Dr. Robert C. Owens is a convicted sex offender whose preference is for young girls. Owens did three years in state prison for sexually abusing one of his daughter's nine-year-old friends during a slumber party at his house in 1988.
How do you rehabilitate someone like this? Most rational people probably would agree that it wouldn't be by putting him in a position of power over mentally ill young women. But this column isn't about rational people. It's about yet another decision by the lunatic fringe North Carolina Medical Board to return yet another sex offending physician to practice.
The medical board licenses and disciplines the state's doctors, and is theoretically supposed to protect patients from those doctors who would do them harm. Instead, in case after case, the board has often put a greater priority on protecting doctors with proven records of harming patients and other innocent people.
The board followed its typical pattern in Owens' case. It initially suspended his license after Owens was sentenced. Then the board approved a report blaming Owens' action on a personality disorder and his alcohol problems and ordered him to get treatment.
The folks who have served on the medical board over the years have been big believers in psychological counseling as a quick cure for sex offenders. Owens was still in jail when the medical board gave him his medical license back in 1991, after being impressed, as the board always is in these cases, with Owens' tremendous progress in therapy. The license was a temporary one that mandated he only examine patients with a chaperone present and refrain from treating young female patients.
But by 1995, the medical board fully reinstated Owens' license with no restrictions or mandates on who he could treat.
That's how he ended up -- with the medical board's approval -- as the medical director of Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, a state mental facility where he was the ultimate supervisor of the medical treatment of girls as young as 13.
After media reports of Owens' convictions were carried by news outlets across the state in July, he was suspended from the job at Cherry and was recently transferred to a new job at Maury Correctional Facility in Greene County where he will treat adult male inmates.
Owens' case wasn't an isolated one. The medical board has sex offenders and sexual miscreants stashed in offices and hospitals across the state. The problem is compounded by the fact that many prosecutors hesitate to be become involved when sex abuse occurs between a doctor and his patients. In many cases prosecutors have slapped doctors on the wrist and turned the cases over to the medical board to handle or failed to file charges at all. In the end, that means that doctors in North Carolina often suffer fewer consequences than other citizens would for their actions.
I've written before about Tuong Dai Nguyen, the Charlotte doctor who in 2004 was charged with misdemeanor sexual battery after a graphic encounter that occurred when a trusting Hispanic patient seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction dropped his pants, as instructed, in Nguyen's office. Five months before that, Nguyen was charged with simple assault after the examination of another Hispanic patient went, shall we say, awry.
After successfully completing a three-day medical ethics course called "Maintaining Proper Boundaries" and spending a month in the care of the Professional Renewal Center's Professional Sexual Misconduct Treatment team, Nguyen was eventually given his license back and set up shop again in another heavily Hispanic area on Albemarle road just two miles from his old practice.
Then there's Dr. John Baniewicz. Scotland Memorial Hospital in Laurinburg fired him in 2000 after patients and other employees complained about the sexually perverse nature of the unnecessary "examinations" he was performing on female patients and the sexual language that accompanied them. None of this was completely Baniewicz's fault, of course, because he has narcissistic personality disorder. After he sought psychological therapy, the board decided that Baniewicz could resume practicing in 2002, but only if chaperoned when he was alone with female patients. By November of 2004, the board had become so impressed with Baniewicz's recovery that it decided the 2002 restrictions were no longer needed. Dr. Baniewicz began practicing at Total Care Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation in Huntersville, which closed down a few months after Creative Loafing reported that Baniewicz was practicing there.
If medical board history is any indicator, these two men will go on practicing indefinitely, as did Cary doctor Wallace N. Evans Jr. For years, female patients complained to the medical board about sexual assaults by Evans, to no avail. Eventually, 15 of them sued him for malpractice and walked away with millions in 2000.
This year, malpractice attorneys and fed-up doctors formed an unusual alliance to successfully lobby for state legislation that changes the way the medical board is appointed to make it more patient friendly and less political. The new medical boards that follow should take this opportunity to re-examine how they discipline doctors who abuse their patients and to review the cases of deviant doctors previous boards have foisted on unsuspecting patients across the state.