The Danger of Confidentia…

With the high-profile case of Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, so recently in the news, many people are wondering how a doctor was able to get away with sexual abuse of patients for so long. At last count, the number of Nassar's known victims was 265—a staggering number. It appears that while Nassar was the abuser, there were several other people to whom abuse was reported who failed to take the appropriate measures to stop it.

Let that sink in for a moment: people in a position to know that sexual abuse had taken place, and to prevent the abuser from acting again, failed to do so. How can this be? Was it unique to the dynamics of the Nassar case?

Sadly, no. While most cases of sexual abuse by doctors don't involve a prestigious sports team, the organizations in which they occur still have incentives to keep them quiet. These include concern about the reputation of the hospital, clinic, or medical practice, and worries about lost profit if patients choose to seek care elsewhere due to the scandal. A powerful tool to keep abuse survivors from speaking out? Confidential settlements of doctor sexual abuse cases.

Should You Accept a Confidential Settlement?

Ultimately, the decision of whether to accept confidential settlements in doctor sexual abuse cases is between the patient and his or her attorney. You may have your own reasons for not wanting publicity of the case. However, you should be aware of the potential risks of keeping a doctor sexual abuse case confidential, and weigh those against any benefits that confidentiality offers.

One of the reasons many survivors of sexual abuse find the courage to come forward in the first place is to prevent the same thing from happening to someone else. While not all sexual abusers have as many victims as Larry Nassar, sexual abusers are often repeat offenders. Survivors may reason that if the doctor previously abused someone else, and that person had spoken out, their own abuse might have been prevented. For many survivors, the thought that their story could protect someone else, or many other people, is enough to enable them to confront the abuse and abuser through a court action.

When a doctor, medical practice, or hospital offers to settle the case, there may be a significant string attached: the requirement that the settlement remain confidential. On one hand, such a settlement compensates a survivor, at least in part, for what she or he has been through. A settlement resolves the case early and spares the survivor any trauma associated with a trial. And, at least in theory, a confidential settlement preserves the privacy of the survivor as well as the perpetrator and organization.

What many survivors of sexual abuse by doctors don't realize is that a confidential settlement often means a doctor will continue practicing—and continue abusing other patients.

Why Hospitals and Medical Practices Use Confidential Settlements in Doctor Sexual Abuse Cases

Hospitals and medical practices, as noted above, may use confidential settlements to protect their own reputations. Particularly if a doctor who has sexually abused patients is a valued contributor to the organization, the organization may have a financial incentive to protect his ability to practice. Even if the hospital or practice dismisses the doctor, the confidentiality of the settlement means that he may be able to find work elsewhere, and continue his abuse.

That is what happened in the case of a doctor who abused patients at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic. Doctor Ryan Williams was accused of anally raping two patients in 2008 and 2009. He was kept on staff at the Cleveland Clinic while the hospital was in the process of negotiating a confidential settlement. Following the settlements, Williams left the Cleveland Clinic and found work Ohio State University (OSU) Wexner Medical Center. Because a confidential settlement can keep a sexual abuse claim out of the National Practitioner's Data Bank, which hospitals check before hiring doctors, Wexner Medical Center was unaware of the previous cases against Williams until a national newspaper brought the claims to their attention. He was then placed on paid administrative leave pending investigation.

What to Do if You Have Been Sexually Abused by a Doctor

If you are a survivor of sexual abuse by a doctor, your first obligation is to take care of yourself. Many abuse survivors say that reporting the abuse is empowering, though difficult. Seeking therapy with a counselor you can trust will also help.

You may also choose to file a medical malpractice action against the doctor and his employer. Be aware that you have only a limited time to file such a claim. If you do, it can be a powerful way to hold the person who abused you, and the organization that hired him, to account. If you decline to accept a confidential settlement, a medical malpractice action for sexual abuse may also protect future patients.

Speak to an ethical, experienced Oregon medical malpractice attorney about what you can expect from the legal process. If you are supported by attorneys who care about your well-being, not just the financial outcome of the case, taking decisive action can put power back in your hands and help you to heal.

You may also be interested in: