The University of Michigan is investigating allegations that Robert E. Anderson, former head of the university health service and physician to UM football teams coached by Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr, sexually assaulted youthful patients across decades.
Anderson worked for the university for more than 30 years and died in 2008. As the New York Times reported:
“Michigan said its campus police department had opened an inquiry last summer, after Warde Manuel, the athletic director, received a message from a former student who said that Anderson had engaged in abuse during medical exams in the ’70s. During the investigation, Michigan said, other people described ‘sexual misconduct and unnecessary medical exams,’ including at least one allegation that wrongdoing had occurred in the ’90s.”
UM President Mark Schlissel, publicly acknowledging that university staff knew of student claims about the doctor, apologized, saying, “The patient-physician relationship involves a solemn commitment and trust. The allegations are highly disturbing. On behalf of the university, I apologize to anyone who was harmed by Dr. Anderson.”
The university has appealed to students, alumni, and others with information about Anderson to call an existing hotline, which has fielded roughly two dozen calls about the doctor, dubbed by collegiate athletes “Dr. Drop Your Pants” in discussions with coaches and other school officials. (As an indicator of how the school has been dealing with the scandal, its web site home page includes a prominent yellow box that can be clicked on to report sexual misconduct, see above).
The Detroit News reported that former Detroit resident Robert Julian Stone, now living in Palm Springs, Calif., accused Anderson of sexually assaulting him nearly 50 years ago:
“Stone, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UM during the 1970s, composed an account last summer of the assault that he says occurred when he went for a medical exam in June 1971 with Anderson, who was then head of the UM Student Health Service. After Stone sent his written account to two top UM officials, he spoke with university police and filed a report alleging that Anderson dropped his pants during a medical exam, grabbed Stone’s hand and used it to fondle the doctor’s genitals.”
The newspaper also reported that a woman filed a lawsuit in 1995 against Anderson, “saying she felt violated by the doctor during a medical exam she needed for employment. But the case was dismissed.”
The Detroit Free Press reported, quoting UM’s president, that “five of Anderson’s former patients recently reported he committed sexual misconduct during the 1970s until 2002 … An external firm was hired earlier this year to investigate the allegations … Support and counseling resources will be provided to those who were harmed.”
The Associated Press reported that UM officials decades ago knew of Anderson’s sexual misbehavior and demoted or dismissed him, with his then-supervisor telling police that officials had pressed the doctor to quit because they could put together at least 100 complaints against him if necessary. Olympic wrestler Andy Hrovat also has told the AP that Anderson touched him inappropriately during medical exams during his freshman year in 1998.
The UM charges puts the school in notorious company, with scandals engulfing: Michigan State and the doctor convicted of sex crimes involving hundreds of young female gymnasts; the University of Southern California and two health services staffers, a gynecologist accused of inappropriate behavior with untold numbers of coeds and a doctor under fire for inappropriate conduct with young male students, many of them gay; the University of California at Los Angeles, with claims of wrongful conduct by a health services gynecologist; and Ohio State University, with dozens of young male athletes formally complaining about sexual abuse by a deceased health service doctor, as well as the ignoring of sexual misbehavior in athletic facilities. Penn State University also has scandalized by one of its top football assistant coach’s sexual perversions involving young boys.
The schools will pay out billions of dollars to settle claims, many of which remain unresolved. The institutions have taken a major hit to their reputations.
The UM revelations occurred even as the Boy Scouts, hit with thousands of sexual abuse complaints, declared bankruptcy to protect as much as $1 billion in assets while dealing with sexual misbehavior cases against the organization. ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative site, recently posted a database with the names of thousands of what it says are Catholic clerics credibly accused of sexual abuse — with such cases reinvigorated by state laws extending statutory limits of such claims. And the New York Times reported on the persistent and sketchy medical practice of performing highly invasive pelvic exams on women, often without their consent:
“Pelvic exams necessitate physical inspection of the most sensitive areas of a woman’s body. The exams are typically conducted while the patient is awake and consenting at a gynecologist visit, to screen for certain cancers, infections and other reproductive health issues. But across many U.S. states and medical institutions, physicians are not required to obtain explicit consent for the procedure. Sometimes the exams are conducted — by doctors or doctors-in-training — while women are under anesthesia for gynecological and other operations. Often the exams are deemed medically necessary, but in some cases they are done solely for the educational benefit of medical trainees. At some hospitals, physicians discuss the procedure with patients beforehand or detail its specifics in consent forms, but at others the women are left unaware. There are no numbers to indicate how many pelvic exams have been performed nationwide without consent, but regional surveys suggest that the practice is not uncommon. A 2005 survey at the University of Oklahoma found that a majority of medical students had performed pelvic exams on unconscious patients, and in nearly 3 of 4 instances they thought informed consent had not been obtained. Phoebe Friesen, a biomedical ethicist at McGill University, drew attention to the issue in 2018 with articles in Bioethics and Slate, which elicited stories from other women with the hashtag #MeTooPelvic. Dr. Friesen learned about the subject while leading a bioethics seminar at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where she heard a narrative from some students that amounted to, ‘I can put my hand in this woman’s vagina because it helps with my training.’”
Sorry, that’s wrong. In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, including the sustained injury inflicted on them by sexual misbehavior by doctors, other medical caregivers, 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.
Sadly, as the public has learned from heinous individuals like Larry Nasser and Jerry Sandusky, the victimization of the vulnerable too often occurs too much in the open and for too long. Parents, uncles, aunts, teachers, pediatricians, and others who have strong relationships with the young — youthful men and women — need to offer a compassionate ear but also to reach out at the least sign to help young people deal with abusive situations. It is a growing, unacceptable stain on our society that drip by drip so many respected institutions (including private prep schools of considerable standing) have been forced to fess up — not only to sexual abuse of their charges but also to turning a blind-eye to it.
Critics may have had their field day with yet another “nanny state” initiative announced by California’s first surgeon general: her intention to tackle “adverse childhood experiences” as a priority of her service to the people of her state. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris says that the rigorous evidence is becoming too great to ignore about how early traumas damage young people’s lives for too long, especially without expert interventions.
Her message may be worth considering much more, especially until we all get far more work done to deal with sexual misbehavior by doctors and others in positions of trust against our kids.