As described in the section personal engagements in Africa Philipp Bonhoeffer (PB) sponsored a number of students for their studies in school and university. Some students received full funding, others only had partial and sporadic help. After a long excellent relationship documented by many personal letters a conflict arose between one of the fully funded students and Philipp Bonhoeffer. This student had concluded his studies as a nurse and in the period between 2006-08 he became unwilling to start to work because his salary was going to be inferior to the sponsorship he previously received. He claimed that he wanted to engage in further studies which PB deemed unreasonable. The relationship between the two further deteriorated because the student claimed money for emergency treatment of his mother who supposedly needed to be airlifted to a hospital in the region and PB paid for this before realising that the claim was untrue. The student was found to have stolen a camera and cash and engaged raising money on a fraudulent website claiming to be a “medic” pretending to raise money for children in the area of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. Philipp Bonhoeffer became aware that this student had built a house in his home area from the proceeds of this dishonest activity and therefore after several warnings PB decided to terminate his funding.
The reaction of this student was to accuse PB of having abused him and all the other students mentioned above at young age. During a humanitarian mission of Philipp Bonhoeffer with a charity this student forwarded claims of abuse to a member of the charity. Upon return of this charity worker the claims of abuse were immediately transferred to the English police. A criminal investigation started in September 2008. This included a search of PB’s private and professional premises, computers etc. Eventually the UK police made a trip to Kenya in March 2009.
PB was suspended for 3 weeks from hospital work in September 2008 but was then allowed to work again. He was not permitted to have any contacts with Kenya or the students during the entire time of the police investigation. Formal interviews were conducted by the police of the 8 fully funded students who were said to be involved. Except for the student who made the allegations all the other 7 students denied any wrongdoing by PB against them. Nothing was found on the UK premises or on the sequestered computers incriminating him of wrongdoings. The criminal investigation was stopped without charges against Philipp Bonhoeffer in April 2009.
The UK police however took it upon themselves to write a letter to the General Medical council (GMC) and to the hospital. In this letter they set out that for legal reasons they could not run a criminal case against PB if the offences had been carried out before the year 2004. Although the UK police had no evidence of wrongdoings before this date, they stated that a person who might have committed offences before that time could not be eligible to perform as a doctor in the UK. Upon receipt of this letter the hospital suspended Philipp Bonhoeffer again and the GMC started a prolonged investigation.
The first interviews were conducted only with UK witnesses 11 months after the beginning of the suspension was imposed. No professional colleague made statements against PB. A GMC hearing was finally conducted in October 2010, 18 months after PB had been suspended from the hospital. The GMC chose not to obtain direct evidence against Philipp Bonhoeffer deciding to run the case on hearsay evidence.
It was stated that a participation of the accusing student would have endangered him in Kenya because of the stigma of homosexuality (he is heterosexual and father of 2 children). Further, claims were made that specific life-threatening threats against him had been pronounced. When PB’s legal team enquired whether the claims of danger to the person were confirmed by any expert opinion it became evident that an attempt to obtain such an advice was never made. The prosecutor of the GMC however stated forcibly that the GMC would never call the student because this would be of unacceptable risk and if they changed their mind it would be abuse of process from their side.
The decision not to call the witness was made in a meeting between the chief executive of the General Medical Council and a senior police officer. Interestingly, however in the police report the threats (bullet in the head, being thrown in front of lions, needing to escape from Nairobi for safety…) appeared only after the meeting between the police and the GMC. Furthermore, it appeared that the police claimed to have lost all the documentation related to the original interviews done with the Kenyan students.
The legal team of PB challenged the decision that the case could be run on hearsay evidence under these conditions and the High Court ordered an injunction. The case was then interrupted.
On the basis that no Kenyan witnesses were to be called to the case in the UK, PB wrote a letter to the GMC that he intended to reopen the contact with the other 7 students for all of whom he had been providing help and support for many years. PB was aware that the 7 students and their families, greatly distressed by what was happening, lived in difficulty and had been suspended from University because of failure to pay their student fees. One student had developed serious health problems. The GMC did not oppose this move and PB once again engaged in offering assistance for their needs.
Later, the case was heard in High Court in the UK in April 2011. Amongst other findings, the ruling stated that the view of the GMC panel was irrational and that the hearsay evidence could not be heard. Shortly afterwards, another ruling at High Court against the GMC was won by PB over excessive requests of time to handle the case.
Thereafter, the GMC once again overran the time limits allowed for the case by the High Court and started proceedings against Philipp Bonhoeffer late. Now, contrary to it’s previous statements the GMC decided that the witness against Philipp Bonhoeffer could and would be asked to give direct evidence. The decision of the GMC was to maintain the same panel who had been judged as irrational by High Court. This would have meant that they would be aware of all hearsay evidence which had been judged inadmissible. This was clearly unacceptable.
Further PB was in a position that he had resumed contact with the 7 students (one unfortunately passed away in an accident due to unsafe living conditions) who had contradicted the claims made against PB. Therefore, at this point, their statements in PBs favour could have been interpreted as biased. As mentioned above the police interviews of these students were obtained while no contact between PB and these students existed – these were claimed to have been lost by the UK police. The legal team found itself in front of the position to challenge the GMC once again.
PB found himself at a cross roads. He had now been taken out of clinical medicine for more than 3 years and had lost both the possibility and the desire to work in clinical medicine in the UK. He had already been presented publicly by the UK press as a suspect of child abuse, before any case had been heard against him, and was aware that a verdict of not guilty would likely be insufficient to re-establish his reputation and good name.
Following their decision to dismiss PB, Great Ormond Street Hospital published a helpline number in a press statement addressed to the general public. As a result two persons had made contact with further accusations against Philipp Bonhoeffer. One came from a woman who had been under psychiatric care for very many years, who accused him of assault when they were both still in high school. The other emanated from a friend of hers, who stated that wrongdoings of a lesser nature had been done to her son in the mid 90’s. This accusation was taken up by the GMC. Notably, both episodes described were vigorously denied, happened allegedly in the distant past and led to no action taken at their times.
As a result of his personal experience of the process adopted by the GMC over the proceeding 3 years later, PB had lost belief in the likelihood that he would receive a fair trial. Also, he had received advice that the English tabloid press would give the story great publicity, which would be much more so if he was present at the public hearings. For these reasons, and as he no longer had any intention to practice in the UK, he decided that he wished to relinquish his English registration and wrote a letter to the General Medical Council indicating that he would not take any active part in future proceedings.
The GMC, although having the responsibility solely to decide whether a doctor is fit to practice in the UK, decided to proceed to a hearing in PBs absence. At this hearing PB was struck off the GMC register in September 2012, 4 years after his initial suspension. The GMC in their investigation made no attempt to question any of the 7 students whom he was alleged to have abused, each of whom had denied all allegations against Philipp Bonhoeffer. On the contrary, PB was found guilty of wrongdoings against the Kenyan students all of whom personally denied any of them having taken place. This was done on the basis of the evidence provided by the one accusing student, in spite of the fact that he had been found not to be fully trustworthy by the GMC itself. The GMC made no finding against PB with regard to the care he provided as a doctor. Instead they pronounced a guilty verdict over matters which if considered to have been of a serious nature would have had to be dealt with in a criminal court, when criminal proceedings against PB had long been abandoned without any charges being brought.
Throughout the entire conduction of the case the story has never been presented as viewed by Philipp Bonhoeffer. For this reason it is appropriate and important that the background of the case is available in the public domain.