A New Zealand royal commission set up to investigate abuse in care says the country’s health ministry is still receiving complaints about a psychiatrist and others who allegedly tortured and abused patients at a hospital in the 1970s.
Around 200 people have alleged they were abused as children by Dr Selywn Leeks in the adolescent wing of Lake Alice psychiatric hospital but police and medical authorities failed to curb his career or investigate sufficiently.
Those failings – which police and medical authorities have since acknowledged – allowed Leeks to leave New Zealand without censure, and continue practising in Australia.
Leeks has consistently denied allegations of abuse or sexual assault, maintaining that his use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) machines was “therapeutic”, and has never faced criminal charges.
However, New Zealand police opened a third investigation in 2020, a year after the UN found that the country had breached the Convention against Torture in its failure to properly investigate allegations of torture by Leeks and others at Lake Alice in the 1970s.
The police are to announce their findings in early July, but Leeks is now 92 and according to his lawyer has failing cognitive capacity. Some alleged victims fear time is running out for justice to be done.
‘I was broken’
Over the past fortnight, the royal commission of inquiry into abuse in care has heard evidence from numerous witnesses about Leeks and other hospital staff using ECT without anaesthetic, including on genitals.
Many of those testifying to the commission described being electrocuted as punishment for minor misbehaviour such as smoking or talking back to staff. Others allege that Leeks made them electrocute other children.
Melbourne man Kevin Banks was admitted to Lake Alice when he was 14. He said Leeks used an ECT machine on him without anaesthetic more than 70 times, including around six times on his genitals. He told the commission: “Nothing compares with the intensity of the pain. Dr Leeks would start on low and then turn the dial to high. On low it was like little sledgehammers hitting my head … On high the pain was like razorblades cutting through my head.
“I was broken by what Dr Leeks and other staff did to me,” he told the commission. “As I have grown older the impacts have got worse, not better.”
Banks says the torture he and others allege they endured as children at Lake Alice has haunted them their entire lives. “I’m 62, I’ve been overseas. But wherever you go, you still bring Lake Alice with you. It’s still in your sleep. Whatever part of the world you’re in, it’s still with you.”
Banks was one of more than 300 children who went through the adolescent unit at Lake Alice in the 1970s. In 1977, shortly after he left, Banks made a complaint to the police.
Evidence was also given to the commission that children were raped and sexually abused by staff and adult patients at Lake Alice and given injections of the drug Paraldehyde, which caused extreme pain. One woman told the commission she believes Leeks raped her while she was unconscious. Evidence was given that a child who had epilepsy died during ECT treatment.
Around half of the children in the unit were Māori boys. In 2001, the then prime minister Helen Clark said some children were at the unit “primarily because there was nowhere else for them to go.”
‘The only people who did that were state organs of terror’
In response to an inquiry by the Ombudsman in 1977, Leeks said his use of ECT was a “recognised form of medical treatment”.
According to documents tabled at the commission, Leeks also said he supervised children carrying out shocks of another child who had assaulted them, saying this was “a “reasonable” opportunity to do something about their feeling of powerlessness while bringing home to the culprit the feelings of the people he had harmed”.
Asked whether the electric shock treatments without anaesthetic, including on the genitals, fell within the realm of standard medical care, expert witness Dr Barry Parsonson told the commission: “The only people who did that were state organs of terror, namely the Gestapo is a good example.
Complaints about Leeks’ electrocution of children as punishment were made to the NZ Medical Council in 1977, but after an initial investigation the complaint was not progressed. Leeks was never disciplined, and was instead given a certificate of good standing by the council.
He moved to Australia after the unit closed in 1978 and continued practising. It was in the Australian state of Victoria in 2006 that he was found liable by a civil court of sexually assaulting a woman who had been his patient, and ordered to pay $55,000 in damages – a sum she says was never paid. Leeks maintained his innocence but lost an appeal. Criminal charges were not brought.
‘If it was today, there is no way Dr Leeks would be practising’
Aleyna Hall, the deputy chief executive of the NZ Medical Council, apologised at the royal commission last week, saying “to the survivors of the Lake Alice child and adolescent unit, the medical council is sorry”. Hall added that the council “acknowledges the hurt that you have experienced and apologises for any actions that the medical council of the time should have taken but did not”.
“If it was today, there is no way Dr Leeks would be practising,” she said.
After an out-of-court settlement between victims of the Lake Alice adolescent unit and the New Zealand government in 2002, dozens of complainants’ files were forwarded to the police, but only one victim was interviewed. In 2010, the police announced there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute.
Speaking to the commission last week, New Zealand police apologised to survivors for this previous investigation. They had received 34 statements from Lake Alice survivors but police representatives at the commission said 14 to 15 of those had been lost.
“Police did not accord sufficient priority and resources to the investigation of allegations of criminal offending” at Lake Alice, detective superintendent Thomas Fitzgerald, director of the criminal investigation branch, said. “This resulted in unacceptable delays in the investigation and meant that not all allegations were thoroughly investigated. The police wish to apologise to the Lake Alice survivors for these failings.”
Hayden Rattray, a lawyer representing Leeks, addressed the commission on the opening day of the hearing, saying Leeks was now 92 and suffered ill health, including suspected Alzheimer’s. “Leeks has a right to give evidence and to make submissions. But he is, by virtue of his age and cognitive capacity, manifestly incapable of doing either,” he said.
At the close of the commission, he said Leeks was “neither aware of the matters before the inquiry nor cognitively capable of responding to them”.
“When he was cognitively capable of doing so, [Leeks has] always ardently maintained his innocence,” Rattray said. He said the “true focus of the commission is and should be on the myriad failings of a system that among other failings has allowed such serious allegations to go untested for near-on half a century.”
“Justice delayed is justice denied … the remedy to that injustice can’t itself be another injustice. It can’t, I submit, be to prosecute a 92-year-old man unfit to instruct lawyers, unfit to participate in an interview with police.”
Banks said he had waited more than 40 years for Leeks to face charges and be held accountable and now believes it’s too late. “It’s not going to happen, the age he is, the mental state he’s in.”
If you need support you can call Lifeline Aotearoa on 0800 543 354
In Australia, adult survivors can seek help at the Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657380.
In the UK you can call the National Association for people Abused in Childhood on 0808 8010331.
Help can also be found at Child Helplines International.