Up to €20 million in funds for school sex abuse victims unspent amid ‘restrictive’ terms

Leo Varadkar apologised in 2019 to those sexually abused in day schools, pledging they would not be failed again

The Department of Education is set to surrender up to €20 million earmarked for victims of sexual abuse in schools to the exchequer amid criticism of the “restrictive” terms of a redress scheme.

A €31 million compensation scheme was established in response to a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling in 2014 regarding abuse survivor Louise O’Keeffe following a 20-year legal battle. It found the State was liable for abuse carried out by her teacher at a national school in west Cork in the 1970s when she was eight years old.

Following criticism over the scheme’s narrow terms of reference, a revised version of the scheme ran from July 2021 which broadened the nature and type of evidence that could be considered. The scheme closed in July 2023.

Internal records seen by The Irish Times show a total of €11 million has been paid to 127 out of 128 successful applicants and their legal representatives. A total of 64 applications were rejected.


Documents indicate that the department may surrender up to €20 million to the exchequer during 2024 as a result.

In 2019, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar apologised on behalf of the State to people who were sexually abused in day schools and for the delay afterwards in acknowledging its responsibility to protect them.

“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,” he said.

He said the “intention may have been honourable to provide for abuse survivors while protecting the taxpayer who ultimately had to pay the bill for things they were not responsible for”.

Mr Varadkar made the comments in Dáil after a finding by the redress scheme’s independent assessor Justice Iarfhlaith O’Neill that the State had misinterpreted a ruling by the ECHR which unfairly denied applicants access to the redress scheme.

This led to the scheme’s terms and conditions being widened in 2021 and a condition of “prior complaint” being removed. A sum of €31 million was set aside cover the projected cost of payments under the scheme.

However, the revised scheme was also criticised as unduly restrictive by the Government’s special rapporteur on child protection, UCC law professor Conor O’Mahony.

He said a condition that applicants must have instituted court proceedings against the State prior to July 2021 was a key weakness.

He said this suggested that entitlement to compensation derived from whether and when a person instituted legal proceedings rather than from the rights violations experienced by children who were sexually abused in schools. “This is clearly not the case,” he wrote in his annual report for 2022.

Meanwhile, a scoping inquiry into historical sexual abuse at day and boarding schools has asked religious orders whether they are likely to challenge legally any future inquiry that identifies those responsible for handling abuse allegations.

The inquiry was established earlier this year following a series of abuse allegations at schools run mainly by religious congregations with the aim of informing the Government’s response to the scandal.

In correspondence with religious congregations earlier this month, the scoping inquiry set out three key areas which might be addressed by a future inquiry.

They include identifying whether historical sexual abuse had taken place in schools run by religious orders; establishing how sexual abuse allegations had been handled and who had been in a position of responsibility at the time; and identifying individuals responsible for historical sexual abuse in schools, including deceased or incapacitated members of religious orders.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent