Updated: Nov 14
By Catalina Gonelle - Gothamist - 06.11.2023 - [USA] Hundreds of victims are seeking to hold prominent hospitals in New York City accountable after they allege their doctors sexually abused them – and the medical institutions knew about it, but failed to protect them.
The onset of the #MeToo movement in 2017 brought heightened scrutiny to men using their positions of power to perpetuate abuse. It also brought new focus to the institutions that either failed to investigate allegations or actively sought to conceal them from the public. But advocates said the medical industry, cloaked in prestige, hasn’t seen a similar reckoning.
In the cases of the three doctors – Robbert Hadden, Darius Paduch and Zhi Alan Cheng – scores of survivors said the arrests and conviction of the individual men, while important, would do little to address the institutional negligence that allowed the sexual abuse to carry on for years. But institutional accountability has proved to be elusive. Alleged institutional negligence
Former patients of all three doctors said they told the hospitals employing them of the alleged abuse and filed complaints to police and oversight agencies. But the hospitals, they said, failed to take action to protect patients.
ProPublica reported in September that Columbia University’s own records show the victims repeatedly tried to warn doctors and staff there about Hadden, and officials failed to take action. After he was first arrested in 2012 when a patient reported him to police, supervisors at Columbia and New York Presbyterian — the Columbia-affiliated system where he was an attending doctor — sent him a letter telling him he could continue practicing as long as he adhered to the practice of having a chaperone, ProPublica reported. Once his crimes became clear, Columbia waited months to tell patients he wasn’t working and omitting the reason why, the Propublica investigation said.
In 2021 City and State reported in 2021 that the New York state Department of Health’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct was also slow to hold doctors accountable. Attorneys for Hadden’s accusers said at least two alleged victims had complained to the agency in 2012 and 2014, years before he lost his license.
Paduch’s former patients have also said they alerted NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell and Northwell Health, a hospital he worked at after Weill Cornell, as far back as 2011 about the doctor’s alleged abuse, and were largely dismissed, according to lawsuits filed on their behalf by attorneys at the firm PCVA PLLC.
In emails sent to NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell and Northwell Health, former Paduch patient Tucker Coburn in September 2020 alerted the hospitals to a police report he filed against the doctor for alleged sexual abuse in 2016.
“New York - Presbyterian Hospital failed to even respond to Plaintiff’s notification,” the lawsuit he filed states. Paduch continued practicing until he was arrested in April of 2023.
Weill Cornell spokesperson Sarah Smith told Gothamist the conduct described in the lawsuits was “extremely disturbing.” Northwell Health spokesperson Barbara Osborn told Gothamist the organization was cooperating with the appropriate authorities as they continue to investigate.
“Northwell Health strives to provide the highest level of care to its patients, patients’ families and communities and we take these allegations very seriously,” Osborn said. Smith issued a similar statement.
“No patient who entrusts us with their care should ever experience such appalling behavior,” Smith said in a statement. “We continue to cooperate fully with law enforcement and are committed to maintaining the highest professional and ethical standards. We are continually improving our policies, which includes mandatory training for all faculty and staff.”
Neither addressed questions about allegations that the hospital systems concealed or allowed the doctors to continue their alleged abuses after patients had come forward. Columbia University did not respond to a request for comment.
Two other law firms — Liakas Law, P.C. and Slater Slater Schulman LLP — said they filed a lawsuit against NewYork-Presbyterian in June on behalf of a 19-year-old patient who alleges she was drugged and sexually assaulted by former gastroenterologist Zhi Alan Cheng. The lawsuit accuses the hospital of covering up the abuse.
The suit alleges the plaintiff told the hospital a doctor had entered her room and gave her a painful injection that caused her to lose consciousness in June 2021. According to the plaintiff, the hospital conducted a lineup, and she identified Cheng.
According to the lawsuit, the hospital made no notes about the lineup in medical records, did not notify police and failed to suspend or terminate Cheng. Further, days after the hospital conducted the lineup, records indicate that he provided medical treatment to the patient while she was under sedation, according to the suit. Cheng continued to work until he was arrested in December of 2022, after another woman reported him to police.
"Our client fully expected when she was admitted to NewYork-Presbyterian that she would be treated with the care and skill required and expected of a world-class hospital system in New York State," said Nicholas Liakas, Partner of Liakas Law, P.C. in a statement. "Instead, by the time she was discharged five days later, she had been injected with an unknown drug, rendered unconscious, and was filmed being violently sexually assaulted by Dr. Zhi Alan Cheng. What's more, we have evidence that the hospital system knew our client had been sexually assaulted and conspired to cover it up, never disclosing the incident to the victim or police. Worse, they permitted Dr. Cheng to continue to treat our client after the assault and employed him for nearly a year after.”
NewYork-Presbyterian spokesperson Angela Smith Karafazli said the hospital was fully cooperating with the Queens District Attorney’s office, the NYPD and the NYS Department of Health.
“The crimes committed by this individual are heinous, despicable, and a fundamental betrayal of our mission and our patients’ trust. We are appalled and deeply saddened by what these victims and their families have endured,” Karafazli said. “We have numerous stringent patient safety policies and protocols in place and our exhaustive review of this matter included an analysis of compliance with those policies, as well as the immediate implementation of additional training for all employees.”
Institutional accountability through other means
Former Hadden patient Marissa Hoechstetter was among the first women to go public about her abuse, leading a relentless effort to see him federally prosecuted after he had evaded prison time when he pleaded guilty to sexual abuse in state court in 2016. But Hoechstetter said the path to seeking institutional accountability is less clear.
Two avenues forward in that pursuit is raising public awareness and the civil courts system, she said.
“We don't offer survivors many options for recourse, and the institution, the employers, these enablers, don't voluntarily step forward and offer anything, and so the only thing that we have really to use is our voices,” Hoechstetter said. “The civil lawsuits [are] one of the only ways that survivors have to hold these institutions accountable.”
Last month, the DiPietro Law Firm filed 300 lawsuits on behalf of Hadden’s victims against the doctor, along with Columbia University and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, bringing the total number of victims who have sued to 538, according to the firm. The lawsuits claim that Hadden’s sexual abuse of his pateints was covered up, and actively concealed by the hospitals.
Columbia University has already reached two settlements involving 231 patients, totaling $236 million.
More lawsuits continue to be filed against Paduch and the hospitals he worked at as well. Another 19 lawsuits were filed earlier this month by attorneys at law firm PCVA PLLC on behalf of former patients who allege they were sexually abused during medical exams, bringing the total number of suits against him to over 160.
The law firm has removed Paduch as a defendant from the initial lawsuits, which predate his criminal charges. But the suit continues against the hospitals he worked at, including NewYork Presbyterian Weill Cornell and Northwell Health.
“The focus of our lawsuits is on negligence, the hospital's failure to protect the patients that are in their care,” said PCVA attorney Mallory Allen. “It's very apparent that there is a systemic failure happening here. They are failing their patients, failing to keep them safe from predatory physicians.”
Beyond suing, survivors are also urging medical institutions to conduct investigations and asking oversight agencies to do the same.
In a letter to Attorney General Letitia James last week survivors of Hadden asked for an investigation into Columbia University’s role in concealing his crimes while he worked there.
“As the authority that oversees not-for-profit organizations in New York, we seek your assistance in an investigation that should include, but not be limited to, Columbia’s institutional failure to report and properly investigate allegations of improper sexual conduct by Robert Hadden, the University’s intimidation and retaliatory tactics against survivors who came forward, and its conduct with law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office during investigations,” the letter reads.
Last month, survivors of Hadden were joined by elected officials and Columbia students at a rally outside the school demanding the institution investigate how the doctor was able to abuse patients under their care for decades.
"I called 911 in 2012 at my postpartum appointment,” survivor and advocate Laurie Kanyok told CBS News at the rally Tuesday. “He was arrested. They vacated the arrest, and they let him practice medicine. That stands the hair on my arms up. It's unfathomable that they would put a predator back in the office.”
The group of Hadden survivors also called on the institution to notify his former patients of the abuse — a measure former patients of Paduch are also seeking.
Earlier this month, a group of 45 former patients of Paduch’s sent a letter to the New York State Department of Health’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct pleading for an investigation into NewYork Presbyterian-Weill Cornell and Northwell Health, the hospitals that employed him until he was arrested and federally charged in April. He pleaded not guilty.
The letter, sent through the law firm representing the patients in lawsuits against the institutions, demands that the agency require hospitals to put physicians accused of sexual abuse on leave while they conduct investigations and work to strengthen patient protections.
“The sexual abuse involved fondling and masturbating their genitals, conducting medically unnecessary prostate ‘exams,’ obtaining medically unnecessary semen samples, photographing patients’ genitalia, and engaging in numerous other sexual violations that had no conceivable medical basis.” the letter read. “Both New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell and Northwell Health received multiple complaints about Dr. Paduch’s abuse from patients and their own employees, but despite being made aware of the situation, failed to properly investigate these concerns and allowed Dr. Paduch to continue practicing medicine and seeing patients for years.”
“We believe that an inquiry is vital to uncover the systemic issues that may have contributed to the prolonged abuse suffered by Dr. Paduch’s patients, to hold those responsible accountable, and to prevent such horrific abuses from happening in the future,” it goes on to state.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health confirmed the agency received the letter and is reviewing the matter.
The actions come just a month out from the expiration of the year-long lookback window afforded by New York’s Adult Survivor Act passed last year, which allowed victims to file lawsuits for abuse without a statute of limitations for a year, or until Nov. 23 of this year. 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.