‘The system teaches you to be quiet’: doctor indecently assaulted by senior colleague identifies herself

When Dominique Lee got the results of the toxicology report confirming she had been drugged by an eminent doctor before he indecently assaulted her, she resolved to go to the police, even if it meant her career as a radiation oncologist would be over.

“It was clear I was harmed with intent,” Lee says, speaking publicly for the first time since Prof John Kearsley, the then director of radiation oncology at St George Hospital in Sydney, was convicted of indecent assault. It remains the only time a junior doctor in Australia has won such a case against a senior doctor.

“It was premeditated, and I was one hundred per cent sure that if it had happened to me, it had happened to others,” Lee says. “And it would continue to happen if I didn’t do anything about it.”

At the time of the assault in November 2013, Lee was in her final year of training. She knew that as a trainee accusing her mentor, the odds of a successful prosecution were stacked against her.

“The specialty is a pretty small field, as so I thought at the time that everybody would find out, and then I would be labeled a troublemaker. This person was such a celebrated professor. I thought I had no chance of continuing in my job, basically.”

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, sexual offences are among the most difficult to successfully prosecute, and it can be even harder in professions such as medicine, where perpetrators often have significant social standing and institutional power.

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“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,” Lee says.

“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.”

A table set for two

Lee moved from Dunedin, New Zealand, to Sydney in 2012 to complete specialist training at St George hospital. Kearsley, then 60, was a senior oncologist and became one of her supervisors.

In February 2013 Lee took a position at Liverpool hospital, but returned to her former workplace for research projects, where she would often say hello to her former supervisor, whom she referred to as “Prof” out of respect.

Lee was 32, preparing for her final exams and contemplating work opportunities.

Kearsley emailed her to say he ran a mentoring program with the hospital, and invited her to dinner to discuss exam preparation and her career, mentioning his adult daughter would also be there. Inviting mentees to dinner was something “he used to do all the time”, Lee says, though she had never been.

When she arrived, Kearsley said his wife was overseas, and his daughter had pulled out due to a bout of gastro. Lee recalls entering his home seeing extravagant dishes of food laid out on the kitchen benches.

A table was set for two, with a bottle of red wine already open.

The kitchen walls were covered in family photos, and a high chair with a teddy bear in it sat in the corner. “Let’s have some champagne,” Lee remembers Kearsley saying, and she responded that she only wanted a little, because she was driving. He poured her a full flute.

All I wanted to do was stop him from hurting other women

Dominique Lee

She says Kearsley gave her a tour of his apartment, showing her views from the balconies, showing off books in his library and boasting about an expensive set of steak knives. When they finally sat in his living room to discuss her exams, he moved from the couch opposite to sit next her, telling her otherwise he would feel as though he had to shout.

They spoke about her work, but he also asked about her former boyfriend and family. Eventually, he moved into the kitchen and asked Lee for help with the cooking. He offered her a glass of already decanted red wine that he said cost $800 a bottle.

Lee says she didn’t want to be rude, so again said she was driving and would have “a little bit”.

“He poured me a large glass … I distinctly remember him pouring himself a smaller amount.”

By the time they finished eating, Lee says, she had drunk about half the glass of red, and was feeling unusually drowsy and confused.

Kearsley suggested they go for a walk in Centennial Park. In her police statement, Lee described how she didn’t remember much of the walk, aside from Kearsley putting his arm around her at various stages. She could not recall the specifics of getting back to his apartment.

Once they returned, she remembers, he brought her strawberries and ice cream, but she was drowsy and disorientated, and cannot remember if she ate any. Kearsley told her to lie on the couch and offered to teach her a relaxation technique. As she sat on the couch, she says, he took off her boots and rotated her legs so that she was lying down.

The next thing Lee remembers is lying on a bed in a guest room. She says he pulled up her shirt, unclipped her bra and sucked her nipples, telling her to “relax” as she protested multiple times, saying “No, stop”.

She says she pushed him away, and in her rush to escape, put her boots on the wrong feet. She struggled to retrace her steps and find her way out of the apartment complex as Kearsley followed her down in the lift and outside. She remembers she “bolted” once she found the main entrance and got into her car, then drove home at about 1am, her vision blurry.

“I‘m lucky that I didn’t crash into anybody on my drive home,” she says. Once home, Lee says, she took off all her clothes and immediately fell asleep.

‘What’s benzodiazepine?’

What Lee does not remember is frantically calling numerous friends after her assault. One of those friends, a physician, was so concerned by the call that she showed up at Lee’s home at 8am, and took her straight to a GP. Lee was still disorientated, her friend finding her “swaying side to side, unable to speak”.

The GP didn’t know what to do because it was a Saturday and the forensic lab was closed, Lee says.

“My friend insisted I be taken somewhere for testing,” Lee says.

“If my friend hadn’t done that and taken me to a lab, if we waited until Monday for the urine test, the drugs would have left my system … I could not have done it without the support I had, which a lot of people don’t have.”

When the results came back showing she had been drugged with a powerful sedative, a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines, she went to the police and made a statement with the support of two friends.

“The detective kept saying; ‘It’s hearsay, these cases are hard to prove,’” Lee says.

“We had to say three times; ‘We have evidence’. We gave him the toxicology report and he asked us, ‘What’s benzodiazepine?’.”

Lee remembers seeing a poster in the station foyer when she walked in, raising awareness of benzodiazepines.

“I couldn’t believe it. When I explained, being a doctor, that it was a sedative, he then knew we had a case. From then on the detective worked so hard, and he was my biggest advocate, which ultimately helped towards Kearsley pleading guilty.”

Police executed a search warrant on Kearsley’s home in January 2014, finding benzodiazepine. Detectives also asked Lee to call Kearsley so they could record the conversations, and he apologised to her, blaming alcoholism for his actions.

After she reported Kearsley to police, Lee changed specialties and hospitals and began work in palliative care, unable to face the rumours swirling about Kearsley, who stood down from his position because his medical registration was suspended after he was charged.

Anger at sentencing comments

In August 2016, Kearsley sentenced to two years and three months in jail in the NSW district court after pleading guilty to administering an intoxicating substance and indecent assault.

“When I went to court, I was presented with this huge folder, which was full of character references for Kearsley,” Lee says.

“It was clearly designed to make me look insignificant in front of the judge.

“I felt so demoralised by that. Who are they to say that I wouldn’t accomplish all the things that he’d accomplished and references he had, given time, and if the assault hadn’t happened?

“My human value was being minimised, and it was like he had more societal value than me, just because I was 32, in my final year as a trainee, and hadn’t had a chance at a career.”

In March 2017 Kearsley’s sentence was reduced to nine months, with the judge taking into account “his extraordinary service to the medical profession, and, through it, to the community at large”, and Kearsley’s depression at the time of the offending.

Related: ‘Breach of trust’: landmark study delves into sexual misconduct complaints made against Australia’s health professions

Lee was so angered by the comments that she sued Kearsley for damages, a case Kearsley settled.

In a separate case, Kearsley was ordered by a NSW court to complete 340 hours of community service in October 2017 after indecently assaulting the daughter of a cancer patient he was treating. The court heard that in December 2012 Kearsley offered to write a medical journal article about the woman’s father, and invited her to his office to discuss the details.

The court heard Kearsley served her champagne and canapes. When she told him she had begun to feel light headed and her limbs felt heavy, he told her to get on an examination bed so that he could teach her a relaxation technique and do an impromptu breast cancer examination. He undid her dress and then squeezed and sucked her breasts, although she tried to stop him.

In May 2019, the NSW civil and administrative tribunal cancelled Kearsley’s medical registration – previously suspended following his convictions – for five years. The tribunal heard he had no intention to reapply.

Lee was encouraged by former colleagues to return to radiation oncology in Sydney, but after a couple of years she moved to Newcastle, then Brisbane. She has not told her colleagues of her past.

“I just always felt super anxious in Sydney, always looking over my shoulder thinking people knew and were talking about me,” she says. “People would come up to me not knowing my story and say ‘I heard you used to work at St George, did you hear about Kearsley, he was such an amazing mentor, I just can’t believe it’.”

“It put me in a state of hyper vigilance, and it was too much.

“The assault entirely distorted my world view. Before the assault, I was a social butterfly, I knew everyone in the hospital, I thought my colleagues were all in medicine for the right reasons. And after the assault, all of a sudden I became this withdrawn person who found it really difficult to speak in front of anyone.”

‘No system keeping them in check’

Lee says 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.

She also read a study by Louise Stone, a professor at the Australian National University, which surveyed Australian doctors sexually assaulted by senior colleagues. It found all the victims left their specialities or left medicine altogether after their assaults, which Lee says “makes me so angry”.

The study found between one-quarter and three-quarters of medical students and junior doctors had experienced bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment. Lee says she is frustrated there have been no further successful criminal prosecutions involving junior doctors since her case.

Related: Nurses still reluctant to dob in doctors despite mandatory reporting – study

On 23 October, Stone will be hosting the first Australasian Summit on Sexual Harassment in Medicine, bringing together representative from peak medical bodies, medical colleges and experts in health care to discuss how Australian healthcare culture can be changed and assaults prevented.

Lee will be among the participants at the summit, which is invite-only.

Lee says the profile of prominent doctors are so closely linked to the reputation of the institution in which they work that those institutions often ignore inappropriate behaviour or repeated complaints.

“There is no one cause of sexual assault in medicine, but a key issue is that doctors are thought to have such high moral grounds, and this means their power can remain completely unchecked,” Lee said.

“It can create a prime environment for predators, because as they rise through the hierarchy there is no system keeping them in check and held to account.

“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. The system teaches you to be quiet, to be invisible, and you observe how interns and junior doctors are treated by these predators.”

Lee believes an independent external body needs to be created exclusively to investigate complaints by healthcare workers against colleagues.

“It’s taken almost 10 years to look at myself in the mirror and not feel shame and hate,” Lee says.

“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.”

• Do you know more? Email melissa.davey@theguardian.com

• Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available in Australia at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 500 2222. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html