Conspiracy of silence allowed NHS rape spree
IT WAS a secret that William Kerr was determined to cover up. Working as a National Health Service psychiatrist in Northern Ireland he had been accused of luring a teenage patient into his car, claiming that sex would help her mental condition. After an internal inquiry the Belfast hospital advised him that "if he wanted to continue to practise medicine" he should leave Northern Ireland. He applied to Clifton hospital in York but omitted the references from his Belfast job in his CV.
The fact that Clifton neither spotted this nor even telephoned his previous employers to check his bona fides allowed him to continue where he had left off — preying on young, mentally unstable women.
It was a laxity within the NHS that was to continue from his appointment in 1965 until his retirement in 1988. A government inquiry has now concluded that during this time he raped or sexually molested at least 67 women.
The inquiry — set up after an investigation into the allegations by The Sunday Times — blames an "institutional moral failure" in the NHS for allowing him to get away with it for so long. It said that junior staff were unwilling to question "all-powerful" consultants and that complaints by patients were ignored.
The inquiry concluded that the scandal was not investigated for 20 years because of excessive respect for and fear of consultants; a greater concern for professionals than for patients; an exaggerated loyalty to colleagues and a tendency to disbelieve mentally ill patients.
Kerr, an arrogant, bullying figure, was persistently alleged to have made sexual advances towards women and was described by staff as a "ladies' man" and a "flirt". He used his power as a consultant to silence his victims. In the report a patient claims that Kerr told her: "In the state you are in, who would believe you? Would they believe you or me?" Thirty-eight of his female patients made complaints to nurses and 11 GPs but they were largely dismissed as fantasists or troublemakers. Only one GP, Dr John Wade, approached a senior figure. He turned to Michael Haslam, also a consultant psychiatrist at Clifton hospital and who, unknown to Wade, was sexually assaulting his own patients.
According to the inquiry, Haslam molested at least 10 of his patients, using his psycho-sexual disorder clinic to practise a range of treatments unheard of by other psychiatrists. These included full-body massages, carbon dioxide inhalation therapy and "kirlian" photography aimed at identifying patients' aura — which usually took place in a darkened room.
Kathy Haq, a senior nurse who was herself sexually assaulted by Kerr, said: "There was the most incredible conspiracy of silence and apathy. It was an old boys' network where they buried their heads in the sand and convinced themselves that despite the numbers of patients involved, we were all neurotic women."
Ruth Payne of Ripon, another former patient who was molested by Kerr, said: "We have been shocked and very angry at the number of health authority staff who knew what Kerr and Haslam were doing to patients and failed to stop them. I hope they have learnt a very hard lesson."
Kerr's years of abuse remained secret even after his retirement in 1988. It was not until February 1997 that one of his patients walked into Harrogate police station and accused Kerr of raping her and forcing her to have oral sex between 1983 and 1986. He was charged but was judged unfit to stand trial for health reasons.
As early as 1988 Haslam was advised by a senior colleague to "consider retirement" after allegations of rape and sexual assault by a patient. However, no investigation was launched and in 1989 he was promoted to become medical director of Harrogate clinic.
It was not until 1996, when two patients complained to the General Medical Council, that action began to be taken against Haslam, who was by then medical director of South Durham NHS Trust.
Malcolm Timperley, a consultant psychiatrist in Scarborough who helped one of the patients to make her complaint, said: "I was furious that nobody seemed to be interested in what was going on. It did seem to be a conspiracy. Every time I mentioned it, people in the higher ranks of the medical establishment warned me off and said it wouldn't do me any good to go poking my nose in."
Even then, according to the government inquiry, Haslam might never have been prosecuted if he had not sued The Sunday Times for libel after the newspaper revealed details of the allegations against him.
Although the regional health authority launched an inquiry into Haslam's activities in 1997, it was evidence gathered by this newspaper to defend the libel that put Haslam in the dock on four counts of indecent assault and one charge of rape. He was given a seven-year sentence but on appeal the rape charge was quashed and his sentence reduced to three years.
Haslam said he was appealing against his conviction to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. He remained defiant, saying: "For ￡3.2m this inquiry has established that a defunct health trust 25 years ago didn't handle complaints very well."
Kerr could not be reached for comment.
Haslam's conviction is small solace for Linda Bigwood, a deputy nursing sister who did the most to try to alert the authorities during the 1980s. She was demoted and warned that she faced the sack for her dogged campaign against Kerr. She left the profession and returned only in the late 1990s when criminal proceedings were launched against Kerr. "My career was destroyed by a campaign of lies about me and I have had to completely rebuild it," she said. "It grieves me that Kerr, the more serious offender, is still a free man."
Tomorrow Bigwood, 49, will start work in the first senior management job commensurate with her skills since her career was threatened by her efforts to expose Kerr's and then Haslam's sexual assaults.
Lila Taylor, who was indecently assaulted by Haslam, said she was "very pleased" with the inquiry report, which makes 70 recommendations to ensure that staff report and record allegations by patients and that references are checked.
No new NHS appointment should be made, it states, unless references from a candidate's three most recent employers are taken up. If this had been done in 1965, Kerr's reign of abuse could have been prevented.