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The doctors, the Scientologists, and the journalist

Sep 7, 2020 • 18m 07s

A federal court has been re-examining controversial psychiatric treatments used in a Sydney hospital in the 1960s. The treatments drew the attention of the Church of Scientology, and led to a Royal Commission. Today, Lane Sainty on what happened at Chelmsford, and the journalist caught in the middle 30 years on.

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The doctors, the Scientologists, and the journalist

303 • Sep 7, 2020

The doctors, the Scientologists, and the journalist

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

A federal court has been re-examining controversial psychiatric treatments used in a Sydney hospital in the 60s and 70s.

The treatments drew the attention of the Church of Scientology, before leading to a Royal Commission.

Today, Lane Sainty on what happened at Chelmsford Private Hospital, and the journalist who got in the middle - thirty years later.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Lane, how did you come across this story?

LANE:

I came across the case, sort of just looking through the federal court list to see if anything jumped out and saw that Harper Collins was mentioned in a case and thought, what's this? This could be interesting, and opened it.

RUBY:

Lane Sainty wrote about this case for The Monthly magazine.

LANE:

Sort of the more I read, the more fascinated I was. And this was, oh, God, I think maybe in 2017? It was a few years ago. And then I've sort of kept half an eye on it ever since. And then it finally went to trial this year.

RUBY:

Ok, can you start off by telling me about the place that is really at the centre of this case, Chelmsford Hospital?

LANE:

Yes. So Chelmsford was a small psychiatric hospital in north west Sydney in Pennant Hills that had about 40 beds and it admitted people for all kinds of psychiatric issues back in the 60s and 70s.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1

“This story of horror unfolded in the most unlikely setting of a quiet leafy suburb of Sydney, Australia.”

LANE:

The reason, I guess, it's notorious or known about today, certainly at least by people over a certain age in Sydney, is because of the deep sleep therapy ward.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2

“He came in with the matron, wheeling something saying ‘now it’s time for my cocktail’.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:

“Next thing I can remember is that everything was completely black. It was as if I had no body...”

LANE:

The patients there were treated with this treatment called deep sleep therapy, which involved sedating them for long periods of time with barbiturates.

They were so deeply sedated that they were fed through a tube, they were incontinent in their beds. They were basically knocked out for up to two weeks.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“I woke up in this room, with all these men, there and about six beds there, I think. I had no clothes on, I remember being tied down.”

LANE:

And during this period, they were given electroconvulsive therapy.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“You were rigid and lights went on in your head and you just wanted to scream out.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“ECT - electroconvulsive therapy.110 vaults for three seconds through the frontal lobes of the brain.”

LANE:

When Chelmsford eventually became a big scandal and landed in the newspapers, this ward was actually nicknamed the zombie room. And it would sort of be these patients lying mostly very silently and still in their beds with these tubes up their nose. And then occasionally, as they lightened in and out of sedation, sometimes they might groan, or sometimes they might hallucinate as they woke up and thrash around in their beds and and need to be calmed.

RUBY:

And so deep sleep therapy is now a banned treatment. Can you tell me more, then, about the doctors at Chelmsford who were using it and why they were?

LANE:

The main doctor using DST at Chelmsford was a man called Harry Bailey, and he was really the champion, I guess, of the therapy at Chelmsford and pioneered the approach that they use there.

And the other doctors who delivered the treatment there, one of them is dead, as is Harry Bailey. His name's Dr Ian Gardiner. And then there are two who are still alive today. That's Dr John Herron, who treated a number of patients with DST and also gave electroconvulsive therapy.

And Dr John Gill, who was a part owner of Chelmsford and also put a small number of his own patients under deep sleep therapy.

RUBY:

And so what were the ultimate consequences of deep sleep therapy?

LANE:

So a Royal Commission was eventually called into what was going on at Chelmsford. And this happened in 1988. And this went on for some 21 months. It spoke to hundreds of witnesses, doctors at the hospital, nurses, patients, families of patients.

And it was led by acting Justice John Slattery, and Justice Slattery eventually found a number, I guess, of key things. One, that DST was really dangerous, that it was a dangerous therapy that harmed people and shouldn't have been carried out at the hospital.

He found that 24 deaths were linked to DST, that the effects that that extreme treatment had on patients respiratory and cardiac systems, was a major factor in their deaths. He also found that a number of death certificates in the hospital had been falsified, that different causes of death had been put on the certificates when the real cause was, in fact, something more linked to DST and made a number of really scathing findings about the doctors involved in the treatment.

RUBY:

And so that Royal Commission, that was 30 years ago now. So why have these events come up again now?

LANE:

So in 2016, the ABC journalist Steve Cannane wrote a book about Scientology. It's called Fair Game and it's the story of Scientology in Australia. And one chapter in that was about Chelmsford. And the reason for that is that the Church of Scientology had a sort of unusually large role in uncovering what happened at Chelmsford.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“While Hubbard distrusted the government, he viewed psychiatry, a profession that also treats the mind, as the number one enemy of Scientology.”

LANE:

The church's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was very anti-psychiatry.

Archival Tape --Reporter:

“Is this a form of psychoanalysis?”

Archival Tape --L. Ron Hubbard:

“No Psychoanalysis...don’t associate Scientology with such people.”

LANE:

Essentially, the Church of Scientology has long wanted to bring psychiatry down.

And at Chelmsford, there was a nurse named Rosa Nicholson who smuggled out patient files, which were later used in the campaign to bring the hospital down.

What Cannane revealed in his book is that Rosa Nicholson was, in fact, in the hospital working as a nurse, as a member of the Church of Scientology. It tells the story of what happened at the hospital through the eyes of a patient named Barry Hart. And it mentions the doctors, the two doctors who are still alive, Dr John Gill and Dr John Herron.

And the doctors are basically saying that this account of what happened at the hospital is wrong, that the Royal Commission, in fact, got it wrong and made a number of really unfair and inaccurate findings about us.

And that a lot of the reason for that was, I guess, misinformation that was perpetuated by Scientologists who became enmeshed in the campaign to bring down the hospital.

RUBY:

And so Dr Herron and Dr Gill are suing journalist Steve Cannane for defamation, because of what he published in this book. What is on the line for them?

LANE:

So, I think it's interesting to think about what's on the line for the doctors, because the answer is sort of simultaneously everything and nothing.

We learn from a pretrial judgment that Herron is broke and that Gil is funding both court proceedings and he's actually put his house on the line as security. And the other thing is that the doctors are, of course, both old. One older than the other. Herron is 87, and Gil is 78. They're both in the twilight of their lives. So they don't really have a career ahead of them that it's important to have an untarnished reputation for.

But what I think is really on the line for them here is their legacy. This case is in some ways a last chance for them to try and reverse the publicly accepted view of what happened at Chelmsford and also, in a sense, to try and rewrite the history of the hospital, because they believe, very strongly, that the way it's been written has treated them very poorly.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Lane, two doctors involved in controversial treatments in the 60s and the 70s are currently in the middle of a lawsuit claiming they've been defamed. Can you tell me how the two men say they've been impacted by what was written about them by the journalist Steve Cannane.

LANE:

Yeah. So the doctors say that the book written by Steve Canane in 2016 has really hurt them, that it's brought back everything that happened at the hospital and that it's repeated a lot of what they say is misinformation about what happened at Chelmsford, much of it perpetuated by Scientologists.

And I think the most interesting thing here is that both of them say that they had, I guess, put the events of the hospital behind them, and that this has brought it all back up again. And it's made them feel ashamed and angry. And it's created tension in their families. One of the doctors, John Herron, the 87 year old, went so far as to sign his affidavit that he believed that the stress of the book being published contributed to the stroke that recently killed his wife. So they really say that this book has damaged their lives in a big way.

RUBY:

These doctors, they were involved in these treatments that were subject to a royal commission, though. Are they denying that deep sleep therapy was controversial? Are they standing by it?

LANE:

They do deny that deep sleep therapy was controversial.

Herron said as he gave evidence on the stand, basically, that he doesn't believe he did anything wrong and he's still prepared to defend the treatment today.

And this was a really interesting feature of the case because a number of expert psychiatrists came to court to testify for Cannane's side of the case and basically said, look, this treatment is discredited. They should have known that it was discredited in the 70s. And it's a disgrace that it was carried out.

And the doctors, Gil and Herron, are very adamant that this is not the case.

Herron was very set on the idea that DST was an accepted treatment, that he was right to carry it out and that he did nothing wrong.

And there was a really striking part of Herron's evidence where he was being quizzed about the levels of barbiturates that he had given to patients. And he talked about this notion of progress occurring in the drugs that he was giving patients at Chelmsford and sort of admitted on the stand that what he had been doing was experimental.

The barrister said, you know, was this progress in establishing how much of that drug you needed to kill somebody? And Herron said, no, I did it to find the dose which didn't kill someone.

RUBY:

So tell me more about how Steve Cannane is defending the defamation case.

LANE:

Steve Cannane has filed a number of defenses in the case, and the first is truth. So that's a very widely understood defense. He's basically saying that what he reported about the hospital really did happen. The doctors really did treat patients with a dangerous therapy that caused deaths and so on and so forth.

And the interesting thing about Cannane's truth defense is that even though a Royal Commission raked over these events in great detail, that report can't actually be used to prove truth in this case.

You can't say, look, this Royal Commission report found this is true. So it's true. Cannane actually has to prove what happened at the hospital all over again if he wants to win on a defense of truth.

RUBY:

And Lane, can you tell me more about how this played out in court? It must have been a challenge given how long ago all of these events took place at Chelmsford.

LANE:

In terms of the challenges of getting witnesses for a case that was so long ago, that was certainly an issue in this case. Before it even went to trial, the judge in a preliminary decision noted that it may even be impossible for Cannane to mount a defense of truth here because the events were so long ago and just because so much time had passed since DST was being delivered at Chelmsford.

So many people just got on the stand and had to say, I'm sorry, I can't remember, over and over again.

Often people who were being referred to in the evidence had died and had died at any point from the 1970s up until quite recently. And so there was a lot of, I guess, sort of evidence missing in the case.

RUBY:

And the witnesses who did give evidence. Can you tell me a bit about what they said about what it was like at Chelmsford?

LANE:

So the witness who really sticks in my mind is a woman who I can only identify as G.

It was very apparent that recalling what had happened to her at the hospital was very traumatic. She said, I vividly recall being in a room, strapped to a bed, unable to move with a cotton curtain above my head as I drifted in and out of consciousness.

And G, while she was giving evidence, actually became so upset that the judge paused her evidence and said, look, if you don't remember the answer to the questions, you can just say I don't remember. And asked her if she wanted to take a break. And instead of taking a break, G actually said no. Saying she didn't want to be here. But the reason she had agreed to be here and give evidence in this case really was because she felt that the doctors had done a really great wrong to a great number of people and that she didn't want that narrative to be overturned. It was important to her that the court heard her story and the stories of other patients.

RUBY:

And so Lane, there is a lot at stake here, for the patients themselves, for the doctors, and for the journalist Steve Cananne. So what happens next?

LANE:

Well, now we're waiting to see what Justice Jane Jagot says. The case is done, all the evidence has been heard. And it's with her. It was a really long case. So there is just an enormous amount of material that Jagot has to read through.

So we’ll see when her decision comes down, I have no idea when it will be. And when it does, one of the most fascinating things about this case is that the judgment in this defamation case doesn't override the findings of the Royal Commission and nor do the findings of the royal commission override the findings of a defamation case.

They simply both coexist, and neither really has the capacity to, I guess,convict the doctors. And both these sets of facts will simply exist in the world, even if they contradict each other. But when the judgment is handed down, what it is, I guess, its function is about how much it aids in this doctor's aim to write their legacy, rather than having a sort of legal status over the findings that were made three decades ago.

RUBY:

Lane, thank you so much for talking to me today. It's a fascinating case.

LANE:

You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

RUBY:

Lane Sainty wrote about this case for the current edition of The Monthly.

The audio you heard of Chelmsford former patients came from the 1990 ABC documentary “The Chelmsford Scream”.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today…

Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, has revealed that the state will remain under lockdown for a number of months.

The current stage four restrictions will remain in place until September 28, with some small changes. From next week, the curfew will begin at 9pm, and single people who live alone will be allowed one visitor.

Public gatherings of two people, or a household, will be allowed for up to two hours a day.

Outdoor gatherings will increase to up to 5 people from September 28, and depending on case numbers, restrictions will be gradually eased again in late October and late November.

The earliest that cafes, restaurants and pubs could reopen would be October 26, with predominantly outdoor service.

And a nurse at the Ipswich hospital, west of Brisbane, is one of two new coronavirus cases in Queensland.

The positive case has led to more than 220 hospital staff going into quarantine.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

A federal court has been re-examining controversial psychiatric treatments used in a Sydney hospital in the 1960s. The treatments drew the attention of the Church of Scientology, and led to a Royal Commission. Today, Lane Sainty on what happened at Chelmsford, and the journalist caught in the middle 30 years on.

Guest: Contributor for The Monthly Lane Sainty.

Background reading:

Chelmsford revisited in The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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303: The doctors, the Scientologists, and the journalist