tuesday that Ireland's government failed in its duty to protect children in the case of a woman sexually abused by a lay teacher at a state-backed Roman Catholic school four decades ago.
The European Court of Human Rights' grand chamber ruled by 11 votes to six that Louise O'Keeffe's rights to be spared "inhuman and degrading treatment" and to an effective remedy were violated.
The Strasbourg, France-based court ordered the Irish government to pay O'Keeffe 30,000 euros ($40,950) in damages and 85,000 euros ($116,000) in costs — a result that could pave the way for claims against the Irish government by hundreds of people who were abused in schools.
"It's not a win for me. It's a win for the children of Ireland," she told reporters at a news conference in Ireland. Earlier, her lawyers released a statement saying O'Keeffe was "delighted that the state was, at last, held accountable."
O'Keeffe, 48, said she was abused by her teacher during lessons in his classroom when she was 9 years old. She argued that the Irish state failed to put in place appropriate measures to stop "systematic abuse" at the Dunderrow National School in 1973.
O'Keeffe — who has already received damages from the offender — brought the case to the European court after the Irish Supreme Court ruled that the government was not legally liable for her abuse.
The European court found that Ireland's system of detecting and reporting abuse was ineffective in the 1970s, allowing more than 400 incidents of abuse by O'Keeffe's former principal and teacher, Leo Hickey, from the mid-1960s. In its ruling, the court said if adequate action had been taken when the first complaints about him surfaced, O'Keeffe might not have been abused.
No complaints were made to a state authority about Hickey until 1995, after he retired. In 1998, Hickey pleaded guilty to sexual abuse charges and was sentenced to three years in jail.
Ireland's Education Department said Tuesday that lessons have been learnt from the past and acknowledged that conditions in Irish schools in the 1970s were a "deeply shameful part of our recent history."
Maeve Lewis, director of the abuse victims charity One in Four, said Tuesday's ruling should ensure that officials are held responsible for the conduct of teachers and the safety of children.
The Associated Press does not normally identify victims of sexual assault but O'Keeffe has spoken publicly about her story.