State Denies Liability for Abuse Cases
By Dearbhail McDonald and John Burns
The Sunday Times [Ireland]
July 23, 2006
The Department of Education is seeking to extricate itself from sexual abuse cases in primary and secondary schools on the grounds that the education minister is not, and never was, responsible for the employment of teachers. If it succeeds then hundreds of claimants face the prospect of financial ruin.
The State Claims Agency (SCA), which manages personal injury and compensation claims taken against the Irish government, has written to more than 170 people who were abused by teachers in schools. It warned them they are suing the "wrong defendant" and will be pursued for the state's legal costs if their civil claims collapse.
The warnings follow a High Court decision in which Louise O'Keeffe, who suffered sexual abuse as a pupil in a Cork school, lost her case against the Department of Education, leaving her exposed to legal costs of up to €600,000.
Earlier this month the SCA brought five motions before the High Court seeking to be removed from school abuse compensation cases and it will seek to be extracted from all future litigation if the O'Keeffe ruling, under appeal, is upheld by the Supreme Court.
"We have brought motions before the courts seeking to extract the minister for education and other state agencies in day-school cases on the basis that they have no liability whatsoever," said Ciaran Breen, director of claims at the SCA.
"The education minister never was, and is still not, the employer of teachers. That falls to the boards of management and patrons of schools.
Last week a man who was abused by John Hannon, a teacher in a Galway primary school, lost his case against the department and the Franciscan order. The 46-year-old was awarded €300,000 which has to be paid by his abuser, a former Franciscan brother. But the judge ruled that the department had no liability.
Despite the fact the Franciscan brother was a teacher, there was no employer-employee relationship between the Department of Education and the school. The Franciscans were also deemed not liable as they had no prior knowledge of Hannon's abuse and did not employ him at the school.
The recent rulings have alarmed advocates for abuse victims, who say compensation awards levied against abusers amount to little more than "paper judgments" for victims, because most abusers do not have the means to pay large claims.
"What the SCA has confirmed is that the welfare of children in schools is not the responsibility of either the Department of Education or its minister," said Colm O'Gorman, director of One in Four, a support group for abuse victims.
The move by the SCA to extract itself from the day-school cases is part of a stand-off between the state and the Catholic church, which maintains up to 95% of Irish schools.
Five years ago Michael Woods, the then minister for education, signed a controversial deal agreeing that the state would compensate victims of child sex abuse in institutions in return for a contribution of €128m from 18 religious orders. That bill is now set to reach €1.3 billion, 10 times more than they contributed.
Legal costs have been finalised in 2,710 cases, with €32.2m being paid, an average of almost €12,000 per case. The total legal bill will exceed €168m. Two Dublin legal firms, Michael E Hanahoe and Lavelle Coleman, earned almost €5m apiece last year.
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