Abuse claims against surgeon could not be prosecuted in UK

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The Independent Online

Police investigating allegations that a heart specialist who worked at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital had sexually abused children in Kenya found they would have been unable to bring a prosecution because the alleged offences occurred before May 2004, a spokesman for Scotland Yard said yesterday.

Professor Philipp Bonhoeffer, an internationally renowned paediatric cardiologist, is facing misconduct charges before the General Medical Council over claims that he abused children in a “foreign country”. He was suspended from practising, pending the outcome of the GMC’s investigations, and stopped working for Great Ormond Street in April 2009.

In a statement issued through the Medical Protection Society, Professor Bonhoeffer said he “strongly denied” any impropiety or misconduct. “These allegations are extremely distressing as throughout my career I have been committed to helping my patients. I am determined to fight these allegations.”

Police said yesterday that the alleged abuse had taken place in Kenya where Professor Bonhoeffer travelled frequently carrying out humanitarian work with the charity Chain of Hope.

The charity, set up hy heart transplant pioneer Sir Magdi Yacoub, brings children with heart problems from the developing world to Britain for surgery and takes surgeons to developing countries to operate.

Detectives from Scotland Yard’s Child Abuse Investigation Unit flew to Kenya after being alerted to the claims in September 2008 and interviewed the victims but the investigation was dropped eight months later and no arrest made “as the offences were not prosecutable in the UK for legal reasons”. A Scotland Yard spokesperson said: “The Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides that in certain circumstances United Kingdom nationals or residents can be prosecuted for sexual offences against children committed abroad. The 2003 Act does though only apply to offences that were committed after midnight on 1st May 2004. These [alleged offences] must have preceded that date.”

Detectives had shared information about the alleged offences with relevant agencies “as necessary to discharge our duty to safeguard children” and intelligence databases had been updated, the spokesman said.

Great Ormond Street Hospital set up a helpline yesterday for worried parents. Professor Bonhoeffer joined the hospital in 2001 and later became head of cardiology. There are no allegations of misconduct in the UK and Great Ormond Street said it had “absolutely no reason to believe anyone in the hospital had been put at risk”.

Chain of Hope declined to comment on the case yesterday.

The GMC case against Professor Bonhoeffer was halted last October after his lawyers appealed for a judicial review over the Fitness to Practise panel’s decision to admit hearsay evidence, which is to be heard in the High Court in London today.

The panel said it had decided not to call the key witness - Witness A - because “homosexuality is illegal in the country where he lives” and his safety and that of his family would be at risk.

Despite being willing to give evidence in this country, advice from senior Scotland Yard officers including Sir Paul Stephenson, the Met Commissioner and Commander Alan Gibson, the head of child abuse investigations was that Witness A should not be called. Instead the panel planned to rely on voice recordings, transcripts, text messages and interviews conducted by detectives.

Professor Bonhoeffer is 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”.

Dr Priya Singh, Medical Director of the Medical Protection Society (MPS) said: “The issue for the Court is whether the GMC should be allowed to rely on hearsay evidence to support serious allegations and not to call the crucial witness to give evidence in person or by videolink, when the witness is said to be available and willing to give evidence. MPS is challenging this in the High Court as it is an important point of principle for all doctors.”

The cardiologist pioneered the development of new treatments for heart conditions which are in use in scores of countries around the world. He performed the world’s first heart valve replacement via a catheter inserted in the groin, avoiding the need for open heart surgery in France in 2000.

In an interveiw with the Daily Telegraph in 2005, he said that as a result of his many trips to Kenya to operate he had acquired a large “family” of children there. Their parents had told him that as he had given them life they were in effect his sons and daughters.