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Tribunal finds former psychologist had inappropriate patient relationship and mislead regulators

28 May 2019

A tribunal has found a former registered psychologist had engaged in professional misconduct after providing false and misleading information to health practitioner regulators about an inappropriate patient relationship.

The Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (the tribunal) found Mr Mark Sweeney had engaged in professional misconduct, and as a result prohibited him from applying for registration for a period of two years.

A notification was made to the former Psychology Board of Queensland (the former Board)1 in 2007, about Mr Sweeny (who held general registration as a psychologist until January 2015), alleging he had an inappropriate relationship with a patient (the notifier). Mr Sweeny denied the relationship. At the time, the former Board found that while Mr Sweeny had acted in a way that constituted unsatisfactory professional conduct for having a ‘dual relationship’ with a patient, however, it did not find the allegations relating to alleged sexual comments and physical conduct were substantiated.

Mr Sweeney was no longer registered in Queensland at the time of the decision (he was practising in Tasmania). If he had been, in its decision, the former Board commented that he would have been reprimanded. The former Board invited him to enter into an undertaking for a period of supervision of up to two years focusing on boundary violations, psychopathology and ethics which was reflected in conditions on Mr Sweeney's registration in Tasmania.

On 16 May 2014, Mr Sweeney contacted the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) to advise his previous correspondence (in the form of letters shared with the former Board in Queensland) was false and admitted to having an inappropriate relationship his patient (which he had previously denied). As a result, on 19 May 2014, the Psychology Board of Australia (the Board) investigated the matter, formed a belief of professional misconduct and, after liaising with the Office of the Health Ombudsman (OHO)2, referred the matter to the tribunal.

In the referral, the Board alleged that Mr Sweeny had provided letters to the former Board that were false and/or misleading and which intended to mislead. The Board also alleged that a letter written in support of Mr Sweeny’s denial was done so under coercion and undue influence.

During tribunal proceedings, Mr Sweeny admitted this conduct, however, did not admit the letter in support of his denial was signed under coercion, only undue influence. Mr Sweeny also continued to deny he had made any sexual comments or touched his patient inappropriately.

The tribunal found that Mr Sweeny’s conduct amounted to professional misconduct and that his behaviour was inconsistent with him being a fit and proper person to hold registration as a psychologist. The tribunal considered that while he was remorseful about any harm his actions caused his patient, he:

  • did not understand the significance of his deception of the regulator
  • offered no apology to the Board and showed no real appreciation of the effect of his actions on the regulator, or or the individual who signed the letter of support, and
  • admitted to using undue influence to obtain the signed the letter of support prepared by him to bolster his own credibility and discredit his patient (the notifier), in circumstances where they were both vulnerable.

The tribunal decided a disqualification period of two years was an appropriate sanction, noting due to a delay in the tribunal giving its reasons, for which it apologised, the tribunal considered Mr Sweeney should be treated as having effectively been disqualified from practising since at least 2017 (when the matter was heard), and applied a one-month period of disqualification from the date of making its order on 10 May 2019.

The tribunal’s decision was published on the Austlii website on 28 May 2019.


1Psychologists who were registered under arrangements which existed before the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme (the National Scheme) began in 2010 would have been referred to their local state and territory Board.

2In Queensland, the OHO receive complaints about registered health practitioner in that jurisdiction, though they can decide to refer less serious matters to Ahpra and the National Boards.

Page reviewed 28/05/2019