Columbus Dispatch: Accountability must be assured for doctors who abuse patients

Columbus Dispatch

Doctors are supposed to protect patients; university officials are supposed to look out for the well-being of students. People in authority aren’t supposed to protect each other at the expense of the public.

Those truths endure, even though decades have passed since Dr. Richard Strauss used his position as a physician at Ohio State University to sexually abuse what might be hundreds of student athletes. We applaud Gov. Mike DeWine’s determination that doctors or others who had reason to suspect that Strauss was abusing patients — but did nothing about it — should be held accountable.

The inclination to shield professional colleagues from criticism or shame is understandable on a human level but still wrong, especially when the stakes are as high as they are for medical practitioners. Perhaps it is those very stakes that makes some difficult and high-stress professions — doctors and police officers come to mind — especially prone to closing ranks against outside critics.

It’s as plausible a reason as any for why a 1996 investigation by the State Medical Board of Ohio resulted in no finding or action against Strauss even though a separate, concurrent investigation by Ohio State eventually found that Strauss had been “performing inappropriate genital exams on male students for years.”

Regarding cases falling into oblivion, a 15-member panel DeWine appointed to review the medical board’s probe was told by some investigators, that “that sometimes happens.”

We hope that further actions discussed by the medical board will make such negligence less common in the future or at least make it easier to uncover. Ideas include reviewing closed cases regularly to double-check whether closure was appropriate and working more closely with law enforcement to ensure that criminal charges are filed when warranted.

Ohio State during Strauss’ two decades at the university did little better; despite the fact that multiple students complained to multiple doctors about Strauss’ abuse as early as 1979, no one took action to keep him away from students until he went too far with one in 1996.

After the outraged student left Strauss’ office in apparent fury, yelling at other students to get out of there, Strauss was placed on administrative leave. He left two years later, after failing in his fight to be reinstated at the Student Health Center. But he was allowed to keep his faculty appointment until he left and was even given emeritus status, entitling him to perks and benefits.

He never received an unsatisfactory performance evaluation.

A comment by one ex-OSU official, defending his role in the matter, is telling. As director of Student Health Services in the mid-1990s, Dr. Ted Grace knew of two fondling complaints against Strauss by early 1995 but didn’t remove him from seeing students until a year later.

Grace has refused to talk to The Dispatch but told his current hometown newspaper, The Southern Illinoisan, “I felt like I had absolutely done what was right. Taking out a tenured faculty member, it wasn’t easy.”

Neither was being violated by a university doctor.

A latter-day investigation, commissioned by Ohio State and performed between June 2018 and this past spring, concluded that Strauss sexually abused at least 177 students while his colleagues let him be.

The thoroughness and openness of OSU’s recent investigation has been welcome, but the university has yet to fully do right by the students it acknowledges were wronged.

At least seven lawsuits against OSU involving as many as 300 plaintiffs have been consolidated in federal court. Ohio State contends the suits should be dismissed because the statute of limitations for the complaints has expired. It is participating in court-ordered mediation with the former students, but an agreement — and compensation — could be a very long time coming.

The statute-of-limitations claim is frustrating. The Ohio State of today might be far more responsive than the Ohio State of the Strauss era, but it still seems wrong for the institution to have it both ways: to evade legal liability via the statute of limitations when it failed to act on claims that were brought decades ago, almost as soon as Strauss was hired.

The remedy to this is for lawmakers to heed the governor’s call to reform Ohio’s statutes of limitations for sex crimes. By their nature, sexual assaults can remain hidden for decades. Victims, especially children, can be too frightened or traumatized to come forward.

Strauss victims are backing a measure, House Bill 249, which would create a specific legal exception allowing them to sue Ohio State. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Brett Hillyer of Uhrichsville, has said he would consider expanding the bill to address statutes of limitations more broadly. That would be a better solution than singling out one group of victims.

The medical board’s and Ohio State’s efforts to redress wrongs from the past are part of the societywide response to the #MeToo movement. Institutions are struggling to prevent sexual misconduct and to deal effectively with it when it happens.

Ohio State, under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education for earlier failures under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, invested heavily in 2015 in a new Sexual Civility and Empowerment Center, aiming to be a national leader in combating sexual misconduct on campus. Somehow, what followed were accusations of victim-blaming by the staff and failure in at least 57 potential felony cases to report them to police.

Ohio State started over last fall with a new Office of Institutional Equity whose director reports directly to Provost and Executive Vice President Bruce McPheron.

It’s up to people who are tired of the free passes for powerful sexual abusers and their enablers to keep the pressure on for change and redress. It’s not too late for those who ignored Strauss’ abuse to be held to account. And it’s none too soon for Ohio State to do more than apologize.

Columbus Dispatch

Post navigation