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EU court finds Ireland liable for abuse in Catholic schools

STRASBOURG, France--An Irish woman who suffered sexual abuse as a girl while attending a Catholic-run state primary school in the 1970s won a landmark victory at the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday.

The case of Louise O'Keeffe was the first concerning child abuse in Irish schools that the Strasbourg-based court has ruled on.

O'Keeffe has fought a lengthy legal battle over the responsibility of the state for her treatment at the hands of the principal of Dunderrow National School in Cork in 1973, when she was nine.

The judges said in their ruling it was “an inherent obligation of a government to protect children from ill-treatment, especially in a primary education context.”

“That obligation had not been met,” it said.

O'Keeffe, now 49, said she was “delighted” that the Irish state had been held accountable by the European court.

“I think it's very important for the schoolchildren in our country. It's the children in the schools that this case was fought for,” she told RTE radio.

“It was fought for the protection of the boys and girls at a very young age who should simply be protected.”

But her lawyer Ernest J. Cantillon said the fact that the Irish state was “continuing to fight” O'Keeffe was worrying “because it signals an ongoing attempt to distance itself from responsibility.”

O'Keeffe had taken her case to the European court after the Irish supreme court ruled in 2008 that the Irish state was not legally liable for the abuse she suffered.

Cantillon said the Irish state should act to address “some 135” other victims who were contacted by authorities and told to drop similar cases after O'Keeffe lost her supreme court appeal or face being pursued for legal costs.

National Schools, attended by the majority of Irish children up to the age of 11, are state-funded but privately managed by religious authorities, most of them Catholic.

The court found that the state had continued to entrust the management of primary education to National Schools despite being aware of the sexual abuse of children by adults before the 1970s.

The judgment said the state had failed to “put in place any mechanism of effective state control against the risks of such abuse occurring.”

The head of One in Four, a charity dedicated to helping those harmed by sexual abuse, has said Tuesday's verdict could have huge implications.

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