By The Guardian Newspaper - 11.08.2023 - [Zhi Alan Cheng[ - [USA]
When prosecutors last week announced a litany of sexual crime charges against the New York City doctor Zhi Alan Cheng, their allegations presented a shocking description of apparent serial predation.
Cheng, a gastroenterologist at New York-Presbyterian-Queens hospital, stands accused of sexually abusing three patients at the medical center – and raping three other women in his apartment.
The 50-count indictment, to which Cheng has pleaded not guilty, came after his arrest in December 2022 on charges of raping another woman at his apartment; she allegedly encountered videos at his home that documented other alleged assaults. The woman’s attorney then contacted authorities, leading to his arrest.
After that woman came forward, authorities searched his apartment, finding a trove of videos purportedly depicting alleged assaults, prosecutors claim. They also allegedly seized recreational drugs; fentanyl, ketamine, cocaine, LSD and MDMA, in addition to powerful medical sedatives, such as propofol and sevoflurane.
What is even more shocking about Cheng’s arrest is that the charges come in the wake of numerous prosecutions of other prominent doctors in New York and across the US on similar allegations that they violated patients at their most vulnerable moments – in a medical setting, where an inherent power imbalance puts them all the more at risk.
Advocates for sexual abuse victims say the cases speaks to continued institutional failures.
Medical facilities, they maintain, can do more to root out potential abusers before abuse takes place. Some are also calling for prosecutors to take action against institutions and their leadership if they don’t act on suspected abuse – or cover it up.
“To keep patients safe, transparency and accountability must be obtained through, for instance, proper background checks, periodic psychiatric evaluations, thorough supervision and continued amendments to criminal and civil laws relative to sexual abusers, supervisors and institutions legally responsible,” said Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented sexual abuse victims for decades, securing thousands of clergy abuse case settlements.
“As a matter of healing and public safety, the irreparable damage caused to the [sexual assault victims] must end.”
News of the allegations against Cheng come two weeks after former Manhattan ob-gyn Robert Hadden was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for sexually abusing numerous patients. Manhattan federal prosecutors said at trial that Hadden “exploited the power differential inherent in the doctor-patient relationship and conducted bogus breast and vaginal examinations to conceal his abuse”.
Hadden even “extracted” early breast milk from his victims and “tasted it”, prosecutors said.
In April, the Manhattan US attorney’s office announced charges against the New York City-region urologist Darius Paduch. They allege that between 2015 and 2019, Paduch “enticed and induced multiple victims to travel to his medical offices at Medical Institution-1, so Paduch could, among other things, sexually abuse the victims”, including minors.
Ricardo Cruciani, a New York City neurologist, was convicted in July 2022 for sexually abusing six patients. These women, who went to him for chronic and disabling pain disorders, were forced into non-consensual sex and he “overprescribed serious pain medication in order to keep them in his care”, Manhattan state prosecutors said. He died of an apparent suicide while jailed awaiting sentencing.
“They’re sick, but they’re not the problem. They’re just a symptom,” said attorney Anthony DiPietro, who represents many of Hadden’s survivors. “The problem is the institutions that cover this up, that lie to patients, that gaslight them and don’t report the abuse to the state like they’re required to do.”
DiPietro said that he has called on state and federal prosecutors to use racketeering statutes to pursue criminal cases against institutions – and those who helm them – in relation to any potential concealment of abuse.
“Go after the institutions because covering up a crime is a crime itself,” DiPietro said. “The minute that there’s a prosecutor in this country that files a Rico charge against an institution like this, watch how fast this stops. The administrators, the trustees, the people who are bystanders in the institutions and turn their backs on patients, as soon as they have skin in the game, that’s when this is going to change, that’s when this is going to end.”
Neama Rahmani, president of West Coast Trial lawyers who previously worked as a federal prosecutor, said that there are practical ways medical institutions can prevent abuse. Rahmani said doctors “shouldn’t be in the room by yourself with a patient”.
“There should always be someone else there. That’s just best practice. A lot of it is just at the institution level – you just need better training.”
As for criminal cases against institutions and those leading them, Rahmani says it might not be a pragmatic approach. Prosecutors, who might well be risk-averse and don’t want to pursue cases they might not win, see particular challenges in bringing charges against institutions.
“Prosecuting institutions or entities, usually there needs to be some sort of knowledge,” Rahmani said, not simply negligence, and likely that “they tried to cover it up”.
“It’s much harder to prosecute third parties for the criminal conduct of others.”
When asked about the allegations against Cheng, New York-Presbyterian said in statement that in December, once they were apprised of prosecutors’ allegations, “he was immediately placed off duty, banned from hospital property, and terminated”.
“We have been fully cooperating with the Queens District Attorney’s office, the NYPD, and the NYS Department of Health,” the health system said in a statement.
Asked for comment, Cheng’s attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, said: “We recognize how serious the charges are and hope to soon review the evidence with our client.”
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact Dignity4Patients, whose helpline is open Monday to Thursday 10am to 4pm.