These Women Say a Trusted Pediatrician Abused Them as Girls. Now They Plan to Sue.

By | October 9, 2019

Stuart Copperman was, to all appearances, an old-fashioned pediatrician. For 35 years, he ran a bustling practice in Merrick, Long Island, where he was revered by parents as an authority on everything from colic to chickenpox. Well-dressed, affable and tan year-round, he was always available in an emergency, and even made house calls.

When he told mothers that their daughters were old enough to see him alone — without a parent in the room, so the girls could speak freely — they accepted it as sound medical practice. Girls who told their mothers that the pediatrician had rubbed their genitals or inserted his fingers into their vaginas were often met with disbelief.

“He was such a charming, affectionate, involved man — we all thought he was a god,” said Dina Ribaudo, 43, who lives in Arizona. “You just couldn’t imagine this bright, shining light ever hurting anyone.” Mr. Copperman started molesting her when she was 8, she said.

The state Office of Professional Medical Conduct received a steady stream of sexual abuse complaints about Mr. Copperman for nearly two decades, but did not strip him of his medical license until December 2000. By then, he was 65 years old and ready to retire. No criminal charges were ever filed.

Mr. Copperman, 84, declined to comment for this story but in the past has denied any wrongdoing. His exams were thorough, he has said, and performed in accordance with standard medical practice.

But Ms. Ribaudo and about 50 other former patients now hope to sue him for monetary damages under a new law in New York State, the Child Victims Act. The law opened a one-year window, beginning in August, during which victims of childhood sex abuse may file civil lawsuits against abusers even decades after the crimes occurred.

Kristen Gibbons Feden, a lawyer who prosecuted Bill Cosby for sexual assault and is now with the firm Stradley Ronon in Philadelphia, has agreed to represent the women. But even if they win in court, they are unlikely to reap significant compensation.

Their dilemma highlights a major weakness in the new state law. Though Mr. Copperman is by all indications wealthy, he was a solo practitioner who ran his practice out of his basement. He lacks the assets of an institution like the Boy Scouts or a large hospital.

Law firms that have eagerly taken on clients targeting such well-insured and deep-pocketed institutions — anticipating a healthy cut of any jury award or settlement — have shied away from cases against individuals like Mr. Copperman. Most of the more than 500 civil suits filed under the new law so far have targeted the Catholic Church.

But doctors in particular can be uniquely positioned to abuse young patients, as some notorious cases recently have shown. Larry Nassar, the team doctor at U.S.A. Gymnastics, was sentenced to up to 175 years for sexually abusing gymnasts in his charge.

Earlier this year, Johnnie Barto, a pediatrician in Johnstown, Penn., was sentenced to up to 158 years in prison for sexual abuse. Earl Bradley, a pediatrician in Lewes, Del., was sentenced to 14 life terms in 2011.

Scores of men are using the new law to seek damages from Rockefeller University Hospital over sexual abuse allegedly committed by Dr. Reginald Archibald, who passed away in 2007.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine has urged legislators to review 25 years of sex abuse complaints made to the state medical board after finding it failed to take action against an Ohio State University physician, Dr. Richard H. Strauss, despite evidence he had assaulted male students.

Doctors, and pediatricians in particular, “are the next wave,” said Marci A. Hamilton, chief executive of Child U.S.A., an advocacy group based at the University of Pennsylvania focused on child protection.

“These guys have incredible access, and prosecutors were disinclined to prosecute powerful doctors. A lot of these guys got away with many years of abuse.”

Mr. Copperman’s victims feel they were failed repeatedly by institutions that should have protected them. Many see the new law as their last, best chance for justice.

“Stuart Copperman got away with everything,” said Jeanna Limmer-Salgado, 51, a teacher in Manhattan, whose complaint about sexual abuse in the early 1980s was dismissed by the state medical board. “He’s living the life, and has been for 20 years.”

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CreditBrittainy Newman/The New York Times

Mr. Copperman lives in Delray Beach, Fla., but spends summers in Melville, N.Y., at The Greens at Half Hollow. It is a luxurious gated community catering to “active adults” with tennis courts, swimming pools, a gym with a sauna and a clubhouse for parties and community activities.

The stone gatehouse, staffed 24 hours a day, straddles a river and a lush 18-hole golf course dotted with ponds and fountains. On a recent summer day, Mr. Copperman told the guard there not to admit a reporter.

Reached on the phone shortly afterward, he said he did “not care to revisit” the allegations. “It’s been 20 years,” he said. “I’ve got a life here.” Mr. Copperman’s lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, also declined to comment.

Moving on has not been so easy for many of his former patients. In interviews with about 20 of these women, many said they still cannot bear to be touched in certain ways, and have difficulties with both emotional and sexual intimacy.

Others have struggled with mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, heroin addiction, eating disorders and agoraphobia.

“I was sick a lot as a kid, and I was so scared whenever I got a sore throat and knew I’d have to go to the doctor that I couldn’t sleep all night,” said Ellen Dombrowski, now in her 50s, a small-business owner in Vero Beach, Fla.

She said that during her annual physical, Mr. Copperman rubbed her genitals so hard that she almost cried. For years, she was angry at her mother for not believing her when she said the doctor hurt her. “That’s just what doctors do,” she recalled her mother saying.

One woman said her mother slapped her when she described her appointment and accused her of lying to get attention. Another said her mother told her she was crazy and should see a therapist.

Even resilient survivors said they still experience flashbacks. Some still avoid male physicians, are reluctant to leave their children with male relatives and panic when they take their children to the doctor.

Many said they had married and divorced abusive men and spent thousands of dollars on therapy.

“A lot of us are fine, but a lot of us are really badly damaged,” said Dana Marcus, 56, an administrator of the Victims of Stuart Copperman Facebook page.

She said the doctor abused her at every visit, starting when she was about 10. “We had somebody whom we trusted, who our mothers and fathers trusted when we were children, and we were betrayed,” she said.

Ms. Marcus said Mr. Copperman once molested her in her own bedroom while making a “house call” to see her brother. After leaving Long Island for college, she said, she could not tolerate visiting her parents in her old childhood home.

Ms. Ribaudo said the doctor would perform a “head to toe exam,” rubbing her genitals and inserting ungloved fingers into her vagina at every visit. “I could go there for a paper cut, and he would have touched my vagina,” she said.

Many former patients felt violated by the abuse and knew something was wrong, but were unable to articulate what was happening or convince an adult to believe them.

Terri Ackerman, 58, who still lives on Long Island, said that when she was 14, Mr. Copperman told her she needed a vaginal “cleaning.” She assumed the procedure was similar to a dental cleaning.

“I felt very uncomfortable, and I remember saying, ‘Are you almost done?’” she recalled in a recent interview. “But I just assumed that, like when a doctor gives you a shot, it hurts. They give you a throat culture, it’s uncomfortable.”

[Learn more about how parents can teach children to recognize sexual abuse.]

At hearings before the board during the summer and fall of 2000, six former patients who lodged complaints during the 1990s described Mr. Copperman telling them that they were “dirty” and needed a “genital cleaning.” He had them lie on their backs while he rubbed and scraped their genitals with his ungloved hands or finger, according to the women’s testimony.

One woman identified as Patient G told the state board she had become sexually aroused by the doctor’s manipulations, and two others said they had orgasms.

The three-member panel said Mr. Copperman had displayed “moral unfitness” to practice medicine. “Rubbing the female genitalia during a physical examination is always inappropriate, whether or not gloves are used,” the panel said.

The state finally revoked Mr. Copperman’s license in December 2000. But it could have acted much earlier. Ms. Limmer-Salgado lodged a complaint with the state in 1985; she and another patient gave testimony in 1987.

But the three-person panel — consisting of two physicians and a minister — voted two to one to dismiss their complaints. The physicians did not believe the women.

Mr. Copperman defended the examinations, citing American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines recommending an exam of the external genitalia as part of a routine physical. Experts say the exam is supposed to be extremely brief, but “I’ve always prided myself on being thorough,” Mr. Copperman said in 2000.

“I have always tried to live my life in such a way that if someone said something bad about me, no one would believe it,” he said.

The cases underscore how difficult it can be for patients, and especially children, to identify sexual abuse in a medical setting, where patients are expected to disrobe and anticipate that doctors will touch them, occasionally in ways that feel uncomfortable or invasive.

The current trend in medical practice is to encourage adolescents to see a doctor without a parent in the room, so that they may raise issues too embarrassing to discuss otherwise, like sexual activity or drug use.

According to the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, beginning in adolescence, “routinely spending at least part of each visit alone with each patient conveys” to patients and their parents that this is “a standard part of adolescent health care.”

In 1997, Mr. Copperman himself published a short article in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine in which he urged physicians to meet alone with adolescents, and described how he would prepare parents years in advance, so they were not taken by surprise when the time came.

“He groomed the parents, as well,” Ms. Ribaudo said.

The vast majority of pediatricians are certainly not in the profession to harm children, said Dr. Cindy Christian, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who co-authored a policy statement on protecting children from sexual abuse by health care providers.

But Dr. Christian acknowledged that pedophiles may be drawn to jobs that provide access to children. “I’ve always said that if you’re a pedophile and you can get through medical school, being a pediatrician is a dream job,” she said.

In revoking Mr. Copperman’s license, the state medical conduct office said the action was necessary to “ensure protection for the public.” But prosecutors in Nassau County, where Mr. Copperman had served as president of the local pediatric society, did not press criminal charges, and he never had to register as a sex offender.

Officials with the Nassau County District Attorney’s office said there were no criminal charges because of restrictive state laws in place at the time.

The women who had testified before the state medical board were already in their 30s. At that time, state laws gave them only until their 23rd birthday to press felony charges, and only until 20 to press misdemeanor charges.

And because of the way sex crimes were defined by state law at the time, prosecutors may only have been able to pursue misdemeanor charges, according to Silvia Finkelstein, a lawyer with the Nassau County District Attorney’s office.

The county’s “special victims bureau wanted to pursue this investigation and bring criminal charges,” she said. “But they needed to find viable charges that were not outside the statute of limitations.”

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said the investigative file on the case could not be found, and may have been destroyed when a storage facility was flooded. He said the office was not digitized then.

After Mr. Copperman lost his license, 19 women came forward to file formal complaints of sexual abuse with the state. Ms. Finkelstein said all the cases were already past the statute of limitations.

Toby Kurtz, who was the chief of what was then called the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Bureau in the Nassau County D.A.’s office in 2000 and is now retired, said she had no recollection of the Copperman case.

The new law is intended to remove some of the legal barriers to bringing civil and criminal charges against perpetrators of child sexual abuse. But critics say it does little to help put pedophiles behind bars, which would protect children most.

Though the law moves the statute of limitations for pressing criminal charges for child sex abuse by five years, giving child victims until age 28 to press felony charges and until 25 to press misdemeanor charges, it can take decades for adults to come to terms with abuse they experienced as children.

For this reason, many other states have altogether eliminated statutes of limitations for bringing criminal charges against perpetrators of child sex abuse, though the changes are not retroactive and only affect cases going forward, said Ms. Hamilton of Child U.S.A.

In that sense, the Child Victims Act “is a victory for perpetrators,” she said. “They might be sued and named publicly, so the world will learn they are perpetrators. But they won’t be behind bars.”

The women who want to sue Mr. Copperman know that he won’t go to jail, and they say it’s not really money that they seek.

Lynn Barnett Seigerman, 52, a project manager in San Diego, said she was abused by Mr. Copperman at her annual physicals every year when she was a teenager.

“I want my day in court,” she said. “I want justice to be served, and I don’t think it was. I want him to pay, not necessarily monetarily — I want him to feel the shame that I felt.”

Roni Caryn Rabin is a science and health reporter at The Times. Reach her at roni.rabin@nytimes.com.

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