Bruce Spittle, New Zealand Psychiatrist – 45 year career ended with criminal conviction of sexual misconduct with a patient – appeal now denied

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Otago Daily Times
Doctor’s appeal rejected
By Rob Kidd
April 17, 2017

Psychiatrist Bruce Spittle

A Dunedin psychiatrist found guilty of molesting a patient has failed in a bid to clear his name.

Dr Bruce James Spittle’s 45-year medical career ended in 2015 when he was found guilty of two counts of indecent assault after a jury trial.

The now 71-year-old was sentenced to seven months’ home detention by Judge Michael Crosbie in the Dunedin District Court four months later. The Crown had called for a term of imprisonment.

Defence counsel Harry Waalkens QC called it ”a sad and tragic end to what has been an eminent career”.

Spittle – a vocal anti-fluoridation campaigner and book publisher – maintained his innocence.

He took his case to the Court of Appeal, where Mr Waalkens argued the convictions against his client should be quashed because the guilty verdicts were not ones a jury could reasonably reach.

The court rejected the appeal in a just-released judgement.

The original complaint was made to police in 2012, about sexual abuse that took place in 1999, when Spittle was acting as the victim’s psychiatrist while she was in hospital.

The woman, referred to in court documents as ”W”, was originally admitted to hospital after several suicide attempts.

Spittle would take her ice skating as part of her ”multidisciplinary treatment plan”, the court heard during the original trial.

It was on one such occasion, between May and September 1999, that the first offence took place. Spittle parked in a side street and touched the victim’s stomach, arm, breasts, groin and bottom.

The second charge related to the same period but when the woman had been transferred to another unit and out of the defendant’s care.

While visiting her, Spittle drew the curtains around her bed, slipped his hands under her sheets, placed one hand on a breast and the other on her groin.

In giving evidence at the original trial, the woman put the delay in approaching police down to her religious upbringing, immaturity, shame, embarrassment and Spittle’s seniority.

He repeatedly threatened to have her sectioned, too, she said.

In appeal, Mr Waalkens said the victim’s evidence was inconsistent with documentary evidence, her mental health issues created a risk of misinterpreting the defendant’s behaviour and her capacity for distortion led to false complaints.

Expert witnesses called at trial had contradictory views on how the woman’s mental health could have affected her recollection.

Appeal Court Justices Helen Winkelmann, Ailsa Duffy and Christian Whata pointed to the evidence of the woman at trial which they described as ”broadly coherent and consistent”.

They also looked at Spittle’s testimony.

He admitted he had touched the woman during sessions with her and became over-interested in her case.

”It was wrong … for me to become so involved and to think that I could connect with her when others had not. I fell into a trap that I should not, with all my years of experience, have fallen into,” Spittle said.

”I appreciate the use of touch in therapy is controversial and this is not something that I have done before.”

While he admitted physical contact with the woman, he rejected the notion there was any sexual motive.

”When reviewing the situation in retrospect, I accept that I made errors of judgement which I find it difficult to forgive myself for … I have let my colleagues, my family, my wife and myself down.”

Justice Whata said the central issue for the jury was to assess the credibility and reliability of the victim.

”We find the jury had a sufficient and proper basis to prefer W’s account. It was clearly evident that Dr Spittle developed an unprofessionally close relationship with W and that he regularly touched her. With these facts established, it was open to the jury to prefer W’s coherent and internally consistent evidence … to that of Dr Spittle,” he said.

According to the Medical Council website, Spittle’s practising certificate lapsed in March 2016.

He declined to comment on the case yesterday.

Bruce Spittle