Thursday, July 7, 2016

Physician sexual abuse

In each of these cases, described in public records, the doctors either acknowledged what they’d done or authorities, after investigating, believed the accusations. While the scale and scope of the physicians’ misdeeds varied tremendously, all were allowed to keep their white coats and continue seeing patients, as were hundreds of others like them across the nation.  

In a national investigation, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examined documents that described disturbing acts of physician sexual abuse in every state. Rapes by OB/GYNs, seductions by psychiatrists, fondling by anesthesiologists and ophthalmologists, and molestations by pediatricians and radiologists.

Victims were babies. Adolescents. Women in their 80s. Drug addicts and jail inmates. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse. 

But it could be anyone. Some patients were sedated when they were sexually assaulted. Others didn’t realize at first what had happened because the doctor improperly touched them or photographed them while pretending to do a legitimate medical exam.  

Some doctors were disciplined over a single episode of sexual misconduct. A few physicians — with hundreds of victims — are among the nation’s worst sex offenders. But the toll can’t be measured by numbers alone. For patients, the violations can be life-altering. The betrayal even pushed some to suicide.  

How do doctors get away with exploiting patients for years?  

Some victims say nothing. Intimidated, confused or embarrassed, they fear that no one will take their word over a doctor’s. Colleagues and nurses stay silent.  Hospitals and health care organizations brush off accusations or quietly push doctors out, the investigation found, without reporting them to police or licensing agencies…

But when a physician is the perpetrator, the AJC found, the nation often looks the other way.  

Physician-dominated medical boards gave offenders second chances. Prosecutors dismissed or reduced charges, so doctors could keep practicing and stay off sex offender registries. Communities rallied around them…

The medical profession, however, has never taken on sexual misconduct as a significant priority. And layer upon layer of secrecy makes it nearly impossible for the public, or even the medical community itself, to know the  extent of physician sexual abuse…

The AJC launched its national investigation a year ago after reaching a surprising finding in Georgia: two-thirds of the doctors disciplined in the state for sexual misconduct were permitted to practice again.  

Today, after months of unearthing rarely viewed documents and tracking some cases from beginning to end, the AJC is exposing a phenomenon of physician sexual misconduct that is tolerated  — to one degree or another — in every state in the nation…

Yet many, if not most, cases of physician sexual misconduct remain hidden. The AJC investigation discovered that state boards and hospitals handle some cases secretly. In other cases, medical boards remove once-public orders from their websites or issue documents that cloak sexual misconduct in vague language.  

When cases do come to the public’s attention, they are often brushed off by the medical establishment as freakishly rare. While the vast majority of the nation’s 900,000 doctors do not sexually abuse patients, the AJC found the phenomenon is akin to the priest scandal: It doesn’t necessarily happen every day, but it happens far more often than anyone has acknowledged…

Yet, the AJC found, even doctors who molest patients or subject them to bizarre exams for deviant purposes are frequently seen as sympathetic figures in need of therapy instead of predators who must answer to police. They get a diagnosis. They get a treatment. They come back…

Some states are apparently more forgiving than others when disciplining doctors in sexual misconduct cases. Georgia and Kansas, for example, allowed two of every three doctors publicly disciplined for sexual misconduct to return to practice, orders on board websites show. In Alabama, it was nearly three out of every four. In Minnesota, it was four of every five.  

Nationwide, the AJC found that of the 2,400 doctors publicly disciplined for sexual misconduct, half still have active medical licenses today…

Doctors forced to stop practicing because of sexual misconduct in one state may get a second chance in another…

Even when sexual misconduct ends a doctor’s ability to practice, investigators sometimes uncover a trail of misdeeds that goes back for years or even an entire career, highlighting a system that shielded them…

“It is this court’s belief that you simply were finally being caught and being charged with crimes that were perhaps ongoing for a long period of time,” U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said at sentencing…

During his years battling the Catholic Church to get it to stop protecting predatory priests, Clohessy said he learned one lesson well: “Secrecy is the enemy.”  

He said he sees that enemy at work today when it comes to abusive doctors.  

“This tendency on the part of medical boards and medical officials to err on the side of a quiet suspension or a secret, out-of-court deal, that’s a recipe for disaster,” he said. “Crimes are crimes, no matter who commits them. They need to be reported to and investigated by and prosecuted by the independent professionals in law enforcement.  Period.  Not a panel of your peers, not by some committee of supervisors and not by other people who have earned the same titles you have earned.”

The link contains copious descriptions of individual cases.


  1. Dr. Melvin Levine. A pediatrician, Levine was a nationally known advocate for children with learning disabilities, appearing on “Oprah” and PBS. His nonprofit educational training organization for teachers led to him being recognized as the most admired person in education by Scholastic Press.

    In 2011, a class-action lawsuit accused him of abusing “thousands of pediatric patients,” according to The Boston Globe. That suit followed one in 2005 and complaints in both Massachusetts and North Carolina. He was believed to have sexually abused boys as far back as the mid-1960s. On Feb. 18, 2011, one day after the lawsuit was filed, Levine killed himself...

    Dr. Raymond Reiter. A New Jersey orthopedist, Reiter worked with professional sports teams including the NBA’s New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets and the NFL’s New York Giants. In 2001 he pleaded guilty to one count of criminal sexual assault and four counts of criminal sexual conduct, including an incident in which he removed the bra of an 18-year-old car accident victim, pulled her underwear aside and put his finger into her vagina while rubbing against her.

    His medical license was revoked and he was sentenced to three years in prison. He served one.

    In 2008 the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners allowed him a limited license to update his skills. And in 2011, even though he was a registered sex offender, his license to practice was reinstated with several conditions attached, including psychotherapy, no solo practice, and chaperones for female patients.

    “I’m extremely grateful that I’ve gotten a second chance,” Reiter told The Bergen (N.J.) Record in 2015. “I’ve done the most I can with it, and I’ve grown from my transgression.”

  2. When the board reviewed the women’s statements 13 years ago, it judged them “credible and reasonably consistent” and suspended Leonard’s license.

    Yet today it’s all barely a memory in the Texas capital, where the 65-year-old practices without any restrictions on the patients he can see or the conditions under which he can see them.

    Leonard’s case is a powerful example of the difficulty in prosecuting a well-connected doctor and how that can force a medical board into compromise.

    Although several women went to the police with their complaints, the Travis County attorney’s office took only one of the women’s cases to trial. When it ended in an acquittal, the medical board allowed Leonard to practice as long as he treated only male patients for 10 years. In 2014, he became eligible to treat women again.

    “What (Leonard) did was clearly an abuse of his power over these women,” said Dr. Lee Anderson, a Fort Worth ophthalmologist who served as the board’s president at the time. “But the ugly reality is, what can we actually achieve? I’m certain the acquittal had something to do with softening the suspension.” (continued)

  3. (continued)Leonard declined to be interviewed for this story. He has had no public orders from the board since his 10-year ban on treating women ended...

    After Leonard was arrested, news coverage prompted other women to contact police and the medical board.

    “I just broke down and started crying so bad and thought, ‘How could this happen to me? I’m smarter than this.’ I felt stupid, ashamed and so humiliated.”
    At a public hearing to decide whether to suspend Leonard’s license, the board heard testimony from eight of his accusers. Most described their experiences in graphic detail. All were cross-examined by Leonard’s attorney, Tim Weitz, who frequently asked questions about their medical and criminal histories.

    When Leonard testified, he denied doing anything improper. Pressed on why so many women with no connections to each other would be saying similar things about him, he replied: “I can’t tell you what is going through these people’s minds.”

    Leonard admitted that he paid a female patient $5,000 several years earlier to prevent her from suing him for sexual harassment, but he said the payment was not an admission of wrongdoing.

    “I thought it would be much less (expensive) than going to any kind of hearings or anything like that,” he testified.

    In its order suspending Leonard’s license, the board said allowing the doctor to continue practicing “would constitute a continuing threat to the public welfare.”...

    Without forensic evidence, the case hung largely on Blue’s say-so. The defense pointed out that she had misstated her medical history and portrayed her as someone trying to obtain the painkiller Demerol and game the workers’ compensation system. The judge would not allow the prosecution to mention the other women’s allegations.

    “They painted me as a really bad person and a liar,” Blue said recently. “I mean, this jury is only hearing about me, and I’m thinking about all these other women I’m supposed to represent because their voices were not there.”...

    Summing up his case, prosecutor Gilbert Barrera called Leonard “the worst that the medical community has to offer. The very worst. The most despicable.”

    That wasn’t enough to sway the jury, which took less than two hours to come back with its verdict of acquittal.

    According to a filing by Leonard in a civil case, at least one of the other criminal complaints against him was later resolved with a plea agreement that allowed for his record to be expunged after he successfully completed six months’ deferred adjudication...

    Another accuser who testified in front of the medical board told the AJC that police also investigated her claim that Leonard groped her after giving her an injection that made her groggy. But she said she declined requests from the county attorney’s office to go forward because of the way she was cross-examined by Weitz at the hearing.

    “After the attorney made me feel like some kind of drug addict, I let it go,” said the woman, who asked that her identity not be revealed so she can “put this behind me and move on.”

    She said she still finds it hard to believe that Leonard was allowed to continue practicing. “Why they didn’t just take his license is beyond me,” she said. “I don’t understand it. I’ll never understand it.”...

    In the order allowing Leonard to return to practice, negotiated nine months after his acquittal, the board required the doctor to appear before the panel every six months for the first five years to discuss his compliance. In terminating the order in 2014, the board said the doctor had completed all requirements.

  4. Among those found to have sexually abused patients are some of the most accomplished and admired – revered, even – physicians in the country.

    Their violations range from subjecting patients to lewd remarks during intimate exams, to seducing vulnerable patients, to rape.

    Violators include a physician who served as team doctor for a professional basketball franchise, and another who was president of a psychiatric teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard University.

    Also caught were the president-elect of a national medical society, who resigned before he could take office; and the then-CEO of a New York hospital, found to have violated several patients, including a 15-year-old he saw in the emergency room after she attempted suicide. He told the AJC the allegations were false. But regulators found he exposed and touched the girl’s breasts for no legitimate medical purpose after telling her, “It’s time to go under the cover.”

    Other notables: a medical expert who was sought for interviews on national television, charged with drugging women with spiked drinks; and the author of a book on how doctors should make a healing bond with patients...

    The charm and clinical skills that win doctors the support of their communities also can allow them to manipulate and exploit patients. They may not even see themselves as offenders but as sexually desirable men – they’re almost always men — with a keen sense of patients’ needs...

    Often, they are exposed only when accusations become too numerous to ignore, as with Bill Cosby, or when a highly credible patient gets the courage to come forth.

    That’s because some victims feel shame and guilt, wondering if they did something wrong. Others are even confused as to whether an assault took place at all, since the doctor is an expert and is supposed to touch them. Many believe if they do cry out, authorities will take the doctor’s word over theirs.

    It took a police undercover investigator willing to subject herself to abuse to finally catch a New Jersey eye doctor who had fondled the breasts of multiple patients. A patient in California recorded an examination on his cell phone to report his doctor for fondling him. That doctor, like many, seemed to target a vulnerable patient. The man was a Spanish-speaking workers’ comp patient, not one of the NHL players the orthopedic surgeon also treated as a team doctor.

    Physicians who sexually abuse and violate patients may live “a double life, totally unknown to spouse, friends, or colleagues,” wrote John Sealy, who directed a sexual addiction and offender recovery unit in California and researched at UCLA.

  5. A yearlong investigation conducted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, published last week, uncovered thousands of cases of physician sexual abuse spread across every state in America. Emotions ran deep, especially among patient advocates and sexual violence centers.

    "The results are very concerning," said Laura Palumbo, a spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "It is astounding that, at the systemic level, there seem to be conditions where sexual abuse is allowed to happen and physicians aren't held accountable."

    Violations during physician-patient encounters can cause deep harm to patients since trust is "the absolute cornerstone of the whole relationship," said Julia A. Hallisy, founder and president of the Empowered Patient Coalition. Hallisy is a dentist and has experienced the loss of her daughter to cancer; she understands firsthand that doctors bear witness to some of the happiest and most tragic moments in people's lives.

    Her own experience taught her that "people tend to be nervous, tend to worry, tend to over project that something is wrong with them" before they visit a doctor. Bad experiences make them feel particularly victimized, she said. Her published study of physician errors and misconduct (including sexual) reported by patients found words like "devastation" and phrases like "my life will never be the same" repeating through many of the narratives. Long term effects include trauma and some people stop going to doctors completely, she noted, an incalculable loss with real health impact.

    "Something like a sexual assault situation is such a violation, I think people have a hard time processing it," she said...

    "We believe there's a lot of under-reporting," said Azza AbuDagga, a health services researcher at Public Citizen, an advocacy group. She and her colleagues performed a separate study of physician sexual misconduct in the National Practitioner Data Bank over a period of 10 years ending in 2013. The study, published this year, concluded that a full two-thirds of those doctors with strong evidence of sexual misconduct against them had not been disciplined by medical boards...

    However, allegations may not be forthcoming. According to Sukura, nine out of 10 people her center sees have never and will never report to police or authorities the sexual violence they experienced.

    "Patients are reluctant to report physician sexual misconduct because it's embarrassing to them," said AbuDagga, adding that many patients might be confused once their trust has been violated. She noted that colleagues are hesitant whistle-blowers, as well...

    Reasonable though this may seem, consider the consequences of an experience of sexual abuse. Victims face an increased risk of a diagnosis of multiple psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, sleep disorders, and attempted suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    "The big word is shame and shame is tricky and insidious and does terrible things to people," explained Sukura who has worked with survivors of physician sexual misconduct. Many victims feel intense shame and believe it's their fault and this is "really enhanced," she said, by the fact that the abuser is an educated, venerable doctor. Shame can manifest in physical symptoms, including insomnia and pain. Abused by a dentist or a doctor, she said, some people "disconnect from their own bodies" --- having consented to be touched, they blame themselves, "own" the experience and detach.

    "These crimes go unreported but they also go unshared," said Sukura. People feel they can't talk about it and isolation adds to the emotional impact, she said. "We see people abusing substances, chemicals, alcohol. They're not talking about the fact that they've been assaulted."