AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Code of silence, weak laws protect sexual predator doctors

Here’s what’s needed to help stop them


Hundreds of girls and women sexually assaulted by Dr. Larry Nassar might have been spared, had University of Michigan employees who were told of his abuse decades earlier reported him to authorities. 

Michigan’s remedy now, according to news reports about the USA Gymnastics doctor, is to require more people, including college employees, to report suspected child abuse, and to up the penalty for paid professionals, such as doctors and teachers, who fail to report suspected child sexual abuse.

Such changes, though, would not have protected the women Nassar abused, nor other adult patients who have been sexually abused by physicians across the country. In a national investigation, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has compiled information on thousands of doctors accused of sexual abuse. Most of their victims were adults.

The AJC also examined patient protection laws in every state and found dangerous gaps in laws requiring that medical regulators be alerted when doctors are accused of misconduct. 

Every state requires certain health care facilities, such as hospitals, to notify medical regulators when they take away a doctor’s admitting privileges or impose other discipline. But in most states, there are no penalties for hospitals or health care facilities that fail to report, and some don’t set deadlines for reporting. A few states don’t require other types of health care facilities, such as clinics or nursing homes, to report violations, and doctors may not be required to report colleagues.

To break the code of silence that can shield abusive doctors, Delaware implemented the nation’s toughest mandatory reporting laws. 

Every health care facility has a duty to report within 30 days, and the medical board is required to investigate when it receives reports. Fines can range up to $50,000. Law enforcement agencies are required to report new or pending investigations of suspected criminal conduct and the arrest of a doctor. 

Every Delaware doctor is also required to report fellow practitioners when he or she reasonably believes they may be guilty of unprofessional conduct or unfit to practice. The reports must be made within 30 days of becoming aware of the information, and state law imposes a fine or up to $50,000 for non-compliance.

Those laws were also spurred by a notorious case – that of Dr. Earl Bradley, a pediatrician who sexually violated thousands of infants and children. He is now serving a life sentence. 

Michigan is among the states with the most lax laws, the AJC found. Among the shortcomings, Michigan’s law doesn’t stipulate a penalty for health care facilities that fail to report doctors as required.

In Georgia, state law does not require doctors to report fellow physicians, nor are courts required to notify the board of doctors’ criminal convictions. And while hospitals can lose their permit for failure to notify the medical board about actions against doctors involving the medical care of a patient, none has ever received this sanction, state officials told the AJC. A state legislator is now pushing a bill that would require all state health care professionals to report any physician they believe has committed a sexual assault on a patient.

Details on duty-to-report laws in every state are at doctors.ajc.com/states.


Reader Comments ...


About the Author

Norder leads a team of investigative journalists