Originally published in The Age
Izey Semovic remembers reeling with disbelief when he was told the Melbourne neurologist who he accused of sexually assaulting him would escape serious punishment.
It was 2007 and the now 53-year-old former truck driver had no idea that the doctor he had reported to the medical board would years later be exposed as one of the worst sexual predators in Australian medical history. All Semovic knew was that the handling of his own case stunk.
The Medical Practice Board had somehow concluded that Dr Andrew Churchyard had the laconic truckie’s “best interests at heart” when he fondled the 42-year-old’s genitals. Semovic had sought the neurologist’s help to deal with upper-body muscle pain and weakness.
When Churchyard suddenly pulled down Semovic’s pants and began touching him, he did not wear gloves and had neither clear consent nor a sound clinical reason. Yet, Semovic felt the medical board had sympathised with Churchyard while regarding his own testimony as a lie.
The board’s confidential 2007 report, obtained by Fairfax Media, found that Churchyard had “been affected deeply” by the inquiry that Semovic’s sexual assault complaint had triggered.
The “considerable salutary effect on” Churchyard meant that, according to the board, “future education in these matters is not required and the likelihood of recurrence of similar conduct is low.”
“It felt like my whole statement was disregarded,” Semovic said this week. But what most worried him in 2007 was the fact that the medical board – one of several boards around the nation that now work with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) to protect patient safety – had allowed the neurologist to return to work clear of any stain. Future patients would not know the details of Churchyard’s misconduct, who did not need to undergo any further training nor close scrutiny.
Semovic was kept up at night by a single, recurring thought. Had the board’s decision to give Churchyard the benefit of the doubt enabled, or even empowered, the senior, highly respected doctor to abuse other patients?
It took more than 10 years, but Semovic finally learnt the answer to this question late last year. He was called by AHPRA and told someone had sought to access his complaint file via a freedom of information (FOI) request.
He was also told something else: Churchyard had been accused of sexually assaulting up to 100 patients, many whom were abused after Semovic’s made his complaint.
Most of these victims came forward after Fairfax Media revealed the story of another sexual assault victim of Churchyard, Melbourne law student Tom Monagle. Monagle had also lodged a formal complaint about Churchyard with the medical board, this time in 2015.
His abuse at the hands of Churchyard mirrored that suffered by Semovic.
Like Semovic, Monagle had also been left reeling by the failure of the medical regulator to suspend Churchyard. Instead, the neurologist was required to have a chaperone present during some consultations and while investigations, including by police, continued. He kept working at Melbourne hospitals and despite the presence of a chaperone, Churchyard continued offending. He killed himself in 2016, as more victims emerged.
The FOI request to access Semovic’s 2007 complaint was lodged by Tom Monagle’s mother, Sharon, who is herself a doctor.
Monagle, a steely general practitioner, had spent months fighting AHPRA to learn if it or the medical board had mishandled any complaints about Churchyard prior to her son’s sexual assault, or if the subsequent investigations into Churchyard had failed to take note of his past.
AHPRA blocked her at every turn, blaming “the enormous distress that would be caused to the 2007 complainant should this matter be brought up.”
“I found this incredible,” recalls Monagle.
“It ignored the fact that this man must surely already be incredibly distressed at their failure to act in 2007. It also ignored the enormous distress that had been caused to my son and to our family (and hundreds of others) because Churchyard had been allowed to continue to practice after this earlier sentinel event.”
When AHPRA finally contacted Semovic and asked if he would mind if his file was publicly released, the former truckie had no hesitation. Within days, he and Sharon Monagle were comparing notes about an oversight system that the pair believe privileges the rights of an accused doctor over the safety of patients.
It’s a live issue across Australia.
At present, AHPRA has 106 investigations under way into “boundary violation” allegations against medical practitioners and 35 similar probes involving nurses. In 2016-17, AHPRA received 6898 notifications about health practitioners across the 17 different health sectors it oversees.
The federal agency insists the system is working well and constantly improving, noting reforms to the way chaperones are used and the amount of information made available to patients about a doctors’ misconduct record. Investigators now have better training about handling sexual assault allegations.
AHPRA would not comment on the Semovic case because the matter was “managed by a previous board under different legislation”. But Monagle believes there is a bias towards protecting the reputation of doctors and the industry at the expense of informing and protecting future patients.
Among her evidence is AHPRA’s reluctance to release information about Semovic’s complaint, despite his own desire to publicly expose it. Other cases raise similar concerns.
Fairfax Media has learned that AHPRA recently re-registered a Victorian male psychiatric nurse after he served a 20 month ban for inappropriate sexual contact with three female patients.
A tribunal found Harpreet Singh engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with three female patients by kissing them, touching their breasts and seeking contact outside the hospital.
Singh is free to return to the health system without restrictions on his practice or reference on AHPRA’s public register about his disciplinary history.
This has angered one of his female victims, who was previously under his care in the mental health unit of Eastern Health’s Maroondah Hospital in Melbourne’s east.
“As a result of what happened to me, I always check AHPRA’s registration page before I see a medical professional,” says the woman, who cannot be identified due to court orders:
“But how would anyone know what that man did to me and the other women from what is on the AHPRA register at the moment?”
A spokeswoman for AHPRA says the existing laws limit what can be disclosed about a practitioner’s past. But she also says that the agency is changing the way it handles cases and discloses information about findings, including by publishing online links to tribunal or court rulings.
Leading Melbourne medical negligence lawyer Bree Knoester, who launched a successful legal action against Churchyard‘s estate on behalf of dozens of his victims, says the Singh case indicates reforms have some way to go.
“It suggests that they [AHPRA] haven’t appreciated that when you have been found to have engaged in sexually predatory behaviour in the past that makes informing the public more important than someone’s right to work unimpeded,” says Ms Knoester.
“I’m amazed that AHPRA has not learned and been more motivated by the Churchyard case.”
Sharon Monagle believes there has been a failure to openly and thoroughly investigate previous cases that appear to have been mishandled, and to ensure AHPRA and the medical boards it works with are meaningfully accountable when they stuff up.
Izey Semovic agrees: “I don’t want what happened to me to happen to other people,” he says.
“Sometimes this stuff is buried under the carpet. It’s time we dragged it out.”Go Back