Batt O'Keeffe: investigation

A solicitor representing families whose children were allegedly abused in a national school says he is "appalled" at a Dáil statement made by education minister Batt
O'Keeffe about the simmering scandal.

Replying to a written question by Labour's education spokesman Ruairí Quinn last week, the minister said his department has been aware of the allegations against some teachers in a Kilkenny school since 2006. He added: "Under the statutory guidelines and procedures the board of management of the school, as employer of the teachers, investigated these allegations, as did the HSE and the DPP."

But the children's solicitor, Felix McTiernan, claims that whatever investigations were conducted were flawed and he has demanded that the minister explain his position. "Is it the case that his interest extends no further than ascertaining that a board of management went through the motions of carrying out an investigation, regardless of whether or not that investigation was tainted by the bias of one of its most influential members?" he questioned.

Since June 2006, gardaí and the HSE have received complaints of physical assaults on nine children by a class teacher and the principal of the school. Some of the children also claimed they were sexually abused with a thorny stick. The teacher was put on administrative leave during the investigations. The principal, who is also on the board of management and a member of the parents' council, remained in situ.

A HSE psychologist who examined two of the children recommended in her written reports that the HSE initiate an investigation of events at the school. The HSE failed to do so. The Department of Education received copies of the psychologist's reports in May 2007. Meanwhile, the DPP returned four garda investigation files with instructions that no charges be brought. The teacher was reinstated last autumn.

The Catholic church-funded office of the National Board for Safeguarding Children was only notified of the complaints in February 2008 by Bishop Séamus Freeman, after he replaced Bishop Laurence Forristal, who retired the previous September. The bishop is the patron of the school and Forristal remains Bishop Emeritus in the diocese of Ossory.

"I'm appalled at the disinterested formulaïc response of the minister," said McTiernan of Dublin solicitors firm Cusack McTiernan, acting for four of the complainant families. "Since 2006, almost 20% of the pupils in this school have been removed from it by their parents. In 1991, the current principal was the subject of a Department of Education investigation for making a child stand in front of her class with chalk placed in his mouth. The then minister confirmed in a letter, dated 12 August 1991, to the ceann comhairle that a thorough investigation had been completed and appropriate action taken.

"While the current complaints were being investigated, the principal was participating in the investigation as a member of the board of management. During this period, in May 2007, she went into the classrooms of the first and second classes and read out a card from the suspended teacher wishing them well for their first communion. The previous Christmas, she had the children prepare a Christmas card for the teacher and informed them she would be returning to teach them.

"We consider that not only an interference with the garda investigation, as the children who had complained were in first and second class, but that it made the principal's position on the board of management untenable when she was supposed to be involved in an unbiased investigation."

The school cannot be publicly identified to protect the children's anonymity.