We heard more rich evidence yesterday that the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario can’t be trusted to police themselves.
Case in point: Dr. George Doodnaught is still a doctor. He’s not practising, since he’s in jail for sexually assaulting no fewer than 21 patients who were strapped to operating tables and semi-conscious from the anesthetic he’d given them, before slipping his penis or tongue into their mouths or rubbing their breasts.
After a 76-day trial, Superior Court Justice David McCombs found the evidence of his guilt “overwhelming,” convicted him of 21 counts of sexual assault and sentenced him to 10 years in prison last year.
What has the college done? Nothing. Doodnaught has appealed the case, and the college is waiting for the outcome before scheduling its own hearing on whether or not Doodnaught should be stripped of his licence — which, by the way, is mandatory under the “zero tolerance” Regulated Health Professions Act.
Does the college think its doctor-led panel will better understand the case than an Ontario Court judge?
Two of Doodnaught’s victims spoke before the two-member task force examining the sexual assault of patients, yet again, for the Ontario government.
The downtown hotel conference room where the hearings are held was embarrassingly empty, again.
The women who spoke were angry and upset. They were angry that victims like them had not been personally informed about the hearings (good point). They were upset that previous patient complaints of sexual assault about Doodnaught had not been investigated years before they were assaulted (also, good point). And they were furious that doctors who sexually assault their patients are treated differently than bakers who sexually assault their customers, or city staff who sexually assault their colleagues, or anyone else for that matter (I hear you Sisters!).
“Take it out of the hands of a group of doctors and contact the police like you would do for any other profession in the real world. Medical staff are not gods. They are being treated like gods,” said Eli Brooks, who was assaulted by Doodnaught while undergoing liposuction in 2009. “What has happened over and over will continue to happen until they are made criminally responsible.”
Brooks had the publication ban on her lifted, so I can tell you her name. She believes naming herself as a sexual assault victim will help weaken the crime’s stigma. I applaud her for that.
I can’t tell you the second victim’s name. During the preliminary hearings of Doodnaught’s trial, she was known simply as D.S. Her case was not, in the end, included among the 21 charges, so has not been proven in court.
She tells the story that was the trial’s refrain: Doodnaught was the anaesthesiologist during her surgery at North York General Hospital in 2009. A screen was raised at her midsection, preventing her from seeing the doctors and nurses working below, but also preventing them from seeing Doodnaught at her head. She was barely conscious when she protested him touching her breasts, she said. She awoke to the sight of his penis, she said.
During the trial, it emerged that no fewer than four of Doonaught’s colleagues at North York General Hospital had received complaints from patients who said Doodnaught had sexually assaulted them while they were in semi-conscious states. The complaints started in 2006 — four years before Doodnaught was charged.
The four were surgeons and anesthesiologists. Not one had reported the complaints to anybody — the head of the hospital, the police, the college.
North York General’s then-chief of anesthesiology, Dr. Stephen Brown, testified that when police came calling about Doodnaught in 2008, he didn’t tell them about two previous complaints by patients. Once police finally laid charges, he sent out an email to staff, entered as evidence, that stated: “We have to support George in any way we can during the investigation.” (He said in court he had not meant for them to interfere with the police probe.)
“He didn’t protect us,” D.S. said. “Had he come forward, we might have saved many of us.”
She called on the task force to implement penalties for bystanders — doctors who hear about the sexual assault of patients by other doctors, but do nothing.
Brooks went further: “Anyone who covers it up should be legally charged with aiding and abetting a crime.”
Later, the task force’s ever-patient chair, Marilou McPhedran, informed the still-barren room that such a provision already exists. Under the Regulated Health Professions Act of Ontario, health professionals with “reasonable grounds … to believe that another member of the same or a different college has sexually abused a patient” must file a complaint to their college registrar within 30 days — unless they think the accused will continue sexually abusing patients. Then there is “urgent need for intervention.”
The penalty for failing to do this is “not more than” $25,000 the first time. The second, it goes up to “not more than $50,000.”
So, were those four doctors fined by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, you might be wondering — particularly since they testified in criminal court about their failure to alert their college to patients’ complaints about Doodnaught sexually assaulting them?
“The College has not commenced prosecutions … in relation to a physician failing to make a mandatory report in this matter,” CPSO spokesperson Prithi Yelaja wrote me in an email.
In fact, in the history of the college, it has never prosecuted any physician for failing to make a mandatory report, she confirmed.
See what I mean? The rules don’t need to be changed, they simply have to be enforced by people who can be better trusted: the police.
The task force hearings continue on May 8.
Catherine Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org