Exclusive: Renowned children's heart doctor suspended over abuse claims

Allegations relate to work in developing world. Great Ormond Street sets up helpline for worried parents
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An internationally renowned specialist in children's heart problems, who worked at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital, has been suspended from the medical register while he seeks to quash a case brought against him by the General Medical Council (GMC), the doctors' disciplinary body.

Philipp Bonhoeffer, the former head of cardiology at the children's hospital and a professor of cardiology with the Institute of Child Health at University College London, was due to appear before a fitness to practise panel of the GMC to hear allegations relating to the abuse of children in a foreign country.

The case was halted after lawyers for Professor Bonhoeffer applied for a judicial review, which is due to be heard at the High Court tomorrow. Great Ormond Street Hospital has set up a helpline to reassure parents of children treated there who may be worried. Professor Bonhoeffer is subject to an interim suspension order, barring him from practising as a doctor in the UK. It was imposed by the GMC pending the outcome of its investigation because of the seriousness of the allegations against him.

He has never been arrested or interviewed by police in relation to the complaints made, and there are no allegations of misconduct in this country. In a statement to The Independent, Great Ormond Street said he had stopped seeing patients there in April 2009: "We have absolutely no reason to believe that anyone in the hospital has been put at risk. However, any families seen by this doctor who are concerned can call 020 7762 6200." Great Ormond Street Hospital performs 600 cardiology investigations a year on children and treats 37,000 child inpatients and 139,000 outpatients.

Professor Bonhoeffer, 49, was born in Germany and is the great-nephew of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and Lutheran pastor who played a key role in the resistance movement in Germany in the Second World War, and was executed at Flossenberg concentration camp a month before VE day in 1945. The cardiologist is renowned as a pioneer of new treatments for heart conditions and performed the world's first trans-catheter heart valve implantation in France in 2000. He moved to Great Ormond Street Hospital in 2001 and later became its head of cardiolgy.

He chaired the medical board of the charity Chain of Hope, whose founder and president is the heart transplant surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, and which provides treatment to children with heart problems in the developing world.

A fitness to practise panel of the GMC was due to hear the case against him last October but the hearing was halted after lawyers for Professor Bonhoeffer objected that the case relied on hearsay evidence. Their objection is to be tested in tomorrow's judicial review.

In a public determination issued on 29 October, the panel said that on the advice of the Metropolitan Police, which had investigated the case, the prosecution had decided not to call the key witness – "Witness A" – against Professor Bonhoeffer to give evidence to the hearing, either in person or by live video link, because of the risk to him and his family.

The risks arose, the panel was told, from the fact that "homosexuality is illegal in the country where Witness A lives and in which the alleged misconduct took place" and attitudes there were such that "even if the individual were not complicit, his mere involvement would be sufficient to pose a credible threat to his safety and the safety of his family". Professor Bonhoeffer was also alleged to have contacted Witness A "in an attempt to convince him not to give evidence, including offering him incentives to retract his complaint," the panel said.

Witness A had nothing to gain from making his complaint and had suffered "significant hardship" as a result of making it, the panel heard. Yet he was still willing to give evidence in London because of his desire to protect others, it was told.

Advice had been sought from the most senior figures in the Met – the Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, and Commander Alan Gibson, head of child abuse investigations – before lawyers for the GMC decided not to call Witness A because of the risks, even though he was willing to give evidence. Instead, the prosecution planned to present hearsay evidence based on voice recordings of conversations between Witness A and "Witness Z", to whom Witness A first made his declaration and subsequent complaint, text messages, conversations with another witness (Witness Y) and transcripts of interviews conducted by officers of the Child Abuse Investigation Command of the Metropolitan Police. However, video and audio tapes of Witness A's evidence, made as part of the Met's criminal investigation, had been lost, removing "an opportunity for assessing Witness A's demeanour," the panel said.

Lawyers for Professor Bonhoeffer argued that the panel would be "acting unlawfully" if it admitted hearsay evidence and that Professor Bonhoeffer would be denied a fair trial. The evidence consisted solely of accusations which would cause him "significant" damage and the panel was "in no position" to assess the reliability of witness A, whom Professor Bonhoeffer would be unable to challenge. Furthermore, Witness A was a willing witness and there was no "cogent evidence" why he should not be called.

The panel said it wished to make clear that Professor Bonhoeffer had never been arrested or interviewed by the police in relation to the complaints, nor had he been prosecuted. There was no suggestion he was involved with any campaign of intimidation and there had been no complaints about his clinical practice, either in the UK or elsewhere.

Having weighed the arguments, the panel decided that in the circumstances the admission of hearsay evidence would be fair, although it criticised the "contradictory and incomplete" evidence about the threat to Witness A. It added: "The issues and alleged misconduct which have led to Professor Bonhoeffer's referral to this panel include concerns of a most serious nature, particularly in the light of his medical specialty which entails regular access to children. The public interest requires that such allegations are investigated. It is also appropriate and fair that Professor Bonhoeffer be afforded the opportunity to refute the allegations and present his case."

Tomorrow's judicial review will focus on the narrow issue of whether the hearsay evidence is admissible and will not affect the wider GMC investigation, whatever the outcome.

In a statement to The Independent yesterday, Professor Bonhoeffer said: "I strongly deny any impropriety or misconduct."