Father Munchausen, I presume!

Editorial Note: This is the fourth of seven Doctor Munchausen posts – Doctor Munchausen, I presume, Dying for a Cure, Dear Louise and the forthcoming Doctor Munchausen as a Sense about Science Trustee, and Doctor Munchausen Joins your local Hospital Board.  

I’ve had some criticism of the recent Doctor Munchausen posts. They’re not fair on doctors. Many people have told me of lives saved by good doctors. It’s not fair to tar these good doctors with the brush of a few Dr Munchausens here and there.

Ascent to Golgotha

In recent months the movie Calvary has done the rounds in Ireland and the UK and moved to North America.

It opens with a confessional scene. Someone enters and tells the priest that he is going to kill him the following Sunday on the beach. The priest’s week is spent meeting people around the parish near Sligo in the West of Ireland, sizing them up as the possible killer, and debating with himself about what to do – cut and run or face the music.


The story is highly stylized, cliched and implausible but it has its moments. You might visit Ireland because of the scenery on show but you’d steer clear of its small towns if you thought this was an accurate portrayal of small town life there.

The plot is fueled by the abuse of children by Catholic clergy in Ireland. This issue appears overtly and briefly in the opening scene and at the end. In between is a good thriller. The killer has decided to pick a good priest – a good German – in order to shock people awake. There is little point killing a monster – no one will be surprised or bothered.

The priest he’s picked is clearly good – was previously married but his wife died, so he’s normal. He has an attractive daughter. He lives a very frugal life. He has a gorgeous dog who keeps him company. He mixes in with the locals in the pub but doesn’t drink because of past difficulties with the alcohol.


As we approach the climax there are a number of ever more dramatic Passion Week moments. In a key scene the priest finds his dog dead with its throat cut. He is distraught.

In the penultimate scene, faced with the person who might kill him he is asked how he felt when he found his dog and he explains. He is then asked how he felt when he read or heard about episodes of abuse of children – did he cry the same way. He answers honestly – no – and recognizes his detachment from these children compared to his feelings for his dog.

Taking Clozapine

If you’re the mother of a son taking Clozapine for instance – or it could be any other drug or problem – and you feel your son is not right, you will complain to the doctor. They are likely to swat away your complaint.

Your sense that something is wrong might be backed up by your son’s pulse rate running at 140 per minute – a recognized effect of clozapine. The doctor might or might not have checked the pulse rate ever but even if she had checked she would likely be detached. So what. Whereas if you were told the pulse rate, you would likely freak.

It can be useful for doctors and nurses to be able to remain detached in order to help you – to be able to step back and take “rational” decisions on your behalf. In an interesting, perhaps deliberate twist to the movie, this detachment makes the doctor in Calvary a freak of some sort – the least human person in the story.

You’re a young boy put on clozapine who gets very anxious in the middle of the night, perhaps feeling like you are going to die. You can feel your heart beat and it appears to be racing. You don’t know that it’s running at 140 beats per minute. You tell the doctor the next day about these worries. You might not have the word available to you to use but you will likely get the sense she regards you as “neurotic”.

A patient of mine some years ago after starting clozapine felt unwell and approached staff on several occasions to say this. He was swatted away by very good staff as neurotic. I was saved from finding out if I’d have done the same by being away. I came back to find the patient in intensive care, expected to die. He had renal failure linked to an interstitial nephritis. He lived and the label for clozapine in the UK now includes interstitial nephritis as a complication of clozapine treatment.

Bad Doctors, Good Doctors & Great Doctors

So there’s bad doctoring and good doctoring and great doctoring. What would great doctoring mean? Well in terms of a great priest it would mean being able to imagine what it must have been like to be a child and be abused – what the betrayal of trust was like. A great priest would not shut up just because most of the priests he knew were decent men or because the Vatican told him to shut up.

Almost everyone has been thrilled by Jorge Mario Bergoglio almost precisely because he seemed to have some imagination. He didn’t seem to be a box-ticker in the way Josef Ratzinger was before him. Except on the issue of abuse where imagination seems to have failed him.

Why call these men Jorge and Josef? Because of Chekov’s extraordinary story The Bishop which shows how at ultimate moments someone has to discover that The Bishop or The Doctor was once a boy called Peter or a girl called Petra. Unless that discovery is made, the person remains imprisoned inside the role and their imagination is taken over by others.

Jorge Mario has apparently recently said that one in fifty priests are likely to be pedophiles. Who knows what this means – it does not mean that one in fifty are abusers.

A Failure of Nerve?

I’d bet there are more Doctor than Father Munchausens around the place. There is far, far more scope for a doctor to be abusive than for a priest.

When it comes to handling abuse, whatever about Jorge-Mario’s failure of imagination, the Vatican is miles ahead of the British establishment and both are way ahead of medicine where perhaps because of all the good doctors abuse is rampant.

The penultimate scene in Calvary is quite remarkable. But what on earth or in heaven is going on in the final scene? Does the movie lose the plot? What would you say if you were the man about to speak into the phone?

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  1. It also seemed to me that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a breath of fresh air, a much needed addition to the antiquated Catholic Church. I thought he might even be the one who could change the ways of the pharmaceutical industry and stop the killing of our children.

    So myself, Maria Bradshaw and our friend Stephanie (who all lost children to SSRI antidepressants) contacted Jorge/Pope Francis and bared our souls. We asked him for help in stopping these countless, needless, avoidable deaths. Although we got his blessing which was nice – speaking for myself, I didn’t need a bloody blessing, I needed him to act on the information he was given, that children are dying. Suffer little children?

    Sorry to disappoint you Dr Healy, but it seems that the Vatican is even less likely to tackle the issue of prescription drug abuse than child abuse.
    Papal reply below:

    Dear Mrs Fennell,
    The Holy Father has received your letter, and has asked me to reply in his name. He offers heartfelt condolences to you and all parents who have lost their children to iatrogenic death.
    His Holiness will remember you and all those grieving the untimely death of loved ones in his prayers, and he invokes upon you and your efforts God’s blessings of consolation and peace.
    Yours sincerely,
    Monsignor Peter B. Wells

  2. “A great priest would not shut up just because most of the priests he knew were decent men…”

    Of course he wouldn’t. Nor would he join the crowd in vilifying them simply because they were also priests.

    I’m not saying that this is something you are promoting. I only point this out because doing the right thing isn’t easy and sometimes you find yourself disagreeing with both sides.

  3. Dr Healy,

    Thank you for speaking the truth and for giving grieving families like “Dear Luise” and thousands of others a platform to tell their stories – where were their “good doctors”?

    “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
    ― Martin Luther King Jr.

  4. As regards good doctors / bad doctors, yes there are some good guys out there. In our area, we have been in the unfortunate position of having had a stream of locums, or doctors close to retiral. In fact, to date, my son has had 14 different psychiatrists ‘on his case’ in as many years.
    FYI – I decided to do a quick mini-analysis.

    Good – but now retired – 5
    Courteous and respectful but wouldn’t listen to parents – 3
    Didn’t stay long enough for a judgement to be made – 2
    Totally unmentionable – [arrogant, power-ridden, dismissive etc] – 4

    I was surprised to note that it was the retired doctors who were the most approachable. I would have thought that younger, more broadminded psychiatrists might be more compassionate and understanding.
    Why should that be?

  5. http://www.danse-macabre.net/image/Danse_Macabre/Laurie-Lipton-Danse-Macabre.jpg

    Which one is your Munchhausen?

    I bag the lot – as no doubt we will discover in the remaining posts…

    Somewhere in the middle, we sit, still breathing, still living, and you could be either one of Brian’s or one of Simons…….this blog is not for the feint hearted…




    And, you listen to someone who keeps Bangoring on:




    The Pontiff has spoken…..and, then, there, is, Andrew…

    Who casually picks a few from this crowd and takes them away, permanently…
    Paxil is proven, in US, litigation, to cause suicide.
    Isn’t it time, Andrew, talked about it……Paroxetine has a lot to answer for.
    Someone, in his factory, that mixes up ingredients, which plays havoc, with a wooden spoon, gave the ok for this monstrous drug to be released on to the market and not talking about it, is the most craven ‘cover up’ in the religious way that corporate enterprise screws the lid on the jar with the butterflies frantic to get out…..

    Michael might have had his demons, but loving children was his legacy….who is committing professional suicide – doctors, or, Andrew?

    Don’t forget, his, friend, his doctor, was locked up for murdering Michael – acute Propofol and Benzodiazepine intoxication.

    Old, young; doctors are way behind our conversations…

  6. Measure for Measure says:

    ‘But man, proud man,
    Dressed in a little brief authority,
    Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
    His glassy essence, like an angry ape
    Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
    As makes the angels weep.’

    The most dangerous delusion is that we ever learn anything as societies for very long. How one loathes those occasions when the great and the good forgather to engage in solemn pieties as if we really knew better than previous generations, when they preside over their own mayhem.

  7. Suggestion – Join your local PPG and then you can try to raise the issues around Rx side effects; even perhaps set up a survey with patients……I’m trying to!

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