More than 2,400 U.S. doctors have been sanctioned for sexually abusing their patients, according to a new report that, for the first time, surveyed records from all 50 states and reveals the nationwide scope of a problem that may be almost as far-reaching as the scandal involving Catholic priests.
State medical boards, which oversee physicians, allowed more than half the sanctioned doctors to keep their licenses even after the accusations of sexual abuse were determined to be true, according to a yearlong investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“We found a culture of secrecy,” said Carrie Teegardin, a reporter on the paper’s investigative team for the project.
“It’s treated with a sort of secrecy that we don’t see in other arenas when we’re talking about allegations this serious,” she told ABC News. “It’s still swept under the rug in so many cases.”
Some high-profile cases have led to criminal prosecutions.
In New York City the former head of clinical research at the Mount Sinai hospital emergency room, Dr. David Newman, is facing charges that he abused four of his female patients, including one he allegedly drugged while she was in the ER.
Newman has pleaded not guilty to charges, and the hospital said he no longer works there.
If convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a famous physician or if you’re a famous anything, you got to follow the law,” said Michael Hestrin, the district attorney in Riverside County, California.
Hestrin’s office is prosecuting a doctor in his county accused of 26 felony counts of sexual assault.
Dr. John McGuire has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is being held in jail on a $3 million bond. His license has been suspended by the state medical board.
According to a civil complaint, McGuire sexually assaulted a patient recovering in a private room from the effects of anesthesia. He allegedly lifted the “plaintiff’s gown and placed his ungloved hands on her bare breasts and felt all around looking for ‘swelling.’”
In another alleged incident, the lawsuit claims McGuire “rubbed plaintiff’s vagina with an ungloved hand and fingers,” supposedly to check on a rash.
“Dr. McGuire stands charged of at least three forcible rapes,” according to John Mittelman, a lawyer representing a group of female patients suing McGuire.
“When you have a predator like Dr. McGuire, they’re not thinking like the rest of us, the rest of doctors,” said Mittelman. “They’re concerned only about one thing, and that’s their personal gratification. How else can you explain a doctor having sex with an unconscious patient?”
Even after being convicted of sex crimes and losing their licenses, doctors are often able to reapply to practice again.
Dr. David Mata, once praised on the floor of Congress as a “great humanitarian” and named doctor of the year in Oregon, was accused of 140 counts of sexual abuse of patients.
He pleaded guilty to six counts of sexual acts with patients but was not sentenced to prison and served his probation at home.
The California medical board revoked his license, but only after a three-year investigation, during which he was able to see patients, as long as an observer was in the examination room.
Asked if he wanted to apologize to his patients, Mata told ABC News, through a screen door, that he “empathized” with them but maintained his innocence.
He is eligible to reapply for his license, although he said he is now retired and does not plan to practice again.
The Journal-Constitution investigation began with a story about one Georgia doctor that led to efforts to document the problem nationwide.
By combing through news reports, state medical board records and court files going back 16 years, the Journal-Constitution's reporters compiled a list of physicians who were either convicted in criminal cases or disciplined by state medical boards.
The reporters found many of the doctors were accused by large numbers of their patients, in most cases females being seen by male doctors.
“One thing we found that was shocking to us is some of these doctors are the most prolific sex offenders in the country, with hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of victims,” Teegardin said.
She said doctors who abuse trade on the trust their patients put in them.
“When you go to a physician, you’re in a private room, and you disrobe because you need to have an exam,” she said.
Reminiscent of the early days of the Vatican’s handling of sexual abuse allegations involving priests, the American medical establishment has sought to downplay or ignore the issue with doctors.
“Those who are in charge of licensing physicians have a belief that they can be safely returned to exam rooms,” said Teegardin.
There are around 900,000 doctors licensed the practice in the U.S., according to the Journal-Constitution. Requests from ABC News to interview the newly elected president of the American Medical Association, Dr. Andrew Gurman, were turned down by association officials.
The AMA declined to comment specifically on the new report and, when pressed, provided only a copy of the AMA ethical guidelines on sexual misconduct.
ABC News’ Esther Castillejo contributed to this report.