When he heard his name called, the boy in the waiting room looked up at his mother. “I’m not going in,” he said.
She was baffled. She reminded him that he was there to see “Dr. Rick,” the friendly resident in training who had given him so much attention while he was hospitalized for anorexia nervosa, who gave him a football jersey and a football as presents, and who was now following up with him at an outpatient clinic.
“No,” the boy said. “He makes me get naked. And he touches me. And it hurts.”
That scene, recalled by a now-44-year-old man and his mother in interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, happened more than three decades ago in Boston.
Now Dr. William Richard “Rick” Bonner is a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. This week, the family publicly accused him of child molestation, alleging in a lawsuit that he repeatedly fondled and masturbated a pre-adolescent boy on an exam table in 1984.
Bonner denied the accusations Wednesday in a statement issued through his attorney.
“Dr. Bonner provided appropriate care to the patient at all times and we will defend him against these unfounded accusations,” Boston attorney Jennifer Kogan said in an email.
The accusations come as an ongoing investigative series by the AJC puts scrutiny on the national epidemic of doctor sexual abuse. The newspaper found sexual misconduct to be tolerated, to some extent, in every state. More than 2,400 doctors were sanctioned for violating patients over a 16-year period, though the true number is impossible to know because cases are often handled in secret.
Some accused doctors have been sent to therapy or boundaries courses, then allowed to return to practice. Some were never reported to law enforcement even though state medical regulators believed they committed acts amounting to felonies or misdemeanors.
The lawsuit against Bonner and his former employer seeks unspecified damages and doesn’t name the alleged victim, identifying him as “John Doe” His attorney, Carmen Durso, said one purpose of filing it is to draw out any other victims who could back up the story.
As it stands, the allegations may boil down to a doctor’s word versus another man’s childhood memories.
Bonner has no public disciplinary records on file with either Georgia’s or Massachusetts’ state medical boards. Boston’s Tufts Medical Center, which was then known as New England Medical Center, says it investigated the mother’s allegations at the time and found them “not substantiated.” A spokeswoman did not say if the allegations were reported to police or the medical board.
Kogan said her client wasn’t disciplined nor given chaperone requirements following the mother’s complaint, and he has never faced an accusation of this kind throughout his career.
A statement from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta said it has received no such complaints about Bonner since the hospital hired him in 2003, and a background check turned up no inappropriate or illegal conduct. Children under anesthesia aren’t left alone with anesthesiologists, a spokeswoman added.
The lawsuit’s “John Doe,” whom the AJC is not identifying, said memories of the abuse stuck with him through years, but a recent confluence of events prompted him to finally come forward. His ongoing divorce was part of it, as well as taking his own three children to medical appointments.
“This cost me my marriage,” he said. “You tend to put up walls. There’s lack of trust. There’s emotional and physical intimacy issues sometimes.”
His mother, whom the AJC is also not identifying to protect her son’s identity, said she wishes she’d reported the doctor to police. While her son was hospitalized for an eating disorder, the doctor gave him gifts, some mailed to his home, and gave the family his home phone number, she said.
Her son turned 12 in the hospital. It was during the well visits, the lawsuit alleges, that the doctor began doing medically unnecessary genital exams, including “numerous acts of genital fondling, masturbation and other attempted and threatened acts of assault.”
After the scene in the waiting room, the mother said she confronted Bonner. She said she asked to be present for that day’s exam, and when he said no, she threatened to leave.
“You can leave now,” the doctor said, according to the mother. So they did.
The mother said her son’s psychiatrist told her she believed the boy’s story, as did a hospital mediator who came to their home the following weekend.
The mediator asked her what she wanted the hospital to do, she recalled. She said she wanted Bonner in therapy, his license revoked and for him to be tried in court
But when the mediator pointed out that her son would have to testify and be cross examined, she backed off the third part of the request. She said she never heard anything more on the first and second parts, nor did she reach any settlement agreement.
“My guilt comes from – I never followed up,” the mom said. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with this guy. I remember throwing away all the stuff he had given my son.
“My whole attention was on getting him well,” she said.