Illustrations by Richard Watkins / AJC

In Ohio, a rare case of paying a price for silence

Rarely do doctors pay the ultimate professional price for keeping quiet about sex abuse. But this spring, the code of silence cost one physician his medical license.

In March, Ohio revoked the license of Dr. Robert S. Geiger for failing to report complaints that his colleague James Bressi was sexually abusing female patients at their pain clinic.

“We don’t see this kind of thing,” said Dr. Anita Steinbergh, who has served on the state medical board for 23 years. “This is a very different case.”

Among the evidence against Geiger was a rare trove of first-hand testimony from both patients and employees — as well as letters, written by Geiger himself, scolding Bressi. They laid out Geiger’s apparent motive: concern not for patients, but for his friend and medical practice.

Case files reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on abusers from across the nation, especially prolific ones, often raise questions about who else may have known. But investigators usually concentrate on the abuser, even when state laws require others to report potential violations.

Medical regulators in several states told the AJC they had never enforced their reporting requirements, which may apply not only to fellow physicians but also to hospitals and medical societies, among others. Georgia hospitals can lose their permit for failure to report, but none has ever suffered that sanction. In Tennessee, clerks of court must notify the board when physicians are convicted of felonies but had never done so, a 2015 state audit found. A representative of the Kansas board told the AJC it had never sanctioned a health care facility, although the board knows of cases where clinics or hospitals failed to report doctors accused of sexually abusing patients.

In Ohio, a doctor has 48 hours to report his belief that another physician has committed misconduct.

Medical board records show that two alarmed employees first went to Geiger in September 2010 to report what they saw while assisting Bressi with female patients. From that moment to the time Geiger had Bressi fired in 2013, the records show a series of accusations, from victims and witnesses alike, that went not to the board but to the clinic, and thus to Geiger.

Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal

Dr. Robert Geiger (left) and Dr. James Bressi, co-owners and treating physicians at Summit Pain Specialists, shown in 2011 in an exam room at their office at the Akron General Health and Wellness medical office building.

According to the complaints, when patients were sedated Bressi would put his thumb in their anus or vagina. In other cases, he held patients’ hands under his lead apron near his groin, or, during massage, touched their genital area and positioned their hands to press his penis into their palms.

“You have to call the police and you have to call the Ohio Medical Board,” an employee recalled telling Geiger early on, according to testimony recorded by the state medical board. “What if that was your daughter on the table?”

Instead, Geiger counseled caution.

Geiger’s defense: Ohio law requires a doctor who “believes” that a colleague has offended to report him — and Geiger didn’t really believe the complaints, he testified. After all, Bressi denied them, and some of his co-workers were skeptical. When Geiger finally had heard enough and had Bressi fired in 2013, he said he assumed lawyers would notify the board. But he never checked to ensure it was done.

Instead, the board called a meeting on the case after news reports recounted allegations made in police complaints and lawsuits. Eventually, 95 patients accused Bressi of sexual abuse, and he was criminally charged with abusing 11.

Bressi denied the allegations. He testified that some patients were hallucinating after receiving sedatives, and others were feeling a pill bottle in his pants, not his penis, when he pressed against them.

He was acquitted of all but one misdemeanor charge, but he had to register as a sex offender. He surrendered his medical license in 2015.

Geiger fought the revocation of his license but eventually dropped the appeal.

Ryon Horne/AJC

» Video: A recap of our year-long investigation.