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The Seattle Times License to Harm


Thursday, April 22, 2010 - Page updated at 04:22 PM


A victim's voice: "You feel so alone"

Seattle Times staff reporter

Janet Johnson was slipping under anesthesia, about to undergo surgery on a cancer near her eye, when she felt Dr. Richard Toby Sutcliffe slide his hand under her gown and fondle her breast.

Later, recovering consciousness, Johnson's mind whirled.

Her senses told her she'd been groped. But her mind doggedly tried to discredit such disturbing, dissonant information.

What would Dr. Sutcliffe want with her? She was a modest, middle-aged wife and mother of two. He was a polished, professional, highly respected Seattle surgeon.

No one would believe her. At times, she didn't even believe herself.

"You'd rather doubt yourself than doubt him," she said.

What Johnson didn't know in 2001 was that Washington's Department of Health already had a sexual-misconduct complaint against Sutcliffe, from the year 2000. But it had closed the case without taking any action.

Johnson stayed silent about her ordeal — even to her husband of 26 years.

Such reticence by victims, it turns out, is not unusual. Only one in 20 patients who are sexually abused by medical professionals comes forward to complain, studies show.

For 19 months, Johnson lived with her silence. Then, on a spring day in 2003, she caught a glimpse of Sutcliffe on television news. Though she hadn't heard the report, she says she knew instantly what it was about.

He had been caught.

Startled, she blurted out her story to her husband, and later, to her college-age daughter.

"Mom, you have to call," her daughter urged her. "You have to stand up for yourself."

She left a message at the Health Department.

The next morning, Virginia Renz, an investigator, called. Renz asked: "Did he touch your genitals?"

Johnson took a deep breath. "I literally had to hold myself back from hanging up the phone," she said.

But she stayed on the line with Renz, who asked her to put the details in a statement. A week later, she hadn't mailed it.

"I think I was afraid of being scrutinized, of not being believed. I was afraid of putting it out there because it's sexual, and I'm conservative in nature," Johnson said.

She also felt sympathy for the doctor she had trusted during the terrifying ordeal of cancer.

"We have daughters the same age and it breaks my heart how this must be hurting his family," she wrote in her statement.

Johnson's struggle is familiar to those who help victims of sexual abuse by health professionals. Abusers in health professions, like all abusers, often select victims who "are not going to challenge them right away," says David Hankins, an assistant attorney general who used to bring such cases for the state's medical commission. If women do challenge them, the abusers "manipulate them."

But Johnson began thinking about her own daughter, who had confided: "You know what, Mom? A doctor has so much power, I don't think I would have the courage to do anything."

Johnson mailed the statement.

"Then I said, 'God help me,' " she recalled. "It was like jumping off a cliff."

Before the television report, Johnson believed she had been Sutcliffe's only victim.

"Through the whole thing, you feel so alone," she said.

In fact, there had been many others. Among the complainants was Dr. Anne Bucci, an anesthesiologist who in early June 2002 told the state, and then police, that she had seen Sutcliffe stroke the breasts of four unconscious female patients, all in one day.

Even with such a credible witness, it took the state medical commission nearly 11 months to act. During those months, Sutcliffe continued touching female patients in places that left them frightened and disturbed.

By April 2003, when the commission restricted Sutcliffe to treating only males pending a hearing on the allegations, at least a dozen patients complained he had touched them inappropriately. One patient described waking up from surgery in late 2001, with Sutcliffe touching her.

"There were hands on my stomach, they were slowly moving up then they rested on my breasts," she recalled. "I'm trying to make myself move, because my mind is awake but my body won't let itself jerk awake."

In August, nearly four years after he fondled Johnson, Sutcliffe, then 51, was sentenced in King County Superior Court for nine counts of indecent liberties and one count of assault for what he did to her and nine other women.

Under his Alford plea agreement, he surrendered his medical license, registered as a sex offender, and entered into a two-year jail work-release program. The agreement, while technically a guilty plea, allowed Sutcliffe to maintain his innocence. "I am not guilty of any of these offenses," Sutcliffe said in his statement. One of his lawyers called the doctor's decision not to fight the charges "courageous."

And that, finally, made Janet Johnson angry.

At the sentencing, Johnson addressed the judge.

"There is nothing courageous about molesting a sedated cancer patient who cannot protect herself," she said, her voice strong. "The courageous thing to do would be to look me in the eye and apologize for violating my trust."

He never has.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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