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 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 she was "delighted that the state was, at last, held accountable."
O'Keeffe, 48, argued that the Irish state failed to put in place appropriate measures and procedures to stop "systematic abuse" at the Dunderrow National School in early 1973. She also claimed that the government was vicariously liable as an employer of the offender.
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 the abuse she suffered.
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 from the mid-1960s to 1973. In its ruling, the court said that if adequate action had been taken when the first complaints about the offender surfaced, O'Keeffe might not have been abused.
No complaints were made to a state authority about O'Keeffe's former principal and teacher, Leo Hickey, until 1995, after he retired. In 1998, Hickey pleaded guilty to sexual abuse charges and was sentenced to three years in jail.
The Associated Press does not normally identify possible victims of sexual assault, but O'Keeffe has spoken publicly about her story.