Dr. Paul Harnetty, an Ob/Gyn who practiced in Georgia from 2003 until 2012, was convicted last month by a Wyoming jury of sexually assaulting two of his female patients. Harnetty began practicing medicine in Wyoming in 2012. It did not take long before a number of his Wyoming patients accused him of sexual assault and abuse. In February of 2016, a disciplinary complaint was filed against Dr. Harnetty by the governing medical board in Wyoming. In January of 2017, Dr. Harnetty was arrested and charged with twelve counts of sexual assault, resulting in the recent conviction on two of those charges. Dr. Harnetty awaits sentencing.
Sadly, there was a long trail of allegations against Harnetty while he was practicing Ob/Gyn medicine in Georgia. Harnetty was investigated by the Georgia Composite Medical Board. Nurses who had worked with the doctor reported to the Board that the doctor had committed highly unusual acts on patients while they were delivering babies. The Medical Board never disciplined Harnetty publically and the Board’s investigation was kept confidential. Dr. Harnetty gave up his hospital privileges at a Georgia hospital in 2010, but the hospital refused to say why. As a result, Harnetty was able to leave the State of Georgia with a clear record and obtain a license to practice medicine in Wyoming. The District Attorney in Wyoming who prosecuted Dr. Harnetty stated, “There had been red flags on this guy forever.”
Regrettably, the system in place that shields and protects doctors who are charged with sexual abuse of patients is broken. The Georgia Board responsible for licensing and disciplining doctors refuses to comment on what it knew about Dr. Harnetty or whether he was ever disciplined by the Board. Georgia law allows the Board to discipline doctors in private. This is the so-called “code of silence.” For example, the Georgia Board’s investigator had interviewed a labor and delivery nurse, who reported that she had filed a complaint of sexual harassment by Dr. Harnetty with the hospital in 2007. The nurse reported that while in a patient’s room, Dr. Harnetty walked up beside her and grabbed the nurse’s bottom. Other nurses also told the Board’s investigator about Harnetty touching them inappropriately, making lewd comments, and sexually harassing them. If the Georgia Board did anything about these allegations, it was never made public. Had the Georgia Board decided to discipline Dr. Harnetty publicly, the alleged sexual abuse that occurred in Wyoming may have been prevented.
When news reports about Dr. Harnetty’s arrest in Wyoming made their way to Georgia, a former patient of Harnetty’s came forward to report that she, too, had been a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of the doctor. When she was in her twenties, Harnetty told her to come to his office on a Saturday, where he would perform a procedure on her at no charge. She reported that the doctor gave her a prescription medication to take before the appointment, and that the medication made her very drowsy by the time she arrived at the doctor’s office. The victim reported that Dr. Harnetty used a massager and his hands while touching her inappropriately. He then performed the medical procedure, which the patient said was done incorrectly and had to be corrected later. When she learned of the allegations in Wyoming, the former patient called the Wyoming police to report what had happened to her in Georgia.
Patients usually respect and trust their doctors. Likewise, parishioners and their children usually respect and trust their priests. When this trust is broken by a sexual assault, the victims often suffer serious and lifelong trauma, which continues to haunt them well into their adulthood, affecting their personal relationships and their faith. Hopefully, the recent, national outrage over sexual assault and abuse will bring about changes to the systems in place that have allowed sexually abusive doctors to keep seeing patients, and sexually abusive priests to continue to serve their congregations.
These sexual predators and, in some cases, their employers who enabled them, should be held accountable for the damages inflicted upon the victims. While we applaud the criminal prosecutions of these sexual abusers, criminal proceedings do not provide the money that the victims need to get treatment for the trauma inflicted upon them. The only recourse the victims have to recover money is by filing a civil lawsuit against all of the wrongdoers. The attorneys at Suthers & Harper represent victims of sexual assault and abuse. If you or a loved one has been the victim of sexual assault by a doctor, priest or other professional, contact us for a free consultation. Please keep in mind that these types of cases are subject to strict statutes of limitation that impose time limits within which the victim must file a lawsuit or your claim will be barred by law. Therefore, you should not delay in taking action.