Stuart Copperman was, to all appearances, an old school pediatrician. For 35 years, he ran a bustling observe in Merrick, Lengthy Island, the place he was revered by dad and mom as an authority on every thing from colic to chickenpox. Nicely-dressed, affable and tan year-round, he was at all times out there in an emergency, and even made home calls.
When he advised moms that their daughters had been sufficiently old to see him alone — and not using a guardian within the room, so the women might converse freely — they accepted it as sound medical observe. Women who advised their moms that the pediatrician had rubbed their genitals or inserted his fingers into their vaginas had been typically met with disbelief.
“He was such a captivating, affectionate, concerned man — all of us thought he was a god,” stated Dina Ribaudo, 43, who lives in Arizona. “You simply couldn’t think about this shiny, shining gentle ever hurting anybody.” Mr. Copperman began molesting her when she was eight, she stated.
The state Workplace of Skilled Medical Conduct acquired a gentle stream of sexual abuse complaints about Mr. Copperman for practically 20 years, however didn’t strip him of his medical license till December 2000. By then, he was 65 years outdated and able to retire. No prison fees had been ever filed.
Mr. Copperman, 84, declined to remark for this story however prior to now has denied any wrongdoing. His exams had been thorough, he has stated, and carried out in accordance with customary medical observe.
However Ms. Ribaudo and about 50 different former sufferers now hope to sue him for financial damages beneath a brand new regulation in New York State, the Baby Victims Act. The regulation opened a one-year window, starting in August, throughout which victims of childhood intercourse abuse might file civil lawsuits towards abusers even a long time after the crimes occurred.
Kristen Gibbons Feden, a lawyer who prosecuted Invoice Cosby for sexual assault and is now with the agency Stradley Ronon in Philadelphia, has agreed to characterize the ladies. However even when they win in court docket, they’re unlikely to reap important compensation.
Their dilemma highlights a serious weak point within the new state regulation. Although Mr. Copperman is by all indications rich, he was a solo practitioner who ran his observe out of his basement. He lacks the property of an establishment just like the Boy Scouts or a big hospital.
Regulation corporations which have eagerly taken on shoppers concentrating on such well-insured and deep-pocketed establishments — anticipating a wholesome reduce of any jury award or settlement — have shied away from instances towards people like Mr. Copperman. A lot of the greater than 500 civil fits filed beneath the brand new regulation to date have focused the Catholic Church.
However docs particularly will be uniquely positioned to abuse younger sufferers, as some infamous instances just lately have proven. Larry Nassar, the staff physician at U.S.A. Gymnastics, was sentenced to as much as 175 years for sexually abusing gymnasts in his cost.
Earlier this yr, Johnnie Barto, a pediatrician in Johnston, Penn., was sentenced to as much as 158 years in jail for sexual abuse. Earl Bradley, a pediatrician in Lewes, Del., was sentenced to 14 life phrases in 2011.
Scores of males are utilizing the brand new regulation to hunt damages from Rockefeller College Hospital over sexual abuse allegedly dedicated by Dr. Reginald Archibald, who handed away in 2007.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine has urged legislators to evaluate 25 years of intercourse abuse complaints made to the state medical board after discovering it did not take motion towards an Ohio State College doctor, Dr. Richard H. Strauss, regardless of proof he had assaulted male college students.
Docs, and pediatricians particularly, “are the subsequent wave,” stated Marci A. Hamilton, chief govt of Baby U.S.A., an advocacy group primarily based on the College of Pennsylvania targeted on youngster safety.
“These guys have unimaginable entry, and prosecutors had been disinclined to prosecute highly effective docs. Plenty of these guys acquired away with a few years of abuse.”
Mr. Copperman’s victims really feel they had been failed repeatedly by establishments that ought to have protected them. Many see the brand new regulation as their final, greatest probability for justice.
“Stuart Copperman acquired away with every thing,” stated Jeanna Limmer-Salgado, 51, a instructor in Manhattan, whose grievance about sexual abuse within the early 1980s was dismissed by the state medical board. “He’s residing the life, and has been for 20 years.”
Years of penalties
Mr. Copperman lives in Delray Seashore, Fla., however spends summers in Melville, N.Y., at The Greens at Half Hole. It’s a luxurious gated neighborhood catering to “lively adults” with tennis courts, swimming swimming pools, a fitness center with a sauna and a clubhouse for events and neighborhood actions.
The stone gatehouse, staffed 24 hours a day, straddles a river and a lush 18-hole golf course dotted with ponds and fountains. On a latest summer season day, Mr. Copperman advised the guard there to not admit a reporter.
Reached on the cellphone shortly afterward, he stated he did “not care to revisit” the allegations. “It’s been 20 years,” he stated. “I’ve acquired a life right here.” Mr. Copperman’s lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, additionally declined to remark.
Shifting on has not been much less straightforward for a lot of of his former sufferers. In interviews with about 20 of those ladies, many stated they nonetheless can’t bear to be touched in sure methods, and have difficulties with each emotional and sexual intimacy.
Others have struggled with psychological well being points, together with post-traumatic stress dysfunction, alcoholism, heroin habit, consuming problems and agoraphobia.
“I used to be sick so much as a child, and I used to be so scared at any time when I acquired a sore throat and knew I’d need to go to the physician that I couldn’t sleep all night time,” stated Ellen Dombrowski, now in her 50s, a small-business proprietor in Vero Seashore, Fla.
She stated that in her annual bodily, Mr. Copperman rubbed her genitals so arduous that she virtually cried. For years, she was offended at her mom for not believing her when she stated the physician damage her. “That’s simply what docs do,” she recalled her mom saying.
One lady stated her mom slapped her when she described her appointment and accused her of mendacity to get consideration. One other stated her mom advised her she was loopy and will see a therapist.
Even resilient survivors stated they nonetheless expertise flashbacks. Some nonetheless keep away from male physicians, are reluctant to depart their kids with male kinfolk and panic once they take their kids to the physician.
Many stated they’d married and divorced abusive males and spent hundreds of on remedy.
“Plenty of us are effective, however plenty of us are actually badly broken,” stated Dana Marcus, 56, an administrator of the Victims of Stuart Copperman Fb web page.
She stated the physician abused her at each go to, beginning when she was about 10. “We had any individual whom we trusted, who our moms and dads trusted once we had been kids, and we had been betrayed,” she stated.
Ms. Marcus stated Mr. Copperman as soon as molested her in her personal bed room whereas making a “home name” to see her brother. After leaving Lengthy Island for school, she stated, she couldn’t tolerate visiting her dad and mom in her outdated childhood residence.
Ms. Ribaudo stated the physician would carry out a “head to toe examination,” rubbing her genitals and inserting ungloved fingers into her vagina at each go to. “I might go there for a paper reduce, and he would have touched my vagina,” she stated.
Many former sufferers felt violated by the abuse and knew one thing was flawed, however had been unable to articulate what was taking place or persuade an grownup to imagine them.
Terri Ackerman, 58, who nonetheless lives on Lengthy Island, stated that when she was 14, Mr. Copperman advised her she wanted a vaginal “cleansing.” She assumed the process was much like a dental cleansing.
“I felt very uncomfortable, and I keep in mind saying, ‘Are you virtually accomplished?’” she recalled in a latest interview. “However I simply assumed that, like when a health care provider offers you a shot, it hurts. They provide you a throat tradition, it’s uncomfortable.”
[Be taught extra about how dad and mom can educate kids to acknowledge sexual abuse.]
At hearings earlier than the board throughout the summer season and fall of 2000, six former sufferers who lodged complaints throughout the 1990s described Mr. Copperman telling them that they had been “soiled” and wanted a “genital cleansing.” He had them lie on their backs whereas he rubbed and scraped their genitals along with his ungloved arms or finger, in line with the ladies’s testimony.
One lady recognized as Affected person G advised the state board she had turn into sexually aroused by the physician’s manipulations, and two others stated they’d orgasms.
The three-member panel stated Mr. Copperman had displayed “ethical unfitness” to observe medication. “Rubbing the feminine genitalia throughout a bodily examination is at all times inappropriate, whether or not or not gloves are used,” the panel stated.
The state lastly revoked Mr. Copperman’s license in December 2000. Nevertheless it might have acted a lot earlier. Ms. Limmer-Salgado lodged a grievance with the state in 1985; she and one other affected person gave testimony in 1987.
However the three-person panel — consisting of two physicians and a minister — voted two to 1 to dismiss their complaints. The physicians didn’t imagine the ladies.
Mr. Copperman defended the examinations, citing American Academy of Pediatrics pointers recommending an examination of the exterior genitalia as a part of a routine bodily. Consultants say the examination is meant to be extraordinarily temporary, however “I’ve at all times prided myself on being thorough,” Mr. Copperman stated in 2000.
“I’ve at all times tried to reside my life in such a manner that if somebody stated one thing unhealthy about me, nobody would imagine it,” he stated.
‘A dream job’
The instances underscore how tough it may be for sufferers, and particularly kids, to establish sexual abuse in a medical setting, the place sufferers are anticipated to disrobe and anticipate that docs will contact them, sometimes in ways in which really feel uncomfortable or invasive.
The present pattern in medical observe is to encourage adolescents to see a health care provider and not using a guardian within the room, in order that they could elevate points too embarrassing to debate in any other case, like sexual exercise or drug use.
Based on the Society for Adolescent Well being and Drugs, starting in adolescence, “routinely spending at the least a part of every go to alone with every affected person conveys” to sufferers and their dad and mom that that is “a normal a part of adolescent well being care.”
In 1997, Mr. Copperman himself printed a brief article within the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Drugs wherein he urged physicians to fulfill alone with adolescents, and described how he would put together dad and mom years prematurely, so that they weren’t taken abruptly when the time got here.
“He groomed the dad and mom, as effectively,” Ms. Ribaudo stated.
The overwhelming majority of pediatricians are actually not within the occupation to hurt kids, stated Dr. Cindy Christian, a pediatrician at Youngsters’s Hospital of Philadelphia who co-authored a coverage assertion on defending kids from sexual abuse by well being care suppliers.
However Dr. Christian acknowledged that pedophiles could also be drawn to jobs that present entry to kids. “I’ve at all times stated that in the event you’re a pedophile and you will get by way of medical faculty, being a pediatrician is a dream job,” she stated.
In revoking Mr. Copperman’s license, the state medical conduct workplace stated the motion was essential to “guarantee safety for the general public.” However prosecutors in Nassau County, the place Mr. Copperman had served as president of the native pediatric society, didn’t press prison fees, and he by no means needed to register as a intercourse offender.
Officers with the Nassau County District Legal professional’s workplace stated there have been no prison fees due to restrictive state legal guidelines in place on the time.
The ladies who had testified earlier than the state medical board had been already of their 30s. At the moment, state legal guidelines gave them solely till their 23rd birthday to press felony fees, and solely till 20 to press misdemeanor fees.
And due to the best way intercourse crimes had been outlined by state regulation on the time, prosecutors might solely have been in a position to pursue misdemeanor fees, in line with Silvia Finkelstein, a lawyer with the Nassau County District Legal professional’s workplace.
The county’s “particular victims bureau needed to pursue this investigation and produce prison fees,” she stated. “However they wanted to seek out viable fees that weren’t exterior the statute of limitations.”
A spokesman for the district lawyer’s workplace stated the investigative file on the case couldn’t be discovered, and should have been destroyed when a storage facility was flooded. He stated the workplace was not digitized then.
After Mr. Copperman misplaced his license, 19 ladies got here ahead to file formal complaints of sexual abuse with the state. Ms. Finkelstein stated all of the instances had been already previous the statute of limitations.
Toby Kurtz, who was the chief of what was then known as the Intercourse Offense and Home Violence Bureau within the Nassau County D.A.’s workplace in 2000 and is now retired, stated she had no recollection of the Copperman case.
The brand new regulation is meant to take away a few of the authorized limitations to bringing civil and prison fees towards perpetrators of kid sexual abuse. However critics say it does little to assist put pedophiles behind bars, which might shield kids most.
Although the regulation strikes the statute of limitations for urgent prison fees for youngster intercourse abuse by 5 years, giving youngster victims till age 28 to press felony fees and till 25 to press misdemeanor fees, it may well take a long time for adults to return to phrases with abuse they skilled as kids.
Because of this, many different states have altogether eradicated statutes of limitations for bringing prison fees towards perpetrators of kid intercourse abuse, although the adjustments should not retroactive and solely have an effect on instances going ahead, stated Ms. Hamilton of Baby U.S.A.
In that sense, the Baby Victims Act “is a victory for perpetrators,” she stated. “They may be sued and named publicly, so the world will study they’re perpetrators. However they gained’t be behind bars.”
The ladies who need to sue Mr. Copperman know that he gained’t go to jail, they usually say it’s not likely cash that they search.
Lynn Barnett Seigerman, 52, a undertaking supervisor in San Diego, stated she was abused by Mr. Copperman at her annual physicals yearly when she was a youngster.
“I need my day in court docket,” she stated. “I need justice to be served, and I don’t assume it was. I need him to pay, not essentially monetarily — I need him to really feel the disgrace that I felt.”