Originally published in The Age
To many, Andrew Churchyard was a brilliant, caring doctor. He was available from 6am until late at night for patients; he gave his mobile phone number out; and he often asked people about their lives, not just their symptoms.
But it now seems the neurologist’s willingness to bulk bill and work after hours for his male patients came with a disturbing catch: He wanted them to get naked, so he could molest them.
Last month, Dr Andrew Churchyard took his own life while awaiting a criminal trial for sexual assault charges. Since news of his death broke, more than 40 patients have approached lawyers and Fairfax Media to say they felt violated by the doctor who often held himself out as a one-stop shop for their general health and psychological needs, not just their neurological care.
One of these patients struggles to talk. Others have serious degenerative conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis and Huntington’s Disease – an incurable genetic disease that slowly robs a person in their 30s and 40s of their ability to move and think.
After interviewing many of these aggrieved patients, lawyer Bree Knoester said most described a man who built up their trust before indecently assaulting them and cleverly disguising it as legitimate medical treatment.
Some of these patients now believe Dr Churchyard was trying to own their healthcare so he could use them for his own sexual gratification. There are also suspicions he strung patients along for visits they did not need, just so he could see them.
Ms Knoester, of Adviceline Injury Lawyers, said all of their stories were similar with worrying themes. They were all asked to get naked without a sheet or anything offered to cover themselves. Some were asked to walk around the room so he could study their gait, others were told to stand on scales in front of him. Then he would examine their genitals, and in some cases their rectums, without using gloves or washing his hands.
“They would all describe the room and the bed and where he would stand very, very close to them … He would often talk to them while holding their penis under the guise of looking for sexually transmitted diseases, pressure points or checking their erections,” Ms Knoester said.
One man said Dr Churchyard asked him to bring himself to an erection, another said he was asked to masturbate in front of him as part of a relaxation technique. A third man said Dr Churchyard appeared to ejaculate while he was “examining” him.
While many patients felt uncomfortable and embarrassed by it (Ms Knoester says one had even joked with family members about their doctor being a “pervert”), many felt dependent on him for specialist care and not quite sure if he had done something wrong.
The lines were blurred and in some cases it was hard to know if Dr Churchyard was being thorough, or was just good at explaining himself when he had to. For example, Ms Knoester said one patient who felt uncomfortable with a long genital examination produced a letter from Dr Churchyard to their GP saying that he had conducted a test for “genital anesthesia” (numbness) among other things.
“I don’t know if it was a valid thing, but he did that for somebody who indicated that they did not like the consultation,” Ms Knoester said.
One neurologist who does not want to be named said that while it was reasonable to ask a male patient about their ability to get an erection, there was no plausible reason for a doctor to ask a patient to get aroused or masturbate.
“I cannot imagine a clinical circumstance where a neurologist would need to see that,” he said.
The Medical Board of Australia’s guidelines on sexual boundaries warns doctors to use draping and gloves for physical examinations of people’s genitals and says sexual assault includes touching a patient or examining them without consent in a sexualised way.
The board says “sexualised behaviour includes any words or actions that might reasonably be interpreted as being designed or intended to arouse or gratify sexual desire”.
Ms Knoester said some patients also believed rightly or wrongly he was the top doctor for their illness.
“People had the impression he was the “Huntington’s guy” or the “Friedreich’s ataxia guy”,” Ms Knoester said. “People thought they were seeing the best person in the field. That might have made them feel less willing to question his practices. And many patients said he made them feel like they didn’t need to see any other doctors and that he could provide all the medical services they needed.”
One man who did not want to be named said Dr Churchyard’s dominant position in the field of Huntington’s disease was a problem for his family which is affected by the genetic condition.
The man said that when he visited Dr Churchyard seven years ago, his rectum was examined seemingly without a reason. The young man was unsure about his treatment and called the Medical Board of Victoria (now the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency) in January 2010 to ask if it was reportable. He was told it might be misconduct, but that he would need to provide his name and the doctor’s name. He shied away because he had other family members in Dr Churchyard’s care.
He now feels he should have been given an option to make an anonymous report or meet with an investigator to go through the sensitivities for his family.
“They didn’t really have processes to deal with my situation,” he said.
During this time and unbeknownst to him, his brother was being repeatedly abused by Dr Churchyard. He now fears his brother who has been suicidal at times will not see another specialist for his condition.
Ms Knoester, who is putting together a claim against Dr Churchyard’s estate and possibly Cabrini Hospital where he rented a room, said two other patients felt the same way. That is, they have not been to another doctor since they realised they had been abused.
“Everyone we have spoken to about it has had a stressful reaction to the news,” she said.
“People have frequently said they feel sick now when thinking about it.”Go Back