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Hate Crimes

Horror of Child Body Parts Hoard



By Jo Revill, Political Reporter

The full horror of Alder Hey hospital, where thousands of dead children were systematically and illegally stripped of their organs by a deceitful pathologist, was finally exposed today.

Professor van VelzenProfessor Dick van Velzen ordered the "unethical and illegal" retention of eyes, brains and internal organs, as well as foetuses, without their parents' knowledge, then stockpiled them for years in a grimy cellar rather than using them for research.

Professor van Velzen was today found guilty by an independent inquiry of repeated lies and dishonesty and he could face criminal charges.

The inquiry, headed by Michael Redfern QC, has sent the facts to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who will look at whether extradition proceedings will be needed to bring the professor back from Holland where he is on extended leave from Westeinde hospital in The Hague.

An audit of pathology services across the country by the Chief Medical Officer, also published today, reveals that 100,000 hearts, brains, lungs and other organs are still held by hospitals and medical schools across England, including leading London teaching hospitals. At Alder Hey the inquiry found more than 2,000 children's hearts were obtained without consent, Health Secretary Alan Milburn told the Commons this afternoon. There were also many brain parts, eyes from foetuses, more than 1,500 stillbirths or foetuses and a number of children's heads and bodies.

Mr Milburn added that the report revealed "a lack of respect and a failure to appreciate the circumstances which led to the taking of human material". For example, some foetal material was labelled: "Neck deeply lacerated. Pull it to pieces some time and reject."

The understanding of cot death, the project for which van Velzen was funded, was "not advanced one iota". Professor van Velzen has been summoned before the General Medical Council, and four NHS staff, including Alder Hey's chief executive have today been suspended, said Mr Milburn.

Organ retention without relatives' consent is "widespread" in the NHS, with 105,000 organs retained across the country, he said. Some 25 hospitals account for 88 per cent of the retained organs, at least 16,500 of which were kept in contravention of the law.

The Health Secretary announced the establishment of a commission to oversee the return of organs and tissue, and a review of the coroners' system and of accountability of senior staff employed jointly by NHS trusts and universities. A new law will enshrine the concept of "informed consent" and NHS trusts will be required to support and advise bereaved families.

"The pain caused to the parents by this dreadful sequence of events is unforgivable," said Mr Milburn, adding that those who did wrong would now be held to account.

For some Alder Hey parents the agony will continue as they will never know whether their children were buried with all their organs, because many specimens kept in jars were not properly labelled.

At least 58 families face the prospect of a third funeral because of the belated discovery that some brain tissue was deliberately kept back by Liverpool University officials for research purposes. The shocking 600-page report describes how Professor van Velzen embarked on a seven-year saga of deceit in which he:

  • lied to parents about post mortem methods and findings;
  • failed to provide quick post mortem reports, despite pleas from doctors and managers, and failed to keep a proper record of stored organs;
  • encouraged staff to falsify records;
  • denied doctors the chance to spot families whose children might be at risk from genetic diseases.

He had also lied to get the chair of foetal and infant pathology at Alder Hey and, within a week of arriving in 1988, was insisting that all human material taken from infants and children had to be stored.

The same year he stopped analysing organs using blood tests as part of his routine clinical work and prepared reports based on seeing them with the naked eye. In 1989 a computer system allowed him to change post mortem reports with no checks.

Whole organs were removed from dead children and kept in jars, but "the large majority" of these were never properly examined for research. The entire culture of the hospital and university allowed the maverick professor to work unmonitored despite several warnings.

Today's report makes new recommendations on the way doctors are allowed to have managerial responsibility, and calls for an overhaul of pathology records. Under the professor's instructions, 445 foetuses were received from three hospitals in Liverpool, although only limited research was carried out on them.

He ignored written consent forms which said there should be only limited post mortem examinations. There is strong criticism for the way the hospital and university failed to monitor the professor's work.

The officials "permitted" him to abdicate his responsibility, and failed to follow up complaints about his work.

The report says: "Neither Alder Hey nor the university will ever be able accurately to tell parents what happened to every organ of every child who died between 1988 and 1995." The strategy of the hospital and the university "merely served to aggravate the situation, to the extent that some families have faced numerous funerals as a result of organs being returned to them on a piecemeal basis".

The inquiry team found that 13 heads and parts of heads of children were stored at the hospital's Institute of Child Health, although these dated back to 1973, well before Professor van Velzen arrived.

The most "disturbing specimen" they found was the head of an 11-year-old boy.

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