Doctors who engage in sexual misconduct with patients are routinely treated as having "impairment" issues and may not be reported to law enforcement, according to new findings in an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In the latest installment in its ongoing series "Doctors & Sex Abuse," the newspaper details how some doctors with egregious violations were able to participate in treatment programs and return to practice, while others quietly retired without facing police scrutiny.
As a result, the physicians avoided criminal charges at a time when society demands punishment for most sex offenders, whether they are college students, teachers, priests or coaches.
"Too often, I think, it's cronyism," said Pauline Trumpi, whose book, "Doctors Who Rape: Malpractice and Misogyny," describes how her psychiatrist drugged and raped her in 1963. "It takes a lot of money and it takes a long time to become a doctor. So they feel empathy for the doctor rather than the victim."
The Journal-Constitution's series, which started in July, is based on a review of thousands of physician disciplinary documents.
According to the newspaper, it's now common across the country for medical regulators to send doctors accused of sexual abuse to treatment.
In virtually every state, regulators use education and treatment programs in which physicians cited for sexual misconduct are evaluated and managed — sometimes with as little as a three-day course on appropriate doctor-patient "boundaries," other times with inpatient mental health treatment that may include yoga and massage.
Therapists who run the programs say the physicians can be safely returned to practice if they meet certain standards and are subject to intervention and monitoring.
"That aberrant behavior is not the entire person," said Philip Hemphill, who for more than a decade oversaw a program for troubled professionals at Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services in Mississippi.
But some patients who have experienced sexual abuse by doctors are skeptical.
The Journal-Constitution also reported on how some doctors who lose their licenses for sexually abusing patients avoid criminal investigations.
According to the newspaper, 39 states and the District of Columbia do not have laws requiring medical regulators to notify police or prosecutors about potential criminal acts against adults. Even in states that require reporting of adult victims, regulators do not always call law enforcement to investigate, the newspaper found.
John Banja, a medical ethicist at Emory University, called the lack of notification to law enforcement "deplorable."
"One of the things that you're going up against here is the historical, traditional sensibility of doctors to protect one another — to give their peers an excessive benefit of the doubt," Banja said.
David LaBahn of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said medical regulators should call in police and prosecutors.
"The moment they open that investigation, I see no downside that the criminal investigation ought to open at the same time," LaBahn said.
In one case cited by the newspaper, the Maryland medical board revoked the license of Dr. Raafat Y. Girgis after three patients complained that the doctor had sexually abused them during medical appointments. Law enforcement officials, however, said they never received the case even though Maryland has a law that requires its medical board to report possible crimes to police.
Now retired in Florida, Girgis told the newspaper in a brief conversation that the allegations were false. He called the medical board "a bunch of animals."
The Journal-Constitution's national investigation found that more than 3,100 doctors were publicly disciplined since Jan. 1, 1999, after being accused of sexual infractions. More than 2,400 were sanctioned for sexual violations that clearly involved patients, and half still have active medical licenses today, the investigation found.
The newspaper also found that many cases of physician sexual misconduct remain hidden, in some cases because medical regulators discipline doctors in private.
For the newspaper's full series, visit www.ajc.com/doctors.