Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The conclusions of the report of Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill into the Government's ex gratia redress scheme that was introduced in 2015 and maintained since then represent a damning indictment of the Government's approach to the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the Louise O'Keeffe case. I pay tribute to people like John Allen, a victim of child sexual abuse who has been denied any redress from the State to date. I also pay tribute to John Boland, Thomas Hogan, Christopher Rainbow and their colleagues from Limerick, who worked with Deputy O'Dea. For more than four years they have fought the Government's obstinate position of the invocation of a prior complaint mechanism to deny them any access to the redress scheme.

The decision of Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill also vindicates the vital and professional work of Dr. Conor O'Mahony and the Child Law Clinic in University College Cork who has advocated on behalf of the victims for so long and exposed the illogicality and cruelty of the Government's position in the past four years. Much of the argument put forward by Dr. O'Mahony has essentially been upheld by the judge in his assessment. The prior complaint was, in my opinion, a device to ensure no one would receive compensation under the scheme and so it proved. As the judge said, having any such mechanism would have involved, as a starting point, the making of a complaint by or on behalf of an abused child. It was obvious from day one that this was illogical. The judge has said that for the State to insist on such a precondition to eligibility involved an "inherent inversion of logic and a fundamental unfairness to applicants."

The Government was warned about all of this. I raised the matter with the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, during Leaders' Questions and the Taoiseach. I met the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and his officials, who stonewalled on every occasion. We tabled a Private Members' motion last year which was passed by the House. As Dr. O'Mahony said, the Government set up a compensation scheme, but it did not want to pay any compensation. It has dragged on for four years and the people involved have suffered enormous trauma and abuse in their lives. I have met them. It has been appalling. The deliberate distortion of the O'Keeffe judgment has exacerbated that hurt and abuse for the victims who have been denied access to the redress scheme. It was morally wrong of the Government and its predecessor to pursue this line, particularly when it was pointed out so cogently to them by Dr. O'Mahony, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, and the Ombudsman for Children. Why was the Government so deaf to the obvious and the logical? Why was the O'Keeffe judgment so blatantly distorted? Why did the Government go along with it, compounding the hurt already endured by the victims? Will it apologise to them for its actions? Does it accept in full the independent assessor's conclusions? Will the Taoiseach indicate to the Dáil what the Government intends to do in respect of pending and discontinued cases and whether they will be accommodated as they should be under the redress scheme?

I believe sexual abuse is the most heinous of all crimes, especially when the victims are children. It stays with them forever; trust is betrayed; lives are destroyed forever and families broken. On behalf of the State, I apologise to the people who were sexually abused when they were children in day schools before 1992 and for the State's delay thereafter in acknowledging that it had a responsibility to protect them. As Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill has reported, had a system to report abuse "been in place in the years before 1992 when all of the historic child sexual abuse occurred in national schools ... the prevailing culture of impunity which permitted these crimes to occur, could not have existed or survived." I thank Mr. Justice O'Neill for the two years of work he has done since his appointment by the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton.

Procedures should have been in place before 1992 to record and act on allegations of sexual abuse by teachers and staff. They were not and Governments prior to 1992 failed in their responsibility to do so. Successive Governments since, including this one, have not put right this historical wrong and so have perpetuated it. We will seek to right that wrong now. The intentions may have been honourable, to provide for abuse survivors, while protecting taxpayers who, ultimately, has to pay the bill for things for which they were not responsible. It was wrong to make the terms of the ex gratia scheme so restrictive. The State will now make payments without undue delay to the 13 people whose appeals have been successful. It is clear that there are other cases in which survivors did not appeal or did not apply in the first place and they will have to be re-examined.

It may involve reopening the scheme. I have asked the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to prepare options for the Government in consultation with the Attorney General. I join the Minister in calling on patron bodies to make available any information and documents they have. The same applies to the Department of Education and Skills.

I recognise the campaigning and advocacy role of Louise O'Keeffe, on her own behalf and that of others. Even today, many victims of sexual abuse do not report it, but the fact that people such as Louise do gives them hope, courage and some comfort. Without meaningful action, apologies on their own do not count for very much. The best apology we can make to Louise O'Keeffe and all other survivors is to say further action will be taken. The State failed them at the time and failed them again when it did not own up to its responsibility. We will not fail them a third time. The Minister will make a further statement on the matter tomorrow afternoon.

I acknowledge the Taoiseach's statement and acceptance that what the Government did was wrong. However, he used a phrase, on which I need clarity. He stated it "may" involve a reopening of the scheme. To me, it will have to involve a reopening of the scheme because it was founded on the wrong premise. In an assessment of the judgment Dr. Conor O'Mahony stated that to limit the implications to the 13 cases was a wilful distortion of the assessor's decision. He went on to state that if the condition of prior compliant was inherently incompatible with the O'Keeffe judgment, as a matter of human rights law, it must be dropped for all applicants. Cases are pending, while others have been discontinued because of the extraordinary pressure put on many of the litigants and victims. It is accepted that many victims of child sexual abuse go through extraordinary trauma throughout their lives. When the power of the State is devoted to continuously denying them justice, that trauma is exacerbated beyond belief. The Taoiseach stated the Government would not fail the victims again. We need clarity on the cases we know are pending or have been discontinued. Will he indicate that it is the Government's intention to open these cases to the ex gratia scheme?

I can indicate that that is the Government's intention. When I say we "may" need to reopen the scheme, I expect that we will do so. We will have to remove the prior complaint condition, which will mean amending the scheme, as well as reopening it, but we are also conscious that while some people appealed, others did not. There are also people who might not have applied in the first place because they believed they had no possibility of receiving a payment. We need to look at the matter in the round. There will be meetings today involving officials from the Department of Education and Skills and the Office of the Attorney General to chart the right way forward. We need a little time to get it right and study in detail what Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill said. As the Deputy knows, the issue goes back a long time. Louise O'Keeffe has spoken about battling the State for 15 years prior to 2014. In 2008 a Supreme Court case was fought by the Government at the time and a scheme was drawn up in 2015. We all need to take responsibility for the long 15 or 19 years of battling Louise O'Keeffe had to endure and to work together to try to put the matter right.