One of the country's leading paediatricians was found guilty of serious professional misconduct yesterday after he accused a father of murdering his two babies on the basis of a television programme.
The General Medical Council (GMC) banned Professor David Southall from working on child protection cases for three years and said it was "extremely concerned" about the way in which he had acted.
Professor Southall faces at least seven other charges of misconduct relating to evidence he has given in civil and criminal courts, alleging that mothers and fathers abused their children. Scores of parents have been convicted or had their children taken into care and adopted on the basis of Professor Southall's reports.
Yesterday's GMC ruling centred on the now-notorious case of Sally Clark, who was convicted in 1999 of murdering her two baby sons. Mrs Clark and her husband, Steve, had always protested her innocence, and in 2000 Mr Clark gave an interview to the Channel 4 Dispatches programme, in which he described how one of their sons suffered a nosebleed just days before his death.
Having watched the programme, Professor Southall contacted police and social workers and told them that he believed "beyond reasonable doubt" that Mr Clark had murdered both the boys. He did not see any official documents or court papers and never met Mr or Mrs Clark, but wrote a report containing his allegations which was later used in a court case over the care of the couple's surviving child. Mr Clark was questioned by police on the basis of the allegations, which he has described as a "sick joke", but no charges were brought.
Last year, Mrs Clark's conviction was quashed and she walked free after the Appeal Court heard new evidence that her sons had died from natural causes. Mr Clark's complaint to the GMC sparked a flood of other allegations about the way in which Professor Southall has accused parents of abuse.
Passing judgment on the Clark case, Denis McDevitt, chairman of the GMC's professional conduct committee, told Professor Southall: "The committee are extremely concerned that you came to this view without ever meeting or interviewing Mr or Mrs Clark; without seeing any of the medical reports, post-mortem reports and without any knowledge of the discussions between the experts or witnesses involved with the Sally Clark case. Your view was a theory which was not presented as a theory but as a near certainty."
Professor Southall's false allegation had caused "substantial stress" to Mr Clark and could have resulted in the couple's remaining child being taken into care, the panel said.
Throughout the hearing, Professor Southall has reiterated his opinion that Mr Clark was responsible for the deaths of his sons. Yesterday, the professor admitted that he was disappointed at the ban but insisted that he intended to continue to work as a paediatrician. Mr Clark said: "I hope the committee's finding will send a strong message to him [Professor Southall] that irresponsible and reckless allegations of child abuse against innocent parents are simply not acceptable."
The committee stopped short of striking Professor Southall off the medical register, which would have meant none of the remaining complaints could have been heard. However, he could still be struck off when the committee hears charges relating to the seven other complainants in January. The GMC has not given details of the cases, but they are believed to relate to other parents accused by the paediatrician of abusing their children.
Doubt has also been cast on Professor Southall's role as an expert witness in the case of the headmaster Sion Jenkins, who was convicted of murdering his foster daughter Billie-Jo six years ago. Prof Southall gave crucial evidence to the court about blood spots at the murder scene, a key plank of the prosecution case. Last month, the Appeal Court quashed Mr Jenkins's conviction and he now faces a retrial.Last night news of the professor's ban was greeted with concern at the impact it may have on other paediatricians.
Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP and a member of the science and technology select committee, said: "The doctor has been criticised for the nature and style of his reporting to the child protection authorities, not the fact that he did it. It is in the interest of the thousands of children who suffer abuse each year that healthcare professionals are vigilant and are not deterred from bringing their reasonable concerns to the attention of the authorities for fear of any sanction if their good faith actions are found not to be substantiated after further investigation."
THE REACTION FROM PARENTS AND HEALTH EXPERTS
Angela Cannings, 41, freed last year on appeal after being cleared of murdering her two baby sons: "I am disappointed he did not get a life ban. They are protecting their own. What will happen after the three years' suspension is finished? I do not think he should any longer be allowed to do child protection cases."
Mervyn Gamage, spokesman for the University Hospital of North Staffordshire: "Professor David Southall acted as he did because he genuinely believed that the child was at risk ... The GMC's criticism is largely of the way he pursued [this]."
David Hall, Professor of community paediatrics at the University of Sheffield: "He [Southall] is a pioneer, a man who pushed the limits and went where others would fear to tread. We need people like him who challenge received wisdom, test new ideas and suggest new approaches."
Steve Clark, husband of Sally Clark: "The sole purpose of bringing my complaint, four long years ago, was to try to ensure that no other innocent parent is ever again falsely accused of harming their children."
Penny Mellor, who runs a support group for parents accused of harming their children, Dare to Care: "You can't go around accusing people of abusing or murdering their children based on a theory."