Doctor who accused father of murders abused his position

By Nick Britten
(Filed: 16/06/2004)

A leading paediatrician who accused a father of suffocating his two infant sons on the basis of a television programme was yesterday found guilty of abusing his professional position.

Prof David Southall telephoned police after watching a documentary about Sally Clark, who was jailed for murdering her sons Christopher and Harry, claiming that there had been a miscarriage of justice and blaming her husband, Stephen Clark.

Sally and Stephen Clark were both accused of killing their sons

He based his accusation on what he watched, despite admitting never seeing any medical evidence of the case or speaking to the Clarks, supporting it with the results of his own research.

Yesterday the General Medical Council ruled that Prof Southall acted in a manner that was "inappropriate", "irresponsible" and "misleading" in compiling a report outlining his accusations and concerns.

Writing four months after he first raised the matter, he reaffirmed that it was "extremely likely if not certain" that Mr Clark had suffocated Christopher nine days before he died and was also responsible for Harry's death.

Presenting it as fact rather than theory, he also refused to add a caveat that his allegations were based on limited information.

Prof David Southall

Prof Southall was cleared of acting irresponsibly or abusing his position by raising his concerns initially, the professional conduct committee accepting that being an expert in child welfare and protection he had a duty to do so.

The committee will now hear further submissions and possibly character witnesses before deciding whether Prof Clark is guilty of professional misconduct. If they do, he could be suspended or struck off. Whatever the final outcome, yesterday's ruling casts a shadow over the respected but controversial Prof Southall, who is one of the country's most highly regarded paediatricians and an expert in Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy.

However, his methods and research have been criticised in some quarters and the GMC is currently studying seven other allegations surrounding misdiagnosis of child abuse against him.

The hearing was told that Prof Southall became alarmed when he watched the Channel 4 Dispatches programme in April 2000, in which Mr Clark told how Christopher had suffered severe breathing problems and a nose bleed while he was looking after him at a London hotel in December 1996, nine days before he unexpectedly died.

According to Prof Southall, the nose bleed was a direct and immediate effect of being suffocated, which must have been carried out by Mr Clark who was alone in the room with the baby at the time. He said the injury was a sign of immediate abuse, which differed from the Crown's case in the original trial when they claimed that Mrs Clark had carried out the attack and the bleed had started half an hour later when she had gone out shopping.

By association, Prof Southall also blamed Mr Clark for Harry's death. He also died unexpectedly, in January 1998, aged eight weeks.

After a Home Office pathologist ruled he had been shaken to death, Christopher's death was re-examined and the cause of death changed from lower respiratory tract infection to suffocation.

Both parents were arrested and Mrs Clark was jailed for life in 1999 for murdering both boys. She was released last year after successfully appealing against her conviction on the grounds that a pathologist, Alan Williams, had withheld evidence of a possible natural cause in one of the deaths.

The hearing was told that Prof Southall had no professional knowledge of the case but supported his allegation with his own research, carried out at the North Staffordshire Hospital in Stoke where, over eight years, he secretly videoed 39 children suspected of being abused by their parents.

He found that youngsters aged between two months and 44 months were being deliberately injured by their parents while in hospital. The most common method of abuse was suffocation.

Thirty children were filmed being suffocated by their mothers and nine suffered either bleeding from the nose or mouth, leading to Prof Southall insisting that, where bleeding is a result of suffocation, it happens immediately.

The Dispatches programme was enough for him to conclude, according to Richard Tyson, QC, for Mr Clark and the GMC, that "it was beyond reasonable doubt, ie, to the criminal standard of proof, that Mr Clark had committed this double murder".

Prof Southall told the hearing, in Manchester, that his main concern was for the Clarks' third child, born while Mrs Clark was awaiting trial and returned to Mr Clark after his wife was convicted.

He said that the child, known as Child A, was in danger living with a man he believed to be a double murderer and said to this day he stood by his allegations.

At the time Prof Southall made the allegations he was suspended on full pay. Several parents had complained about aspects of his work on child protection issues.

Although being cleared and reinstated in 2001, he has agreed not to work on child protection until all outstanding cases against him are resolved. Prof Tim David, a defence witness for Sally Clark, accused Prof Southall of presenting theory as scientific fact.

Mr Clark said he had been "astounded" to hear of the allegations, which he thought at first were a "sick joke".

Sally Clark's solicitor, Mike Mackey, said yesterday: "I last spoke to Mr Clark yesterday. His feeling will be that a bit more unfinished business has been dealt with."

He said he was quite confident that the Clarks would take no further action against Prof Southall.

The committee accepted that Prof Southall had a duty to raise his concerns but the case centred on how strongly he presented his theory.

He admitted seven charges but denies serious professional misconduct. The case was adjourned until August.


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