A long-time psychologist who had an intimate and physically abusive relationship with a mentally ill patient has been de-registered.
Vincent Cicconi, who practiced in Moonee Ponds, was reprimanded and found guilty of professional misconduct for the three-year relationship with a female patient 20 years his junior.
The patient, who cannot be named, first met Mr Cicconi in April 2008 for treatment for her depression, anxiety and personality disorder, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal heard.
The patient abused alcohol, ecstasy and cannabis and Mr Cicconi described her to Centrelink as “basically homeless” and “unable to look for work, given her mental state”, the tribunal heard.
After the third consultation, the relationship between Mr Cicconi and his patient became “unorthodox” when he invited her to have lunch with him at a cafe. This was followed by repeated shared meals, him giving her lifts home after consultations, going to the cinema, restaurants and concerts together and him giving her money.
The professional relationship ended after about two months but the sexual relationship began a short time later.
The Australian Psychological Society’s code of ethics states that psychologists cannot have sex with a former patient for at least two years after the professional relationship has ended, and even then, it must be discussed with a senior psychologist. The patient is also encouraged to have independent counselling.
Mr Cicconi allowed his patient to stay overnight at his house and at the end of 2008, she moved into his home for about two months.
In their recently published judgment, VCAT deputy president Heather Lambrick and members John Farhall and Marian Power said the relationship between Mr Cicconi and his patient was “erratic and tumultuous” and “characterised by conflict, recriminations, separations and reconciliations”.
In March 2010, during an argument at his house, Mr Cicconi punched the patient in the face. Police later successfully sought an intervention order on her behalf against Mr Cicconi.
In February 2011, the pair had a “physical conflict” which left her with a bloody hand. Mr Cicconi was granted a diversion on an assault charge in court, meaning no conviction was recorded.
Despite this, contact between Mr Cicconi and the patient continued, and in 2012, they met again and had sex.
Months earlier, Mr Cicconi lied to the Psychology Board of Australia when it asked him for contact details for the patient.
The tribunal, describing the patient as “extremely vulnerable”, said the violence, sexual relationship and living arrangements between Mr Cicconi and the patient were “reprehensible”.
“Mr Cicconi should have realised that his own objectivity and capacity to provide appropriate treatment and care would be impaired,” the tribunal said. “The psychologist and patient relationship should have been immediately terminated with appropriate arrangements put in place for (the patient’s) ongoing care. This did not occur.”
The tribunal said that although it accepted Mr Cicconi was not adequately qualified to deal with the patient’s complex needs, he should have referred her on to someone who was, and not pursued a relationship.
It added that it could not rationalise the patient’s vulnerability and the inherent power imbalance in the relationship and that the entire profession was brought into disrepute when practitioners exploited professional relationships for their own advantage.
Mr Cicconi was reprimanded and his registration was cancelled, effective mid-May. He is not allowed to reapply for registration for 15 months after the cancellation begins, and will need to show that the conduct will not be repeated.
Source: Adrian Lowe, “Sex with patient costs psychologist his job,” The Age, April 30, 2013.