A powerful man. Women who kept silent for months, even years.
If he did what they say, why’d they take so long to report?
That’s not just a question raised by Trump supporters or Bill Cosby fans. At hearings around the country, that question has been raised when patients accused their doctor of sexual assault.
It was the women’s words against the doctor’s. He claimed their failure to cry out until other women stepped forward showed them to be liars, or out for money, or confused about normal medical procedures.
Medical regulators, and experts who advised them, thought otherwise in some of the thousands of cases of abusive doctors reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. One expert, testifying in the case of a Maryland doctor who preyed on women for years, said it’s common for many sexual assault victims not to report their abuser. “Women react to being molested with disbelief. They blame themselves, and they deny the behavior until they can deny it no longer, and they have to come to terms with it.”
A New York panel, in the case of a doctor accused of abusing 11 patients, also found delays in reporting understandable. “She could anticipate not being believed in her report and feared repeated inquiries into personal matters by strangers.”
Here are common explanations why victims of doctor sex abuse remained silent:
1. Victims think no one will believe them.
“She assumed that if a choice had to be made between her word or (his), ((he) would be the one who would be believed because of the difference in their respective races, genders and professions.” Michigan case.
“It didn’t matter what (I) said because nobody would believe me because I’m on Social Security Disability and he’s a doctor.” Ohio victim.
“I couldn’t believe it myself. I didn’t expect anybody else to.” Victim of another Ohio doctor.
2. Victims are embarrassed and don’t want to recount their ordeal.
“I knew how bad it would be.” A Pennsylvania woman who had previously counseled sexual assault and domestic violence victims explaining why she didn’t go to police until the doctor was arrested. By then, the rheumatologist had assaulted 18 women.
“She felt ashamed like when she was molested as a child.” In another Pennsylvania case, a victim explained why she didn’t report a doctor until he was arrested for multiple counts of rape and indecent assault of patients.
“Her perception of the legal system is sometimes it can make the victim seem like he or she is the one at fault. She did not want to experience that and she did not want to put herself of her family through that.” The reason one of the eight victims of a Massachusetts doctor didn’t go to police until after other victims spoke out and he was arrested.
3. Victims are discouraged from speaking out.
In Ohio, three women assaulted by a doctor during exams told the board others had advised them to keep silent.
A work supervisor: “She stated these were awful big allegations to say about their medical director. She pretty much, in her own words, told me not to bring it up anymore.”
Two confidants: “My friends thought maybe I was exaggerating.”
A victim’s mother: “She advised me not to say anything to anyone, and she said that something very similar had happened to her and she didn’t tell anyone. She said I probably shouldn’t talk about it.”
4. Victims blame themselves.
“The background in which I come from, my kids couldn’t understand how I allowed that to happen. It’s something indicative of how we think in the United States, that it’s the woman’s fault. And that’s the reason I didn’t report it in the beginning, because I – I truly thought that it was my fault, that I let it happen.” Woman explaining why she didn’t report a doctor who molested her and at least four other female patients during exams.
5. Victims are threatened.
In Texas, a doctor’s lawyer responded to a patient’s complaint by saying she was slandering him and facing a lawsuit. Another Texas doctor warned a victim and her brother “their lives would be ruined” if he was reported. In California, a doctor threatened that his attorneys would “turn them into dust” if the family didn’t drop its molestation complaint.
In Florida, a doctor warned a patient if she told her husband, he would cut him off from getting his prescriptions. A Washington doctor told a patient her child would be taken away if she reported him, and he had written in her patient chart that she was a “drug seeker.” In California, a doctor called immigration and the IRS, alleging a patient he sexually violated was an illegal immigrant and had a false Social Security number. In New York, a psychiatrist tried to discredit a patient by bringing up a custody dispute between her and her former husband and her history of alcohol and substance abuse.
But when these three women spoke out, other victims came forward and their abusers went to prison: Cheryl Johnson’s story is here.
The AJC is continuing to investigate abusive doctors across the nation. Read our investigation so far at doctors.ajc.com. Coming up in November: How well does your state protect patients?