Victims turn to media to expose sex abuse by college doctors
Robert Julian Stone was tired of waiting, afraid that complaints of sexual abuse at the hands of a former University of Michigan doctor would be covered up.
So five months after contacting the university to report that he’d been assaulted during a 1971 medical exam — and after learning there were more alleged victims — the 69-year-old Stone turned to The Detroit News.
The newspaper last week was the first to report Stone’s allegations against the late Dr. Robert E. Anderson, triggering similar reports. It was reminiscent of sex abuse scandals at other universities, where the media reported allegations before officials publicly acknowledged complaints against doctors.
A 2016 Indianapolis Star investigation of sexual abuse in USA Gymnastics prompted former gymnast Rachael Denhollander to alert the newspaper to the decades-long sexual abuse of girls by Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar, who’s now in prison.
In 2011, the Patriot-News broke the story that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was being investigated by a grand jury. Sandusky ultimately was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse and sentenced to prison.
A former Ohio State University wrestler contacted The Columbus Dispatch in 2018 about a sports doctor’s decades of abuse, although the university announced an investigation before the newspaper could finish reporting. More than 350 alleged victims are suing the university.
Kelly McBride, senior vice president at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and chair of its ethics and leadership center, said the media’s role in reporting such abuses and holding institutions accountable shows “the power of local journalism.”
“You cannot possibly overestimate the importance of public scrutiny on an institution, whether it’s public or private,” said McBride, comparing it to abuse in the Catholic Church.
At Nassar’s 2018 sentencing hearing, where more than 150 women and girls gave victim statements, a prosecutor said the doctor likely still would be sexually assaulting girls if not for The Indianapolis Star investigation.
“We as a society need investigative journalists more than ever,” Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis said at the time.
The praise comes as newspaper readership overall is declining and amid increased attacks on the credibility of news organizations by President Donald Trump, who often derides news he doesn’t like as “fake.”
Stone said he emailed two university officials in August 2019 to report that Anderson assaulted him during a 1971 medical exam. He said Anderson had exposed himself and used Stone’s hand to fondle himself. Stone said he did not report it at the time.
He said he decided to contact the newspaper in January because he began to feel “stonewalled” by the university as he tried to get a copy of his case file. He said a university official told him he couldn’t have it because a broader investigation involving more victims wasn’t finished.
Stone feared the university and the prosecutor could keep the case open indefinitely, and no one would ever know about the allegations, said Detroit News Editor Gary Miles. After preliminary interviews with Stone, Miles said, the newspaper put higher education reporter Kim Kozlowski “on a plane to meet with him” at his Palm Springs, California, home.
“We had the sense … that this could be much bigger than just him. But without people coming forward, how would you know there were other victims?” said Miles.
University of Michigan officials said last week that they had begun investigating complaints against Anderson in 2018 after a former wrestler reported that he was fondled during medical exams in the 1970s. They said the investigation involved five ex-students, and documents released to The Associated Press on Friday show Stone was among them.
The university said it hadn’t announced the investigation or called for others to come forward while waiting for prosecutors to finish reviewing the case for potential charges.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said Saturday the school had been asking the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office if charges would be coming against Anderson for months and found out none would be authorized on Tuesday at the same time the Detroit News was notified. It’s the same day the university was contacted by the newspaper for comment.
Stone said he believed contacting the newspaper “did serve my purpose of finally getting the university to own” the situation and reach out to other victims.
Others have since come forward with similar allegations. The former wrestler whose complaint in July 2018 set off the investigation also said he’d complained decades ago.
Denhollander blasted Michigan’s response, saying it forced the survivors to have to speak publicly to get anything to happen, which she called “re-victimizing and re-violating.”
Miles said that he doesn’t underestimate the courage it took Stone to call the newspaper.
“It was such a leap of faith,” he said. “But it’s critically important that people realize the important function that the media plays in exposing wrongdoing.“