Sydney Morning Herald
Predator psychiatrist left to strike again
Robert Towndrow abused two vulnerable patients, but his peers closed ranks, writes Michael Bradley.
Only a handful of people gathered on a steamy January morning to witness the final demise of Robert Towndrow\’s career. The hearing of the NSW Medical Tribunal, the day after Australia Day, was never going to be a scene of high drama.
Towndrow, a former doyen of Australian psychiatry, had deregistered himself six months earlier and was not expected to contest the charges of professional misconduct against him.
But beneath the hearing\’s procedural formality, and the calm imposition of a five-year practice ban, lies an extraordinary story of abuse, domination and professional closing of ranks. It draws in some of Australia\’s most revered psychiatrists, and raises fundamental questions about the ability or willingness of the speciality\’s leaders to police \”boundary violations\” – especially sexual ones – between doctors and their patients, some of the most vulnerable adults.
Towndrow stood accused of sexual impropriety with two patients, one of whom he had convinced that a relationship with him would be therapeutic.
An independent psychological assessment, tendered by Towndrow\’s barrister, Adrian Diethelm, described a narcissist with a psychosexual disorder and compulsive traits. It said Towndrow had \”difficulty differentiating between his own needs and those of his patients\” and \”an engulfing relationship with his mother which renders him vulnerable in his work as a psychotherapist\”. The tribunal\’s chairman, Judge David Patten, said 59-year-old Towndrow\’s level of pathology was such that he was \”unlikely to ever reform\”.
But for some of Towndrow\’s colleagues, this was not new information. The first of two confirmed complaints against Towndrow was made in the winter of 1999. The Herald has learnt that his conduct became known to senior colleagues, and he was forced to resign from a professional association. But his private practice continued and he remained a visiting medical officer at Westmead Hospital.
On August 21, 2000, Beth * drove to the office of Tessa Phillips, then president of the Australia and New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists (ANZAP), intending to blow the whistle on Towndrow.
Her early sessions with Towndrow had been uneventful, but he had been revealing excruciatingly personal details about himself and his own psychological problems for several months. He had requested that Beth – in her late 30s and a victim of childhood incest – act as his therapist. He would sit on her knee, wanting her to role-play his mother. Eventually Towndrow persuaded Beth she should use sex with him as therapy, and they had intercourse on several occasions in the treatment room in his house in Glebe. Beth was prepared for an uncomfortable meeting with Ms Phillips; she was about to make a serious allegation about an eminent professional. But she was floored by what Ms Phillips told her: the ANZAP had received a similar complaint about Towndrow a year earlier.
Incensed, and feeling the association would not deal severely with the man who had violated her trust, she bought a mini voice-recorder. That afternoon at Towndrow\’s office, she taped evidence that would form the basis of complaints to the NSW Medical Board and the Health Care Complaints Commission.
Leo Van Biene, a member of ANZAP\’s ethics committee, received the first complaint on September 1, 1999. The patient, Anne *, had a sexual relationship with Towndrow throughout 1994 and 1995.
Dr Van Biene says the matter was referred to several members of the ANZAP executive and Towndrow resigned from the association, where he had been a senior supervisor, within a week. But he was free to continue his private practice and his role at Westmead Hospital, where he was a supervisor and mentor in the Masters of Medicines Program. It was not until September 2000, after Beth\’s complaints, that he resigned these roles.
A spokesman for the Western Sydney Area Health Service, which administers Westmead Hospital, said it \”received no complaints about [Towndrow\’s] conduct prior to the time of his resignation\”.
Yet several of Towndrow\’s ANZAP colleagues were working at Westmead at the time, including ANZAP\’s director of training, Joan Haliburn. Dr Van Biene says Dr Haliburn was among those he immediately told in 1999 of Towndrow\’s misconduct, as was Tessa Phillips. But Dr Van Biene refused to discuss whether he had told another prominent member of both organisations, Professor Russell Meares, who was head of psychiatry at Westmead and worked closely with Dr Van Biene, Dr Haliburn and Towndrow.
Professor Meares refused repeated requests from the Herald to talk about Towndrow and did not answer written questions asking why Towndrow had been asked to resign from ANZAP but allowed to continue at Westmead. A health service spokesman said of Professor Meares: \”His memory is that he became aware of Dr Towndrow\’s alleged actions in mid-2000.\”
After his ANZAP resignation, Towndrow sought psychiatric treatment from the then president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry, Jonathan Phillips. It is not clear if he did so on his own initiative or under pressure. The degree to which Dr Phillips was aware of Towndrow\’s previous indiscretions is unclear as he declined to discuss the case, citing patient confidentiality. But irrespective of what Towndrow disclosed to Dr Phillips, the ANZAP executive was sufficiently reassured and made no formal report of his conduct to other authorities.
One member of ANZAP\’s executive, who did not wish to be identified, told the Herald: \”We wanted to make sure he was going to seek help and he assured us he was going to. Within hours he had organised to see Jonathan Phillips. He couldn\’t have taken it any higher and we thought we were acting pretty properly given the patient did not want to make an official complaint . . . The care of patients is the central issue. After much consideration and deliberation we believed that an appropriate course of action was being followed which would protect his patients.\”
That, as it turned out, was overly optimistic. Towndrow discontinued the treatment with Dr Phillips in July 2000 – less than a week before he suggested Beth use sex as therapy.
* False names have been used.