The case of a psychiatrist who used tales of witchcraft and evil spirits to manipulate patients into sex could spur a change in Oklahoma law, criminalizing sexual exploitation of patients by therapists.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed the extent of Dr. Kyle L. Stewart's mistreatment of female patients last year as part of its nationwide investigation into doctors and sexual abuse.
The AJC's news partner in Tulsa, Fox 23, helped report the story locally, and Oklahoma State Sen. Josh Brecheen found it so disturbing that he's reintroduced a measure that failed five years ago. Had that law been passed, it could have been used to charge Stewart.
"We wanted to have a cause and effect," Brecheen told the AJC last year, speaking of his 2012 bill. "If you’re willing to expose someone to trauma that they will pay for for the rest of their life, we are going to make it cost you."
The cost he's proposing would be in dollars, though, not in jail time.
Brecheen's bill would have Oklahoma join about two dozen states, including Georgia, with laws against sex between mental health care providers and patients, or between doctors and patients, or both. But Oklahoma would only fine offenders, whereas other states have laws on mental heath professionals that include possible jail time.
In Georgia, for example, a therapist who has sex with an adult patient can be charged with sexual assault and sent to prison for up to 25 years. In Florida, the sentence can be up to five years for a first offense and up to 15 years for a second offense.
Brecheen's "Protection Against Sexual Exploitation By a Mental Health Services Provider Act" would make a single act with one patient a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $5,000 fine, multiple acts with one patient a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $10,000 fine, and multiple acts with more than one patient a felony punishable by up to a $20,000 fine. The law also covers sexual acts with former patients.
The senator told Fox 23 he's considering adding jail time, but he wants feedback from his colleagues first. His 2012 version passed unanimously in the Senate, then died in a committee before reaching a House vote.
“There wasn’t the desire to advance this,” Brecheen, a Republican from Coalgate, told the AJC. “This could be different now, because this instance in Bartlesville has brought this issue to light.”
Two women accused Stewart in lawsuits of sexually abusing them during appointments in his office, using religion and tales of the supernatural to manipulate them into sex acts. Both say they were emotionally vulnerable and had been molested as children. They say he convinced them they had multiple personalities that could seize control of their bodies, that their mothers had given them over to witchcraft as babies, and that they were powerful witches.
"I was in a state of terror," one victim recalled through tears in an interview with the AJC, which usually does not publish the names of sexual exploitation victims.
The other woman quoted Stewart as telling her once, "We have been having sex all this time because you’re a witch and you have been seducing me, because witches have no purpose for men."
The AJC also reported that another of Stewart's patients, Andi Higbee, committed suicide in 2003. The next day Stewart went to the Bartlesville Police Department and told a detective that Higbee had been involved in witchcraft and had multiple personalities, and that he had three or four other female patients who were "satanic or demonized," according to a police report. One of the women suing Stewart for medical malpractice said her abuse dated back to the early 2000s, so she could have been one of the patients he was referring to.
But Bartlesville police did not act on the information, nor did they report the doctor to the state medical board. Stewart has not been accused of having an improper relationship with Higbee, and it’s not clear if her death was connected to her treatment. But if someone had investigated Stewart's bizarre prognosis of Higbee and others, his behavior with female patients might have come to light sooner.
Stewart admitted to predatory sexual behavior against one of the women suing him when he surrendered his license to the Oklahoma medical board in 2014. The board allowed him to quietly retire and decided not to report him to law enforcement. Though Brecheen's bill had failed, charges could have been possible based on other aspects of Stewart's behavior, according to an Oklahoma legal expert. Stewart has refused to talk to the AJC and Fox 23 about his case.
You can read the AJC's investigative story on Dr. Kyle L. Stewart by clicking here.
Read more of the AJC's award-winning Doctors & Sex Abuse series here.