ILLUSTRATIONS BY RICHARD WATKINS / AJC

Atlanta’s role as offender destination

In hopes of salvaging their careers, hundreds of doctors and other professionals accused of sexual misconduct came to Atlanta in recent decades.

Armani Martin/amartin@ajc.com

Hundreds of doctors accused of sexual misconduct came to Atlanta for evaluation or treatment by Dr. Gene Abel of Behavioral Medicine Institute. He claimed remarkable success in treating physicians.

Here, psychiatrist Gene Abel claimed a remarkable feat: stopping sex offenders from violating again.

Abel virtually guaranteed that those who completed his pioneering treatment at Behavioral Medicine Institute would be safe to return to their careers. To prove it, he conducted his own studies — though the data was not independently reviewed — showing that only about 1 percent ever had a subsequent offense reported.

“He’s one of the icons in the field,” said Philip Hemphill, who for more than a decade oversaw a competing program for troubled professionals in Mississippi. “He’s done it all.”

Once the medical profession started paying attention to physician sexual misconduct, regulators across the nation began sending doctors to Abel for assessment or treatment. He told the AJC he evaluated more than 800 doctors and treated perhaps 200.

Abel said he would only see doctors who were ordered to his doorstep under threat by regulators, so as to have leverage over them. Some, Abel said, can’t be treated.

He believes polygraphs are invaluable. Before doctors are rehabilitated, Abel evinces unrelenting suspicion they may lie to prop up their image and keep their jobs. “You have to be cautious and not trust anyone,” he said.

But if he believes they are safe to practice, maybe with restrictions such as a chaperone, he goes to bat for them.

There are risks to full candor when it comes to doctors’ admitting additional past offenses, however. So therapists such as Abel walk a tricky line. Most say they would have to report if a physician disclosed an offense against a child or if he presented an immediate danger to anyone.

But when it comes to past offenses against adults, different therapists interpret the rules differently for their doctor-patients.

“You have to be honest with the patient,” Abel said. “You say, ‘If you give me the name of someone that you’ve been involved with then I would have to report that.’”

Abel’s assurances comforted regulators such as Larry Dixon, executive director of the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners. In dealing with an offending doctor, Dixon said, “We send him off. And when the referral comes back, we do what the specialist says.”

After a long career, Abel early this year closed his treatment business, though a protégé will continue treating sex-offending doctors and others in Atlanta. Abel continues to run what he calls his “software company,” developing computer tests intended to help screen people who may have a sexual interest in children.

Ryon Horne/AJC

» Video: Doctors & Sex Abuse: Doctor sanctioned for sexual misconduct now treats others