Psychology

The criminal conduct of a senior psychologist – and his colleagues’ reactions – poses questions about the profession’s tendency to ignore context and focus on individual behaviours.

By Ali Schnabel.

It’s time for psychologists to recognise the importance of power

Psychologists can focus on individual behaviours and ignore context.
Credit: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz / Alamy

Content warning: This article discusses child sexual abuse.

In December last year, clinical psychologist Bob Montgomery was sentenced to four years in prison for historic child sex offences, after pleading guilty to the sexual abuse of adolescent boys when he was a Scoutmaster and teacher in New South Wales in the 1960s.

In the decades following these assaults, Montgomery worked as a consultant for the reality TV show Big Brother, was the head of psychology at Bond University and, from 2008 to 2010, served as president of the Australian Psychological Society. Near the end of his tenure at the APS, Montgomery was appointed as an expert witness to the Queensland Family Court, where he was relied on to assess the credibility of child sexual abuse allegations made in the context of custody disputes. Montgomery is estimated to have made almost $70,000 over the course of seven years for these expert witness reports.

About the time of Montgomery’s trial, then president of the APS Ros Knight sent an email to members informing them that Montgomery had resigned from his life membership of the society. Knight stated:

“We acknowledge that some APS members may be long term friends and supporters of Bob Montgomery and his family, prior to this case emerging. Whilst the APS does not condone in any way Mr Montgomery’s behaviours, we wish to acknowledge the impact of current proceedings on him and his family’s mental health and hope they are seeking support from these friends through this process.”

Notably absent from the email was a statement that Montgomery had been president of the APS for several years, or any acknowledgement of the impact of Montgomery’s offending on his victims. Nor was there mention of the fact that it’s legally impossible to retain your psychology registration, and therefore APS membership, when you are convicted of a violent crime in Australia.

More than a year later, in August 2021, the APS released a special issue of their member magazine InPsych, titled “Recovery and change: psychology’s role in treating and preventing child sexual abuse”. In both the president’s note (“A proactive agenda against child sexual abuse”) and a position statement (“APS position statement: Child sexual abuse and psychology”) there was no mention of Montgomery’s offences or conviction. The position statement reflects on the need to provide trauma-informed care, yet the issue makes no effort to educate readers on the social, institutional and political factors that, both in Montgomery’s case and more broadly, create the conditions for sexual violence.

An aspect of training for clinical psychology that distinguishes it from other specialisations is the focus on psychopathology. In reductive terms, this is the intimate knowledge that clinical psychologists such as myself have of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM, developed by the American Psychiatric Association, has strong roots in the medical model of mental health, which suggests that mental distress can be neatly categorised into diagnoses with neurochemical underpinnings. The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher reflects on this individualistic approach:

“Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem … provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals … it goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin.”

In light of this chemico-biologisation of mental distress, it becomes clear that psychologists who work exclusively within these paradigms wield a considerable amount of power: they decide who is sick and who is normal. Overreliance on a diagnostic manual encourages psychologists to identify as an Us distinct from a Them, who have been saddled with the wiring errors, faulty cognitions and maladaptive behaviours.

We can see an echo of the individualistic approach in the reaction to Montgomery. We are curious to know what it was about him as a person that made him a child sex offender. We delimit our curiosity to the atomised individual offender, and not the context of his offences, similar to the way in which the DSM strips mental distress of its material context.

 In an episode of Background Briefing, the ABC questioned whether Bob Montgomery was a psychopath. The APS response to date suggests a desire to position him as an outlier. Yet when we choose to focus on the individual factors that underpin Montgomery’s offending, we ignore the significant role that systems of power have played in obscuring his crimes.

There are plenty of people who wield power and don’t abuse it. This is where individual personality characteristics are relevant to understanding why some people, such as Montgomery, do abuse their power. Nevertheless, the presence of power – Montgomery’s power as a Scoutmaster and teacher, and as a successful academic and clinical psychologist – is both the thing that gave him access to vulnerable people who he could abuse and the tool by which he could silence them. After all, who is going to believe the trauma victim and their distorted memories over the word of the former president of the Australian Psychological Society?

When psychologists succumb to the urge to be non-political, and to ignore the role of power structures in the aetiology of distress, there is a risk of perpetuating this power imbalance. When having to acknowledge that Montgomery was able to progress to one of the upper echelons of the profession – and to make a lot of money while doing it – proves too challenging a self-reflection for psychologists, the temptation is to fall back on the medical model of individual flaw. In doing so, such psychologists perpetuate an individualistic perspective that renders them blind to the conditions that make people vulnerable to abuse. We look away, we explain it away. People such as Bob Montgomery become “bad apples”.

I reflect on the words of my colleague Dr Ahona Guha, a clinical and forensic psychologist who works with victim/survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence. In an opinion piece for The Age, Ahona wrote on the idea that “talking about consent is not enough”. She wrote:

“We need to talk about the entitlement that some boys and men feel to women’s bodies and to sex whenever they want it … a cultural paradigm that values sex over all other forms of closeness … None of these factors alone directly lead to rape or sexual assault, but they are all reflective of underlying attitudes that speak to a broad belief that female value lies in sexuality and attractiveness alone … and that male experience of sexual pleasure is paramount.”

In Montgomery’s case, this entitlement extended to the abuse of adolescent boys. It’s not enough for us to examine the symptoms of the problem. If we are not cognisant of the broader power structures within society that create the conditions for sexual violence, we are incapable of treating and preventing it. Sexual violence festers, toxic and unseen, under conditions of unchallenged power. Perpetrators retain control of the narrative, and victims face the extraordinary task of challenging it from a one-down position.

If we as psychologists are not able to reflect on the conditions under which Montgomery flew beneath the radar while insinuating himself into the Family Court system, we cannot notice the elements within our profession that make us vulnerable to disempowering our clients. Under conditions of stress, in the context of death throes capitalism and a global pandemic, it is easy to succumb to a paternalistic medical model. Under such a model, the needs of people who come to us for help – the basic need to connect with another person and be understood by them in the face of suffering – is squashed underneath the heft of a diagnostic manual.

As psychologists we are often empathic and sensitive, uncomfortable with the idea of having power over another. Yet by virtue of our titles and our incomes and our position in the room, on the chair and not on the couch, we do have this power – and we must know it to safeguard against it. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 30, 2021 as "Power dangers".

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Ali Schnabel is a clinical psychologist from Naarm / Melbourne. She works primarily with victim / survivors of sexual violence.