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Friday, June 24, 2011

Psychologist Seeks Return of License

By Colman Herman
June 22, 2011

A female psychologist is asking the state's Supreme Judicial Court for her license back even though she violated one of the cardinal rules of her profession by having sex with a former patient.

The standard punishment for someone in the medical and related professions who has sex with a patient or former patient is permanent revocation of his or her license. Officials at several of the boards that oversee health professionals said they couldn’t recall an instance where a practitioner who had sex with a patient failed to lose his or her license.

But Brookline psychologist Mary O'Neill says she deserves another chance. She acknowledges beginning a sexual relationship with her patient, Eric MacLeish, just weeks after his therapy sessions ended, yet says her license shouldn’t be permanently revoked because her lapse in judgment was caused by a marriage that had collapsed.

O’Neill petitioned a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court to review her license revocation by the Board of Registration in Psychology.  Subsequently, she and the board jointly asked the full court to hear the case, which it agreed to do. Oral arguments are scheduled for this fall.

O’Neill is arguing that the psychology board “arbitrarily and capriciously” refused to consider the mitigating evidence she presented. Rather than revoking her license, she says the board should have suspended her license for a year and then allowed her to resume work on a probationary basis for a year. She says she would continue to receive personal psychotherapy and have her work supervised by a peer. O’Neill also says she would do 100 hours of community service.

The psychology board’s regulations adopt the code of conduct of the American Psychology Association. The code states that “psychologists do not engage in sexual intimacies with current therapy clients/patients” nor with “former clients for at least two years after cessation of therapy.” Beyond two years, sex between a psychologist and patient is permitted only if the therapist can prove there has been no exploitation. The regulations also say it is not a defense to say the patient consented. The regulations were crafted to prevent psychologists from exploiting the tremendous power they often have over their patients and former patients.

In its April 2010 decision, the psychology board held that O’Neill’s marriage crisis “no doubt exacted a significant emotional toll” on her and that her “marriage crisis can be understood to have ‘clouded’ her judgment.” But the board nonetheless revoked her license, saying her care was the “antithesis of treatment” and her “conduct abrogates a basic tenet of the psychology profession: trust.”

The entire article can be found here.

Thanks to Ken Pope for this story.


Gary Schoener said...

One of the defenses advanced in this case is that the victim, an attorney, is a powerful person. It is fundamental to the psychotherapy relationship that the fact that someone is "powerful" or accomplished in their personal life does not mean that they carry that power into the professional relationship with their therapist. Quite the contrary is typically true. This is why in Minnesota and more than 20 other states that it is considered a sexual assault by the therapist. Consent is not a defense in Minnesota or most jurisdictions. Secondly, the victim in this case has been the subject of some public attention for his personal problems and vulnerabilities in that after settling nearly 500 cases of sexual abuse by priests he had a "melt down" and in fact retired from the practice of law. Additionally it is public knowledge that he has struggled with unsettled issues regarding his own abuse history. Beyond the issue of time, some of the factors which it is argued should rule out sexual involvement with a former client even after the passage of two years of time are present in this case.

Gary Schoener, Minneapolis

Anonymous said...

Is there really an argument here? This patient was violated and "clouded judgment" is by no means an excuse for hurting a patient.

John Gavazzi said...

I serve as a consultant to the State Board of Psychology, on a case basis. When a psychologist's license and livelihood are at risk, then a skilled attorney will try to find some way to defend the psychologist. I have been involved with about 30 cases in PA. There have been two in which the psychologist and attorney mounted a defense, only to withdraw and hand in their licenses.

In one, the psychologist engaged in a sexual relationship with a patient.

In the other case, a psychologist committed multiple boundaries with multiple patients, and the evidence of wrongdoing must have appeared insurmountable. The psychologist had accounting, legal, and other professional relationships with patients.