Science

Chelmsford doctors trying to 'rewrite history' lose defamation case against publisher


Two doctors from Sydney’s Chelmsford private hospital, where some patients underwent “deep sleep therapy” to the point of death, have had their defamation case against a book publisher thrown out in the federal court.

Dr John Gill and former doctor John Herron mounted the case against HarperCollins following its publication of Steve Cannane’s 2016 book Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia.

It referred to the exhaustive 1988-90 royal commission into mental health services under Justice John Slattery, and the role Scientology played in exposing the abuse at the hospital, which was part-owned by Gill.

Herron argued the publisher had defamed him by including claims of gross negligence on his part in almost killing a patient who was falsely imprisoned, sedated and given electroconvulsive therapy without consent.

But Justice Jayne Jagot dismissed the case and ordered costs to be paid by the former Chelmsford practitioners. She said they had sought to prove the royal commission had given a “Scientology version of events”, and had used the current proceedings to “rewrite history and vindicate their conduct” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

She upheld a defence of “justification” and “qualified privilege for the publication of defamatory matter”.

The royal commission found the administering of deep sleep therapy by four doctors at Chelmsford in the 1960s and 70s, including Gill and Herron, was “unethical, grossly negligent and involved sustained medical malpractice”.

The therapy involved dosing patients with barbiturates to a state of deep unconsciousness, in which they were force-fed through a nasogastric tube and frequently left incontinent.

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Without doctors’ supervision, nurses were tasked with deciding when and how much of the drugs were to be administered.

No fewer than 23 deaths were caused at Chelmsford, with deep sleep therapy being the material contributor, Jagot said.

Gill and Herron “plainly believed that they had been the victims of a serious injustice wrought upon them”, she said.

“Their entire approach to their conduct was self-justificatory and self-exculpatory.”

The royal commission found both men were dishonest and unreliable witnesses who relied on no expert evidence but their own, which was rejected in the “strongest possible terms”.

Jagot said: “The idea that Mr Cannane was obliged to give the applicants another opportunity to present their dishonest and self-serving version of events, which had been so comprehensively rejected in the royal commission report, is untenable.”



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