One could be forgiven for believing that the walls wept in the West Hartford, Connecticut, home of former endocrinologist Dr. George Reardon. The reason for those tears will soon be on public display in a lawsuit filed by one of the nearly 150 plaintiffs against the St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center and Saint Francis Care, Inc., in Hartford. The tears belong to children abused by a doctor the community, and the hospital, trusted. Evidence begins in on April 5 in Waterbury.
Dr. Reardon, a bachelor, died in 1998. He was the chief of endocrinology at the Hartford hospital from 1963 to 1993. He claimed research interest in human growth, and his preferred subjects were children. But according to accusations raised against him, he had another, secret, passion -- pedophilia. He abruptly retired when investigators began raising questions about what he was really doing to the children in his care. Investigators have since found hundreds of nude photographs of children, many in sexually suggestive poses. The doctor is also accused of ordering children to pose in sexually provocative positions, and to have photographed them with objects inserted into their bodies. All this on hospital grounds; all this while his fellow physicians had reason to believe that all was not well with the good doctor.
Medical regulators swept the allegations under the rug, permitting Dr. Reardon to retire, and permitting the hospital that employed him to avoid answering painful questions. But all that changed in 2007 thanks to a home improvement project.
In 2007, the owners of a home once owned by Dr. Reardon were startled to find a vast cache of pornographic images of children and written records hidden in the walls of the home they were remodeling. Based on the evidence hidden away in his home, the doctor is now suspected of abusing as many as 500 children and adolescents while on duty at the hospital. He had persuaded their parents to permit the children to be used in his studies.
The civil action against the hospital will seek to hold the hospital accountable for the doctor’s conduct, arguing that the hospital had a duty to the children to assure that they received adequate care. The hospital, by contrast, will argue that Dr. Reardon was a brilliant, but secretive, sociopathic pedophile, capable of creating a smokescreen sufficient to deflect the attention of hospital administrators from what was really going on in his office.
Despite the outrageous conduct of the doctor, the plaintiffs in these actions will be required to navigate difficult legal terrain to win a judgment. Although Dr. Reardon stands accused of abusing scores of children while on duty as a hospital physician, the hospital will argue that his conduct was so far removed from the normal course of his duties that they are not liable for his acts, as they would be if his conduct were in the normal course and scope of his duties. The plaintiffs must counter with information proving the hospital either knew or should have known of his misconduct, or that the hospital was careless in the manner in which it supervised the doctor.
In general, a plaintiff’s employer is liable for the acts and omissions of an employee if the employee’s misconduct occurred in the course and scope of his or her duties as an employee. Employers are not liable if they can show that an act of misconduct was outside the scope of normal duties, what the law calls a detour or frolic, and that the employer neither knew, nor should have known, about the misconduct. The defense theme here: the doctor was on a frolic.
In the first case, the pseudonymous plaintiff contends that he was a subject of the doctor’s growth experiments from 1977 to 1985, and that the doctor had also abused his three siblings.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about this case reflects the complicity of the Connecticut State Medical Examining Board, the regulatory body governing the licensing of physicians, and the Hartford County Medical Association. The hospital argues that complaints about Dr. Reardon’s misconduct with other children lodged with these bodies were apparently never forwarded by either body. The Hartford County Medical Association fielded a complaint from the parents of a boy who claimed to have been abused by Dr. Reardon in 1970; no records exist that the association ever notified the hospital, and Dr. Reardon kept records of this complaint hidden away in his home. The Medical Examining Board years later permitted the doctor to forfeit his license in 1995 in exchange for dropping proceedings against him. It is difficult to imagine that the closely knit medical community in Hartford knew nothing all these years. Most likely, physicians were wilfully blind.
Reardon went to medical school in Albany, completing his medical degree in 1961. He then served as a medical doctor with the United States Navy from 1961 to 1963. St. Francis hired him in 1963. Lawyers for the plaintiffs will argue that the hospital was so eager to win a share of lucrative federal research grants that it rushed into the hiring Reardon and never took adequate safeguards to assure that his interest in photographs of nude children was appropriate, and that the hospital ignored questions about whether he should have been left alone with the children as often as he was.
This first case will be closely watched by scores of other plaintiffs, with potential verdicts of millions of dollars at stake in each case. Although the parties are reported to have engaged in extensive settlement negotiations, the stakes are, perhaps, too high for St. Francis Hospital to contemplate. It might be the case that at least one Catholic institution will be brought to its knees for knowingly providing shelter to pedophiles.