Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Ceisteanna (32)

Thomas Byrne

Ceist:

32. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the reforms of the ex gratia scheme established in July 2015 in view of the O'Keeffe case; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47777/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

It disappoints me that I have to raise this issue again. In the past number of years, we have had independent reviews, Dáil motions and apologies but we have never had an end to this saga for survivors, many of whom continue to seek to meet me, my party leader and probably the Minister as well. Over the summer, stinging and, unfortunately, all too predictable criticism was levelled at the scheme in the independent assessment. This had been predicted by Deputies on the floor of this House and by academic experts. We have still not reached the end of the process. The most recent response I received from the Minister indicates that only half of the offers made had been accepted and that the review undertaken by the Department with the Office of the Attorney General remained incomplete. Will the Minister provide an update and begin, on behalf of the Government, to show some compassion towards the people affected by this issue?

I express again my sympathy for the victims of sexual abuse and acknowledge the trauma they suffered. As the Deputy will be aware, the ex gratia scheme was established on foot of the specific circumstances arising from and in response to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, relating to Ms Louise O'Keeffe. Ireland submits biannual action plans to the relevant committee of ministers which is responsible for supervising the implementation of the judgment of the ECHR.

The ex gratia scheme is not the sole vehicle through which compensation for sexual abuse in day schools has been paid out. Between 2005 and 2018, settlements involving the payment of compensation by the State to victims of day school child sexual abuse have been made to 22 claimants. Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill, acting as an independent assessor to the scheme, was asked to review the cases of 19 applicants who had not been successful in their application to the scheme. On foot of his determinations, payments are being made to a number of victims of child sexual abuse in day schools. The current position is that 16 offers of payment have been made and, to date, eight have been accepted. Further payments will be made upon acceptance of the remaining offers.

In the aftermath of the independent assessor's determinations, my Department committed to reviewing the ex gratia scheme in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General. I am sure the Deputy will understand the complexity and sensitivity of the issues involved that require very careful deliberation before proposals can be finalised and brought to Government. However, I fully understand and appreciate the urgency involved in this matter, as noted by the Deputy. I expect my officials to present me with draft proposals in the coming weeks for my consideration.

I could raise many issues during education questions but when a man tells me he was raped on a daily basis by a lay principal and other survivors of abuse tell me similar, awful tragic stories which have left their lives destroyed, I must continue to raise this issue with the Minister. The stories I am being told are nothing short of horrific. The response of the State to the decision in the Louise O'Keeffe case has been utterly inadequate. It took a long time, through pressure inside and outside the Dáil, to get the Government to at least appoint Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill who told the Department what Members had said in the House and what Dr. Conor O'Mahony of University College Cork and others had also said, namely, that the Department's interpretation of the decision in the Louise O'Keeffe case was wrong. Mr. Justice O'Neill stated that the qualifying requirements of the scheme required "an inherent inversion of logic and a fundamental unfairness to applicants." The applicants are those about whom I am speaking today. The idea that this further deliberation - it is never-ending - is required does another injustice to these victims who have the European Court of Human Rights on their side. Ranged against them, they have had the legal might of the State and the slow response of the Government in dealing with the matter. This has added to the trauma they have experienced. I plead with the Minister to have the Government deal with this issue as quickly as possible.

I am treating this matter with the most urgent attention and I will continue to do so. I met the Attorney General earlier today on this issue and he also appreciates the urgency involved. The Attorney General also articulated the complexity that surround this issue, which the Deputy will respect. We want to get this right. We had previous decisions by Government and there has been political interaction with the Judiciary. When the High Court and Supreme Court make a decision, we work from their interpretation. An independent assessor was commissioned to do a particular job. In advance of his determination, the Taoiseach and I both stated on the public record that we would abide by and follow through on the independent assessor's determination, whatever it was. We will continue to do that. I appreciate the urgency around this issue.

I challenge the Minister on this. The High Court and Supreme Court have never stated that the previous practice in the Department was what should happen. Victims were bullied out of the High Court and Supreme Court with threats of costs a number of years ago. They were told that if they pursued their claims, costs would be awarded against them, which is what happened.

This issue needs to be dealt with urgently. If I was the Minister for Education and Skills, I would ask the Attorney General and his office, because the matter goes beyond the current Attorney General, how they got this so wrong when everybody, including the entire Opposition and outside academics, was saying what the position was. Let us be honest about this. A plain reading of the judgment in the Louise O'Keeffe case suggested that the Government was wrong. One did not have to be a legal expert to read the judgment by the court and realise that what the Government was doing was in conflict with it. I wonder how the Government got it so wrong. Its job now is to make this right by complying with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights before another case is taken in Strasbourg and another ruling issues against the Government on this important issue. It must finally give justice to some of these people, most of whom, at least most of those I have met, are men who continue to suffer. The similarities between some of the stories being told by people from different parts of the country are striking. The State's response has been inadequate.

There is nothing more horrendous than to take away the innocence of young people. As a society, we have had a history of that and we have to be very vigilant in that regard. That is why we have been insistent and have focused on ensuring we have proper child protection measures in place through legislation.

The Deputy stated that if he was Minister, he would implore the Attorney General to move on this matter as quickly as possible. I have been doing that and will continue to do so. I am confident we will have a report back within the next few weeks.

We will skip Question No. 33 and return to it later.