Most people were rightly appalled by the way the State’s legal team treated Louise O’Keeffe who was abused by a primary school principal at the age of 8. They placed every possible obstacle and threat in her way as she sought to prove that the State was negligent in failing to prevent the sexual abuse inflicted on her at school. They fought the case all the way to the Supreme court, and when they won there, they immediately issued intimidating letters to over 130 other litigants, threatening them with dire financial consequences unless they dropped their cases.
However, they didn’t reckon on the courage and determination of Louise O’Keeffe. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg agreed with her that since the Irish State pays the wages and pensions of teachers, sets the curriculum and inspects the schools, it is responsible for protecting the children from abuse.
This is all well and good, but money doesn’t explain the intensity of the State’s resistance to the case. After all, this is the same State that subvented the religious orders to the tune of €1.4 billion in the Residential Institutions Redress Boards. It has to be something else, and once you think about it, the answer is obvious. This judgement by the ECHR destroys the fiction that the primary schools are owned and operated by the religious denominations and instead it places the government firmly in control – not something the government welcomes. This of course, is blindingly obvious, since the majority of priests and bishops have no role or skill in education and have no place on the boards of management of our schools.
This ECHR decision has no downside. It obliges the State to protect children from predatory adults in schools, but it also explicitly confirms that the State is the responsible entity, reinforcing, ironically, the non-denominational nature of our primary schools, as first conceived in the 1820s. (Interestingly, and contrary to what most people believe, there is no such thing in Irish law as a Catholic primary school or a Church of Ireland school for that matter).
Therefore, the ECHR decision could potentially force the State to take direct control of all publicly-funded primary schools and eject the bishops from their antiquated status of patron. This is why the government’s lawyers put up such a savage battle to silence and crush Louise O’Keeffe. It’s also why we’re unlikely to hear a huge cheer from the religious pressure groups who shout so much about protecting the rights of children.