Hold Them Accountable! The Good Old Boys’ Network Strikes Again

I have frequently called out The Philadelphia Inquirer for poor reporting, so it is only fair when I note when they do good journalism.

The quiet handling of rape allegations at two Philly health institutions

How Jefferson and Rothman dealt with an alleged sexual assault involving an orthopedic surgeon and a medical resident.

by Wendy Ruderman | Monday, May 8, 2023

It was almost midnight and Jessica Phillips, a doctor training in orthopedic surgery, was one of the few guests remaining at a pool party that surgeon John Abraham hosted each summer for Thomas Jefferson University medical residents at his nine-bedroom Main Line home.

Phillips sat in an Adirondack-style chair by a stone fire pit with Abraham, a (Thomas) Jefferson (University) professor and division chief at the Rothman Orthopaedic Institute, a private practice whose physicians work at the university’s hospitals.

The band had packed up, and caterers had cleared the wine glasses and plates smeared with cocktail sauce. Abraham handed her a lit Cuban cigar. She later remembered being so drunk she dropped it on her pants.

The medical resident remembered little else afterward. In flashes, while in and out of consciousness, she recalled Abraham on top of her on the ornate rug in his library. She awoke in his bedroom naked and bruised, she later told multiple investigators.

In Abraham’s recollection, Phillips pulled him on top of her on the library floor, court records show, while his judgment was impaired by alcohol. Nonetheless, in a text message sent to his boss after the party, Abraham acknowledged it was “unethical” to have sex with a medical resident.

It’s a very long story, and there’s a lot of he said/she said in it; I take no position on which of them is telling the truth. Both physicians were intoxicated, both married, though Dr Abraham, then 43-years-old, was going through a divorce, and neither was really capable of consent. However, as her supervisor, Dr Abraham was contractually barred from a sexual relationship with a subordinate. An investigation resulted in no criminal charges. This is being made public because both Dr Abraham and Dr Phillips are suing.

The events of the June 2018 party spurred three separate investigations and three lawsuits – all now rolling back the confidentiality that usually cloaks how major institutions handle sexual misconduct claims. The cases chronicle sex, power and money in the male-dominated world of orthopedic surgery.

Both Phillips and Abraham say they were victims. They blame Jefferson and Rothman for protecting their institutional interests despite federal regulations that are supposed to ensure sexual assault cases are dealt with fairly.

Ahhh, yes, “protecting their institutional interests”. That’s what “institutions” do!

Jefferson used the threat of federal reporting requirements to force Abraham out of its hospitals while evading formal reports that would let other institutions know what happened.

Then Jefferson’s and Rothman’s leadership brokered a deal that avoided a sexual misconduct hearing and ultimately closed an investigation opened under the federal Title IX law prohibiting sex-based discrimination.

Rothman’s all-male board of directors decided not to fire Abraham. Instead, they restricted him from working in Jefferson’s hospitals or interacting with Jefferson residents. Eventually, they moved him to a hospital network not affiliated with Jefferson in New Jersey.

I remember when then-District Attorney Seth Williams went hard after Monsignor William Lynn, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s supervisor of priest assignments, who was convicted on one of two counts of child endangerment for “knowingly placing minors in danger when he reassigned troubled priests to parishes where they would have access to children.” Msgr Lynn wound up serving almost three years of his three-to-six year sentence, when his conviction was overturned, twice actually, for Mr Williams and Judge Teresa Sarmina misapplying the law.

So, with all of this, why isn’t current Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner going after Thomas Jefferson University and the Rothman Orthopaedic Institute for doing what is a very similar thing? According to the Inquirer, Rothman basically moved Dr Abraham to someplace where his conduct wasn’t widely known, and to a hospital network outside of their control . . . and their liability.

Amid investigations by the university and Rothman, Abraham said, a Jefferson top doctor offered him a deal in a private conversation: Take a voluntary leave, and we won’t report the alleged sexual misconduct.

Congress generally expects health institutions employing doctors accused of wrongdoing to file a report into the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), a federal tracking system.

Hospitals must query the data bank before credentialing a newly hired doctor to ensure that the person hasn’t gotten into trouble elsewhere. Data bank reports also go to state licensing boards.

In court depositions, Abraham recalled getting a phone call from Edmund Pribitkin, chief physician and executive vice president of Jefferson Health, telling him that he had to take an immediate leave of absence from Jefferson.

If he didn’t do as told, Pribitkin said, the sexual assault allegations would go before the hospital’s medical executive committee and they’d likely have to report him to the NPDB, according to Abraham.

So, Rothman essentially blackmailed Dr Abraham into taking an immediate leave, by saying that the Institute would commit a crime by not reporting the sexual assault allegations. That’s not investigating, but bargaining. Perhaps it’s not just the District Attorney who needs to look into this, but the United States Attorney as well, given that this is an allegation of violation of federal law.

There’s a lot more information at the Inky’s original, and it’s not limited to subscribers, though if you access more than a few articles a month, the paywall does come down.

As a Mass-every-Sunday Catholic, I was very disappointed with the allegations against Msgr Lynn. At most, I saw what he was alleged to have done as a crime by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, but when this became a criminal case, the Cardinal, by then retired, 88-years-old, and suffering from cancer and dementia, couldn’t be tried. Early in the trial, Judge Sarmina ruled that Cardinal Bevilacqua was able and competent to give testimony as a witness in the case, but just two days after her ruling, the Cardinal died in his sleep. But while Mr Williams and Judge Sarmina misapplied the law as it stood, which resulted in an unfair, and eventually reversed, conviction, the point that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia shuffled around offending priests to keep them from being defrocked or, worse, charged, tried, and convicted in sexual abuse cases was a valid one. Supervisory officials such as then Pennsylvania State University President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz, who was responsible for oversight of the campus police department, were all held accountable for covering up former Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky’s rape of a young boy, though they were incarcerated for just a couple of months each.

The Inquirer’s story is the first step, and now law enforcement needs to look into this case. Yeah, there are some wealthy and powerful interests involved here, people able to pay for major league legal help, but the potential prosecution has plenty of money as well. Hold them accountable, and maybe some other good old boys network will think twice before covering up things.
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