Opinion: Doctor sex abuse makes headlines again

The latest story on doctor sex abuse is particularly horrifying. In a sentencing hearing this week, dozens of young women detailed the terrible consequences of Dr. Larry Nassar’s abuse as a physician for USA Gymnastics, the organization that governs competitive gymnastics and trains Olympics gymnasts.

Young women testified of abuse and molestation they experienced as young as six years old and over many years. One mother testified on behalf of her daughter, who committed suicide. Another told of her own suicide attempt. Most described lingering emotional problems including mistrusting others and self-doubt. Like many victims, some were concerned that what was happening to them was unusual, but convinced themselves the physician knew best. Others said they figured no one would believe them if they went up against a world-renowned doctor.

It’s rare we get to hear from victims in these kinds of cases. Nassar, already serving time on pornography charges, has pleaded guilty to 10 counts of sexual conduct with girls, but that was just what was charged in court. More than 100 are suing Nassar for sexual assault as part of medical treatment. More than 90 lined up to testify at this week’s victim impact hearing, including several Olympians.

As we revealed in our doctor sex abuse series in 2016, most doctor sex abusers have multiple victims. The most notorious doctors have scores.

How can this happen, and happen so often? Just like the stories we read about sexual harassment in the workplace, doctor sex abuse is a story of privilege, power and enablers.

Here’s what John Barr and Dan Murphy of ESPN wrote in a story published this week:

“Understanding how Nassar gained unfettered access to young girls and young women over the course of a quarter-century — despite repeated warning signs — means confronting an uncomfortable truth: He didn’t gain that access alone. Nassar was surrounded by a collection of adults who enabled his predatory behavior — a group that included coaches of club, collegiate and elite-level gymnasts, the USA Gymnastics organization, medical professionals, administrators and coaches at Michigan State University, and gymnasts’ parents, whom he groomed just as effectively as those he violated.”

Enabling was at the heart of our series on doctor sex abuse too. Perhaps you recall the horrific story of Dr. Earl Bradley, who abused hundreds of young children. Colleagues referred to him as the “pedophile pediatrician,” yet turned a blind eye. At least eight times over 14 years, suspicious behavior came to the attention of law enforcement, regulators or others who should have stopped him, but didn’t.

Here’s what investigative reporter Alan Judd wrote in our story on Bradley:

Despite its horrific details, Bradley’s case is hardly the anomaly it seems. Rather, it epitomizes the medical culture that enables and excuses sexual misconduct by physicians across the nation, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

The AJC examined more than 100,000 disciplinary records and other documents from state medical boards. Again and again, the newspaper found, a profession that prides itself on self-policing empowers even its most dangerous practitioners.

Regulators, who often are doctors themselves, try to keep accused physicians in practice. The prescription for rehabilitation may amount to little more than a weekend-long seminar on appropriate ‘boundaries.’ Secrecy pervades the disciplinary process, shielding doctors from embarrassment while keeping patients uninformed.”

Just as the university and the gymnastics organization that employed Nassar ignored signs and let him keep practicing, medical boards all over the country return doctor sex abusers to practice. They seem more concerned with the welfare of doctors than patients.

The testimony this week in court in Michigan should remind us all to put patients first.

Here is testimony given by Alexis Moore, one of the gymnasts treated by Nassar, as recounted by CNN.

“For years, Mr. Nassar convinced me that he was the only person who could help me recover from multiple serious injuries. To me, he was like a knight in shining armor. But alas, that shine blinded me from the abuse. He betrayed my trust, took advantage of my trust and sexually abused me hundreds of times.”

Moore said she was 9 years old when she began being treated by Nassar for a broken pelvis.

“Ten years of abuse and neglect,” Moore said. “I don’t like the word victim. I am a survivor, but more so, I am me.

“As a nation, we need to take control. Sexual offenders need to know that they cannot continue with the crimes they are committing, and no matter how long it takes for a survivor to come forward, their crimes will be exposed.”

Let’s all listen to Alexis. As a nation, we need to stop enabling and excusing doctor sex abusers. And we need to hold the medical boards and institutions that govern them accountable.

» Read the AJC's award-winning investigation, Doctors & Sex Abuse: AJC 50-state investigation

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