Report: Michigan had chance to stop abusive doc

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Employees in the athletic department and health service department at the University of Michigan missed warning signs and failed to stop the serial sexual misconduct of former school doctor Robert Anderson, according to a report from the WilmerHale law firm released Tuesday afternoon.

The university hired WilmerHale in March 2020 to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against Anderson as well as the response that patients received from other employees when they made complaints about Anderson. Investigators interviewed more than 300 former patients and more than 200 university employees during a 14-month investigation before publishing a 240-page report Tuesday. They found that Anderson engaged in sexual misconduct on “countless occasions” and that authority figures heard specific accusations as well as rumors about Anderson’s misconduct but failed to stop him from abusing others.

“We will thoughtfully and diligently review and assess the report’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations,” university president Mark Schlissel said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “[A]nd we will work to regain the trust of survivors and to assure that we foster a safe environment for our students, our employees, and our community.”

In an effort to provide a layer of independence to the investigation, university leaders were not allowed to review or read WilmerHale’s findings prior to the release of the report Tuesday.

Anderson worked at the University of Michigan from 1966 through 2003. During the majority of his time at the school he worked closely with the athletic department, treating athletes’ injuries and conducting annual physicals. Hundreds of former patients — many of them former Wolverine athletes — now say that Anderson sexually abused and harassed them in a variety of ways during the treatment of routine medical issues. In interviews and court documents, Anderson’s former patients say the doctor assaulted them, fondled them and made an array of inappropriate sexual comments, among many other examples of misconduct.

Anderson died in 2008 before the claims of abuse were widely publicized.

The WilmerHale report found eight instances when patients shared concerns about Anderson in some form dating back to the 1960s. They found eight additional instances when athletes say they voiced concerns about Anderson with athletic department personnel. The investigators also found that many other employees were aware of vague rumors about Anderson’s conduct.

“We also learned of more than a dozen additional instances in which Athletic Department personnel heard jokes or rumors about Dr. Anderson’s examinations, some of which highlighted Dr. Anderson’s propensity for performing sensitive examinations for no apparent medically appropriate reason,” the report says. “Yet no one in the Athletic Department appears to have recognized what they heard as indicative of abuse or initiated any inquiries into Dr. Anderson’s conduct.”

Thomas Easthope, a former vice president of student services, failed to stop Anderson after hearing explicit complaints about the doctor “fooling around with boys” in 1978 or 1979. Easthope told police in recent years that he fired Anderson after receiving complaints, but WilmerHale’s review found that Easthope signed documents in 1980 that approve a pay increase for Anderson. Easthope received another complaint about Anderson in late 1980, according to investigators. Anderson was transferred from his role with university health service in July 1981 into a role with the athletic department, where he continued to see patients for another two decades.

Complaints about Anderson resurfaced in the summer of 2018 when former wrestler Tad Deluca wrote a letter about his experience with Anderson to current Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel. Deluca first raised concerns about Anderson’s conduct in 1975 as part of a list of problems he included in a letter to wrestling coach Bill Johannesen and athletic director Don Canham. He said he was prompted to try to report Anderson again after listening to reports about former Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar’s conviction on criminal sexual misconduct charges.

Deluca’s 2018 letter eventually prompted a police investigation, which raised more questions about missed opportunities to stop Anderson’s abuse. He is one of a handful of former Anderson patients who say they attempted to warn university and athletic department officials about the doctor decades ago. The list of university employees who allegedly were told about Anderson also includes current head athletic trainer Paul Schmidt, two former track coaches, a university psychologist and revered former football coach Bo Schembechler. In addition to a former student worker saying he raised concerns to Schembechler in the 1980s, investigators were told by three former members of the football team that they told the coach that they had a problem with Anderson’s treatment.

Canham and Schembechler both died years before those reports were made public. Johannesen and the track coaches denied hearing any athletes complain about Anderson. Schmidt told police in December 2018 that he never saw Anderson do anything inappropriate. He did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him after former players accused him of laughing about Anderson’s reputation for performing frequent rectal exams and hernia checks. All athletic department employees interviewed by the WilmerHale investigators denied receiving any reports or complaints about Anderson.

More than a half-dozen plaintiffs’ law firms have filed civil lawsuits against the university and its leadership on behalf of nearly 900 clients who say they were abused by Anderson. The university said last April that it hoped to develop a process to address claims about Anderson’s abuse outside of court in the interest of providing “more certain, faster relief” to survivors. The university has not yet released any details about its proposed process.

Attempts to settle the lawsuits through mediation began last October, but so far those efforts have been fruitless. Other cases in recent years involving university-employed doctors who sexually abused their patients have been settled for large sums of money. Michigan State paid $500 million to settle hundreds of cases related to Nassar’s abuse. Southern California paid more than $1 billion in total to settle claims related to former university gynecologist George Tyndall.

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