Big Blue has hundreds of reasons to be red-faced about a 240-page, independent inquiry that offers disturbing, black-and-white evidence that ought to be heeded by higher educational institutions nationwide: Young men can be sexually preyed upon by doctors, too.
The University of Michigan, in fact, ignored four decades of exploitative and abusive conduct by Robert Anderson, a team doctor, member of the medical school faculty, and senior physician in the student health service, the investigators reported.
He performed hundreds of invasive, unnecessary, and outright perverse exams on UM students, most of them male. Many were athletes on the school’s nationally known teams or who disclosed to the doctor that they were gay.
His misconduct was widely known on campus, with young men — especially football players and fraternity brothers — referring to Anderson as “Handy Andy,” “Goldfinger,” “Dr. Handerson,” and “Dr. Drop Your Drawers Anderson.”
Anderson is dead, as are multiple university officials who investigators from the UM-retained firm WilmerHale implicated in the doctor’s scandalous behavior by ignoring it, as the Detroit Free Press reported:
“According to the report, legendary football coach Bo Schembechler was told about Anderson’s misconduct. Several football players notified Schembechler about Anderson’s behavior, the report says. A member of the football team in the late 1970s told police he asked the coach ‘soon’ after an exam, ‘What’s up with the finger in the butt treatment by Dr. Anderson?’ Schembechler told the player to ‘toughen up’ according to the report, which does not provide any more detail about the incident or what police did with the information.”
Investigators also found that wrestling coach Bill Johannesen was told of inappropriate conduct by the doctor, though no evidence was found that he acted on the complaint. They found that Thomas Easthope, who was then assistant vice president of student services with oversight for UM Health Services, learned of Anderson’s perverse conduct. He asserted that he had fired the doctor, but investigators did not find evidence of this. Instead, they detailed how the doctor moved around in positions on and off campus but still retained access to students, some of whom kept their silence because Anderson may have helped them obtain draft deferments during the Vietnam War. Easthope died in February, and his boss, then-vice president for student services Henry Johnson, has said he knew nothing about problems with the doctor.
Anderson’s misbehavior inflicted significant harms, despite macho attempts to dismiss it, the Detroit News reported:
“His misconduct led some athletes to quit their teams, prompted other students to question their sexuality, negatively impacted the academic performance of some students and forced others to leave the university, the [investigators’] report says [finding] ‘The trauma that Dr. Anderson’s misconduct caused persists to this day.’”
Investigators said they examined more than 2 million documents and interviewed 300 people, taking information from a total of 800. They conceded that key figures declined to talk with them, with more than 200 onetime students having filed lawsuits against the university and hundreds involved in legal mediation with the school. The incidents occurred for so long and so long ago that a full accounting of Anderson’s misbehavior may not be possible.
The university apologized again for failing to protect students. Investigators said much has changed over the years to prevent similar situations, including UM adopting extensive policies against sexual misconduct by faculty and staff and requiring adults to report any hint of abusive behaviors. The outside counsel cautioned the school that it needed to ensure that the culture of its athletic programs does not foreclose frank disclosures of sexually abusive behaviors, notably when they affect young men.
It is not only young women but young men who also can be preyed upon by trusted adults, Michigan officials have learned in their scandal, which has distressing echoes of the nightmarish case that occurred at Ohio State University. In Columbus, school officials have agreed to pay $41 million to settle some of the hundreds of lawsuits that were filed over OSU’s failure to stop the sexual wrongdoing for decades by Richard Strauss, a team doctor who killed himself.
Medical authorities in Ohio have reopened dozens of cases involving claims of sexual misbehavior by doctors after investigations showed how Strauss retained his license even as there were more disclosures about the harms he caused.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on children and youths by sexual abuse, especially wrongdoing by doctors and others in positions of leadership and trust.
It is unacceptable for our young people to be sexually exploited by adults and especially by those trained and licensed to provide them medical care. It is exasperating and wrong for individuals and leaders to ignore young people when they report sexual abuse or to turn a blind eye to sexual wrongdoing by adults against the young.
The cases have piled up in ghastly fashion, with the University of Southern California recently agreeing to pay $1.1 billion to resolve complaints over sexual misbehavior of a gynecologist in its student health services. His perverse conduct went on for years, as he examined an estimated 17,000 young women.
As the New York Times reported of USC’s decision:
“The settlement at USC is twice the size of the half a billion dollars won by victims of Lawrence G. Nassar, the Michigan State University physician who sexually abused young women under the guise of medical treatment. It dwarfs other payments, like those in the sex abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University. And it is larger than many of the settlements that followed the child sex abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.”
The New York Times reported that the Boy Scouts may be forced to settle its sexual misconduct cases in bankruptcy with payments estimated to run between $2.4 billion and $7.1 billion, while also footing what a judge has called “staggering” costs to resolve the claims.
To those who criticize plaintiff and malpractice lawyers, the torrent of sexual abuse cases may be the tragic evidence that, without expensive lawsuits, some individuals and institutions will not act as they should and will not make changes they must. News organizations deserve credit for their work in unearthing these tawdry abuses. But, really, it takes crusading journalists or crushing legal settlements to get a whole lot of people to do the right thing for young folks who were in their care to start?
We have much work to do to safeguard our young women and men for sexual predators, including those wearing white clinical coats.