Steep rise in sex abuse of patients

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The Independent Online
DOCTORS AND other professionals exposed for preying on female patients may represent only the tip of the iceberg, patients' organisations warned yesterday.

At least half a dozen disciplinary cases involving inappropriate behaviour by professionals have come to light in the last week. Women who suffer the advances were urged yesterday to speak out to protect others from "serial abusers" who are often charming, manipulative and dangerous.

Gerald Walmsley, a GP in Kent, was jailed for three and a half years after being found guilty of abusing women over more than 10 years. The court heard that women had twice gone to the police but had not been believed. Supporters of Walmsley described him as a "warm and caring" GP.

Rodney Ledward, the consultant gynaecologist struck off the medical register for incompetent surgery which may have left scores of women injured, was alleged to have frequently made rude and suggestive remarks to patients. On one occasion he told the husband of a woman on whom he had just performed a hysterectomy that he (the husband) should be grateful because he (Mr Ledward) had sewn her up "like a 16-year-old".

However, the difficulty presented by the private relationship between doctor and patient was illustrated yesterday when the General Medical Council cleared a psychiatrist accused of behaving indecently to a15-year- old girl who had been a victim of sex abuse. Dr Anthony Baker, 50, who specialises in treating child sex abuse, denied charges of serious professional misconduct and having developed an "improper emotional relationship" with the teenager.

The GMC is required to prove charges "beyond reasonable doubt", and the Professional Conduct Committee decided that that standard was not met in this case, where there was only the patient's word against the doctor's.

A dentist, James Aukett, is accused of putting a female assistant across his knee and spanking her in a case being heard by the General Dental Council. Mr Aukett denies the charge. A clinical psychologist in Liverpool, Peter Slade, was found guilty of a series of sex assaults but in a controversial decision the British Psychological Society decided not to erase him from the register. Mr Slade had a drink problem and difficulties in his personal life and the BPS justified its action on compassionate grounds, despite the traumatic impact on his victims.

Francis Blunden, director of Popan, the charity for victims of professional abuse, said: "Far more abuse goes on than ever comes to the surface. A lot of it happens in private and there is no other corroborative evidence. A lot of people come to us but there is very little they can do, and the emotional cost to them of going through with a complaint is too painful."

Popan received 430 complaints of abuse in the first six months of this year, more than in the whole of last year. A study of clinical psychologists in Britain published in The Psychologist journal this year found 4 per cent admitted having had sexual contact with clients.

Jean Robinson, a former member of the GMC and an adviser to Popan, said professional men who preyed on female patients were often serial sex abusers. "They have highly developed manipulative skills. They know exactly which victims to pick and they are charming and charismatic, skills which also help them in their career ...

"The victims often can't believe it has happened and wonder whether the doctor is supposed to do this. They are embarrassed and ashamed and blame themselves." She said it was crucial for women to speak out to alert others.

Claire Rayner, chairman of the Patients' Association, said the National Health Service had one million employees and they could not all be angels of mercy.

"What is most upsetting is the delays before a problem is exposed. When you hear about a doctor who has been groping women for years you wonder how it can have gone on. But the more that comes out the safer we are going to feel," she said.