'He did it because he could - nobody believed us and everybody believed him' - Police officer sexually assaulted by force doctor speaks out
One of the victims of former police doctor Hugh O'Neill has spoken out for the first time after he was convicted of indecently assaulting 13 of her colleagues last year. DOMINIC GILBERT reports.
“He realised that we were a very vulnerable group of women. It is a situation where he has you over a barrel.”
Today one Norfolk police officer who was sexually assaulted by the Constabulary’s former doctor Hugh O’Neill describes her anger towards the senior officers who failed to act decisively when allegations were first made against the family GP in 1993.
Yesterday this newspaper revealed failings in two investigations conducted into O’Neill as he sexually assaulted police officers during medical examinations.
To date 33 officers have made allegations against the disgraced GP, who was working as force medical examiner between 1991 and 2003.
O’Neill was jailed for 12 years for two rapes in January 2015 and was then told to serve another three years for assaulting 13 female police officers.
But another 20 victims, who received part of a £270,000 legal settlement from the force this year, have never seen justice in court.
Our investigation also revealed a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) review into the actions of senior officers dealing with the case in the 1990s found insufficient evidence to prosecute them.
New recruits in 1993 had to attend a medical examination at O’Neill’s practice at Horsford Medical Centre to ensure they were fit for service.
The victim said it was “unthinkable that the police doctor would do anything other than behave in a correct manner”.
“If you don’t trust them you do not get examined - then you don’t get the job or the medical care you need,” she said.
“Nobody would believe someone would assault prospective policewomen. It was unthinkable he would be getting some kind of sexual pleasure out of doing a medical examination.”
But before seeing O’Neill the victim said she became suspicious after a friend mentioned how uncomfortable he had made her.
“I couldn’t afford for him to turn around and say I am medically unfit,” she said. “I desperately wanted my job. I think he knew that.”
The victim said during her examination O’Neill began to grope her. When challenged he claimed he had been checking her spleen for alcohol abuse.
“He was indecently assaulting us in plain sight,” she said. “He said a breast examination was a necessary part of a medical because if you had breast cancer you would not be well enough to perform your duties.
“That was a complete and utter fabrication. For someone who has never presented with any illness it is nonsense.”
A report from a serious sexual offences trained officer was compiled and passed up the chain of command in 1993, but the investigation then ended abruptly. Officers were threatened to “keep quiet”, according to the victim.
According to a CPS review into the actions of senior officers tasked with investigating O’Neill in 1993, two witness statements also describe being told to stay silent by superior officers.
No other evidence was found to support their accounts, but the CPS concluded it is possible O’Neill had threatened to sue Norfolk Constabulary if further allegations were made.
Fiona Morrison, specialist prosecutor with the special crime division of the CPS, conducted the review this year into a possible prosecution of two senior officers in 1993 for misconduct in a public office and perverting the course of justice.
According to the CPS review, one witness said in a 2016 statement: “I was told in no uncertain terms that the matter was to go no further, it was not to be mentioned again, and any further comment could lead to Dr O’Neill suing the police.”
“From witness testimony it appears that Dr O’Neill was a forceful individual with a ‘bullish’ personality,” Ms Morrison said in a letter to victims last month explaining their decision not to pursue criminal charges against senior officers.
“It would be no surprise that he may well have threatened civil proceedings against the force or any individual who raised this matter again.
“I have no doubt that in light of the decision taken that there was insufficient evidence in the eyes of the suspects at that time to suggest any wrongdoing by Dr O’Neill, and that thereafter he would have made it clear he expected confirmation of this from them.”
The victim added: “He did all this because he could - because in 1993 nobody believed us and everybody believed him. Senior officers were cowardly and didn’t want to challenge him.
“If you have an allegation of a crime it should be recorded as a crime and investigated and the suspect could have been arrested.
“He should have gone before the General Medical Council. Even if he had got away with it that might have made him think he is not going to risk it again.
“We feel worse because perhaps we should have done more at the time and we could have saved our colleagues from going through it.”
In 2002 further allegations were made against O’Neill and an investigation was launched.
According to the victim, a probe into Norfolk’s handling of the allegations by Essex Police this year criticised Norfolk’s lack of resources and organisational structure at the time, adding a critical incident should have been declared.
The report from Essex Police, commissioned in 2016 and completed this year, has never been made public.
When the failures of the two investigations became clear to the victims they brought a joint personal injury claim against Norfolk Constabulary.
In May 2017 they accepted an out of court settlement. The force paid out a total of £269,500 in settlements and costs.
“To get some compensation was our last chance to get some kind of justice,” added the victim. “What is most damaging is the way the force has treated us.
“There must be a way of protecting further police officers and if they are victims of crime they should be treated as victims of crime, not police officers who have been victims of crime.
“I only hope to God they ensure this never happens again.”
‘I was warned about O’Neill in 1993’
After allegations were first made against O’Neill, female officers who were due to have a medical examination with him began being warned about his behaviour.
Lee Walker, a former detective with Norfolk Constabulary drug squad in 1993, and currently a North Norfolk district councillor, said she received a phone call from a senior officer the night before her medical.
“He said, we have got a problem with [O’Neill] because allegations have been made about him being inappropriate,” she said. “He said he wanted to give me the heads up in case anything happened”.
The detective brought her partner into the medical as a chaperone and O’Neill behaved appropriately.
She only discovered the extent of his offending after he admitted 13 sexual assaults on police officers. Essex Police conducted a review into Norfolk’s handling of allegations against O’Neill this year, and Ms Walker decided to give evidence.
“It is absolutely disgraceful [Norfolk Police] let it go on for so long,” she added.
Essex investigates Norfolk
In 2016, chief constable Simon Bailey commissioned Essex Police to conduct a review into Norfolk’s handling of the 1993 and 2002 investigations.
Based upon their evidence, Norfolk deputy chief constable Nick Dean examined nine allegations of conduct issues against the two men in charge of the 1993 investigation and determined they had a case to answer for gross misconduct in respect of three;
• In 1993 allegations regarding O’Neill indecently assaulting female staff during medicals were not properly investigated.
• The allegations do not appear to have been regarded or recorded as crimes.
• Key witnesses and further victims were not identified and statements were not obtained.
In relation to the 2002/3 investigation, two retired officers, one serving officer and one police staff member were investigated for conduct issues.
With regards to the two retired officers, DCC Dean determined that there could be a case to answer for misconduct for failing to ensure an appropriate investigation was conducted.