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Courage in medicine: doctor’s landmark legal victory in sexual assault case against senior clinician in Australia calls for systemic change in medical community

My journey in the medical community highlights the importance of support and solidarity. After being drugged and assaulted by a senior doctor, I spearheaded a unique legal victory in Australia. This public case shattered the perceived invincibility of powerful figures in medicine. I hope that my story goes beyond personal achievement and generates hope that we can fight abuse of power.

  • 4 months ago
  • January 19, 2024
Dominique Lee, medical consultant, exposed Professor Kearsley's use of intoxicants in her sexual assault, securing a legal victory | Photo Courtesy of Dominique Lee Dominique Lee, medical consultant, exposed Professor Kearsley's use of intoxicants in her sexual assault, securing a legal victory | Photo Courtesy of Dominique Lee
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Dr Yoo Young (Dominique) Lee is a consultant radiation oncologist at Princess Alexandra Hospital and Icon Cancer Centre and a senior lecturer at University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Alongside her clinical and academic roles, Dr Lee is a fervent advocate for physicians’ welfare and professional growth. Her passion for this cause led her to establish HeyBoss!, an innovative support company dedicated to empowering doctors through advocacy and resources.

Icon Cancer Centre website.
background information
Dr. Dominique Lee’s legal battle in Australia is a testament to her bravery in confronting a harrowing personal ordeal. She endured a traumatic experience at the hands of Professor Kearsley, who drugged and assaulted her under the guise of offering career advice. This incident marked a significant turning point in Dr. Lee’s life and career. Despite the immense personal and professional risks involved, Dr. Lee reported the assault, leading to Professor Kearsley’s conviction on charges of using an intoxicating substance to commit an indictable offence and assault with an act of indecency. This case was a first in Australia, highlighting the challenges faced by victims of sexual assault in professional environments. Dr. Lee’s courageous actions and the subsequent legal proceedings, although successful, had a profound impact on her career, compelling her to change specialties and relocate her practice. Her story is a powerful reminder of the importance of speaking out against injustice and supporting victims. For more detailed information, please refer to the articles on AusDoc and PressReader.

SYDNEY, Australia ꟷ In November 2013, as I eagerly completed my final year of medical training, a traumatic event changed my life forever. A professor and senior consultant at St. George Hospital drugged and assaulted me. [The perpetrator, Dr. John Kearsley, was eventually convicted on charges of using an intoxicating substance to commit an indictable offense and assault with an act of indecency in the Australian courts.]

One evening while driving home from work, Professor Kearsley called me. He suggested I be part of a formal mentoring program back at St. George Hospital and invited me to discuss it over dinner at his apartment. I viewed the opportunity as a kind gesture and not unusual. Unaware of the risks, I visited him alone on a Friday evening.

An unsettling feeling arose when I arrived to find his wife conspicuously absent. This man – known for his holistic approach to patient care and his international conferences speeches – began suggesting I spend the night and touching my shoulders persistently.

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Inside his apartment he began massaging me and taking off my clothes

During dinner, I repeatedly declined Dr. Kearsley’s offer of alcohol. As the evening continued, he emerged with a supposed $800 bottle of wine. I accepted a glass to be polite, but after a few sips, I found myself feeling strangely drowsy. Before I could react to what was happening in my body, Dr. Kearsley led me to Centennial Park for a walk, suggesting I needed some air.

I recall stumbling around as we made our way back to his apartment, and I remember him supporting me to keep me standing. Inside his apartment, he began massaging me and led me to the bedroom. He laid me down and started taking off my clothing. Ignoring all my protests, he kissed and touched me. In a brief moment of clarity, I pushed him and stumbled to my feet, put my clothes on, and headed toward the door.

Struggling to regain my composure, and still drowsy, I awkwardly zipped up my boots and stumbled out of the apartment. As I drove home through the streets of Sydney, my vision blurred, and I couldn’t see the time on the clock in my car. Back home, I collapsed into bed. My memory is sketchy but the next morning, a concerned friend arrived and found me sitting on my bed. Apparently, I had made a number of calls early in the morning, including to her, but I had no recollection of it.  

My friend, a respiratory physician who lived nearby, recognized that I appeared to be in an altered state. She quickly took me to a local doctor. While in the GP’s office, she recalls how I struggled to answer questions and was unable to sit without my body swaying. My memory of the previous day remained hazy, and I was missing hours of time.

I tested positive for Benzodiazepine, but did I want to be perceived as a troublemaker?

My friend briefed the doctor on what happened. Unsure of the next steps, the doctor looked to my friend for direction. I needed urgent sexual assault testing, but the specialized unit was closed for the weekend. My friend insisted on a urine test.

At the lab, the staff helped me collect my sample because I couldn’t manage it alone. When reality set in, I could not believe what had happened. A suspicion that I may have been drugged lingered, but I could not image how a man I considered a mentor would do this to me. A big part of me wished the drug test would return negative so I could chalk it up to a drunken mistake.

The following day, which was a Sunday, I informed my training director at Liverpool Hospital I would not return to St. George to work with Dr. Kearsley. She advised documenting everything which proved to be invaluable counsel. We set a meeting with Liverpool’s medical director for the following Friday and before the meeting, the doctor I had visited called with my urine results.

I tested positive for Benzodiazepine. I felt like I had been hit on the head with a bat. A deep visceral sense of betrayal I never felt before made me nauseated. Understanding I was the prey in Kearsley’s carefully crafted crime scene changed everything. It proved clear criminal intent. Immediately questions filled my mind. “How many women had he done this to before, why did he pick me, and how could I have been so stupid?”

The drug report proved to be a stark revelation. The presence of Benzodiazepine underscored the need for a thorough investigation. I worried relentlessly about what may have happened in the parts of the evening that I don’t remember due to the effect of the drug. Self-blame set in. In the days following the incident, I made anonymous calls to sexual violence hotlines, seeking guidance while concealing my identity. My friend and I presented the situation as a hypothetical scenario to the police. I had no idea where to start and what police investigation would mean.

During these calls, whenever police probed for details or suggested direct contact, I abruptly ended the call, fearing the exposure of my identity. I engaged in this process for several days, wrestling with a challenging question. As a doctor close to completing my specialist training, with the label of a troublemaker, what were my chances of surviving our tight-knit community?

Sexual assault victim couldn’t bear this happening to someone else

I knew reporting the incident could risk my career, but was it worth remaining silent? The unbearable thought of someone else suffering a similar fate drove my decision. As I entered the local police station, I accepted that my career in radiation oncology would be over. I reassured myself that with my medical degree and transferrable skills, I could start over in a different specialty.

In my statement to the medical director, I included the results of the drug test and my intent to report. The criminal system felt like an unknown world and, at the time, Sydney lacked a specialized unit for handling sexual assaults. Initially, the detective seemed hesitant to take my case, referring to it as “he said, she said.” Yet, when the detective realized we had tangible evidence, his attitude shifted.

Sadly, in the absence of such proof, many women are dismissed. Despite being in my thirties, well-educated, and articulate, the detective defaulted to discouraging me from pursuing investigation. I naively thought that once I committed to reporting the crime, the police would immediately start the investigation.  In a moment of sobering reality, I became acutely aware of the intimidating environment women face if they do report their assault to police.

Nevertheless, with evidence in hand, the detective became a relentless advocate for justice – a hero in my eyes. Despite several weeks of silence and uncertainty, around Christmas time, he contacted me with an update. They were working on obtaining a warrant for a taped call to extract an admission from Kearsley.

At first, the detective’s request for me to engage in the call surprised me. It seemed like a tactic from an old detective movie. The idea of talking to Kearsley made me tremble, especially since he had not reached out to me since the incident. His lack of concern for my safety that night, knowing he drugged me and let me drive, felt unforgivable.

Perpetrator pleads guilty in court of law

The police arranged everything, and the day arrived to make the call to Dr. Kearsley. Over the course of our conversations, he tried to deter me from reporting the incident. He suggested joint counseling and dangled a job offer in front of me. He initially denied the incident, but later claimed that he may have had a “blackout” and does not recall what happened.

In that first, intense phone call, I urged him to reflect on his actions as I strove to maintain my composure. I did not want to give him an edge. Unaware I filed a police report, he sent emails that revealed more than he intended. In time, Dr. Kearsley divulged significant information. This became a crucial step in building the case. Meanwhile, his bizarre justifications deeply offended me.

When the police charged him and raided his home, they found no evidence of drugs in his possession. Within days, he took leave from work and months later, while cleaning his office, the person filling in for him found Lorazepam which is the Benzodiazepine they found in further forensic testing of my urine. Sitting in his desk drawer, this discovery completed the puzzle.

With the case underway, the prosecutor offered a plea bargain, which I declined after thorough deliberation. I felt determined to fully address the nature of the crime, particularly the premeditated drugging. The prolonged court process affected me deeply and by October 2015, I was struggling.

We must stand up for the silent sufferers and demand a system change that protects the victims

Almost two years after the assault, with the court date finally approaching, I received news that Kearsley wished to plead guilty to both of the criminal charges. The prosecutor’s team reassured me, this was as good as it gets.

Hundreds of pages of investigation findings gathered over two years were reduced to two pages of “Agreed Facts” and signatures from both sides. The case garnered intense media attention, and while Kearsley was sentenced to jail time, I felt let down again with the sentence reduction on appeal.

I wanted Kearsley to know I disagreed with the appeal outcome and eventually I pursued a civil suit for damages. Kearsley eventually offered a settlement in 2018. By then, the impact of the ordeal drove me away from Sydney. I relocated to Brisbane, where I sought a new beginning. I needed to focus on healing from the years of trauma and distress this man caused.

Post-assault, I nearly left my specialist field, but during my journey of recovery in Brisbane, I committed to providing mentorship and support to junior doctors. This initiative is driven not only by the prevalence of sexual abuse cases in the medical field but years of observing junior doctors giving up after struggling to navigate the hierarchical system that does not have a structure to protect them. We need a systemic overhaul to protect medical professionals, address peer misconduct, and develop successful interventions.

Many people commend my courage in confronting my abuser. I view it a stand for justice and a medical duty to prevent harm. Yes, risking my reputation and career led to years of suffering but I survived and I am glad I persisted. Reporting abuse with the right resources is the only way to hold perpetrators to account. Meanwhile, there is much room for improvement in the reporting process to better protect victims.

My journey in the medical community highlights the importance of support and solidarity. After being drugged and assaulted by a senior doctor, I spearheaded a unique legal victory in Australia. This public case shattered the perceived invincibility of powerful figures in medicine. I hope that my story goes beyond personal achievement and generates hope that we can fight abuse of power. My recovery has been hard, and it is not over yet. For far too long, I carried the burden of self-blame for the assault that I should have never carried. I now know that it should have been reported right away, drugs or no drugs. It is striking how alcohol would never be an acceptable excuse for murder, yet it is readily used to justify sexual violence.

This is not an isolated incident, and we must consider the broader picture. The real tragedy is the multitude of silent sufferers in medicine, whose stories remain untold. Sharing my experience, I aspire to create a future where such stories drive transformation.

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