The former radiation oncology registrar who was sexually assaulted by Professor John Kearsley has spoken publicly about her experience for the first time, warning the system continues to implicitly protect perpetrators.
Still Australia’s only conviction of a senior doctor for indecent assault of a junior colleague, the case of Professor Kearsley made national headlines a nearly decade ago, sparking a profession-wide conversion about the culture of medicine.
The details that emerged as the case made its way through the courts were lurid and shocking: Professor Kearsley, the then director of radiation oncology at St George Hospital in Sydney had invited a young female registrar to his home on the pretext of offering her career advice. He then gave her a glass of wine spiked with benzodiazepines and she woke later to find him massaging and kissing her left breast.
His victim was Dr Dominique Lee, who has broken her anonymity for the first time 10 years’ on, sharing her story in an interview with The Guardian this week (link here).
Now a qualified radiation oncologist, she said pursuing a conviction was a huge risk, both professionally and personally.
“The specialty is a pretty small field, as so I thought at the time that everybody would find out, and then I would be labelled a troublemaker,” Dr Lee told the publication.
“This person was such a celebrated professor. I thought I had no chance of continuing in my job, basically.”
In the Australia-first case that followed, Professor Kearsley pleaded guilty to using an intoxicating substance to commit an indictable offence and assault with an act of indecency.
But in May 2017, he walked free from jail after serving nine months of his 18-month sentence which was slashed in the Court of Criminal Appeal after judges took into account his “outstanding medical work” before his psychological decline.
And despite having her name restricted under a court suppression order, Dr Lee said the story followed her around, so she eventually decided to leave NSW and set up practice in Brisbane.
“There’s been a lot of comments towards me since, along the lines of how I damaged this man’s glorious career, someone who has done so much for the community,” Dr Lee said.
“All I wanted to do was stop him from hurting other women, and that was my one agenda.
“I wasn’t set out to destroy his career. He did that on his own.”
Dr Lee said she felt it was time to go public after reading about a UK survey which found a pattern of female trainees being abused by senior male surgeons.
In October, she will also be speaking at the first Australasian Summit on Sexual Harassment in Medicine, convened by GP and researcher Dr Louise Stone and bringing together experts and stakeholders from across the profession.
Despite hers still being the only Australian case to result in conviction, Dr Lee said her experience was not unique, while the aid the top-down culture of medicine was continuing to create a “prime environment” for predators.
“From the age when you enter medical school and you have some exposure to hospital work, you learn very quickly where you sit in that hierarchy,” she said.
“The system teaches you to be quiet, to be invisible, and you observe how interns and junior doctors are treated by these predators.”
“It’s taken almost 10 years to look at myself in the mirror and not feel shame and hate.”
“If I could go back in time, I’d give myself a hug and tell myself everything is going to be OK. Many sexual violence victims suffer alone, and by coming forward, through my story, my main objective is to validate their pain and bring hope.”
Mental health support for doctors
If you feel distressed and need immediate support you can call Lifeline 13 11 14, or the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
There are also free, confidential doctor-to-doctor telephone services available across Australia.
ACT 1300 374 377
NSW 02 9437 6552
NT 08 8366 0250
Qld 07 3833 4352
SA 08 8366 0250
Tas 1800 991 997
Vic 03 9280 8712
WA 08 9321 3098
Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available in Australia at 1800Respect (1800 737 732).