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Ex-physician, Hub hospital named in suit on sexual abuse

Boston lawyer Carmen L. Durso talked about a sexual abuse lawsuit against Dr. Melvin Levine. Boston lawyer Carmen L. Durso talked about a sexual abuse lawsuit against Dr. Melvin Levine. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / February 18, 2011

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A former Children’s Hospital Boston physician and best-selling author sexually abused thousands of his pediatric patients, according to a class action lawsuit a Boston attorney filed yesterday in Suffolk Superior Court.

The suit names the hospital and Dr. Melvin D. Levine and alleges that he committed medical malpractice and sexual abuse and that the hospital was negligent in failing to properly supervise him during his 19 years there. The suit cites 40 former patients, all young boys at the time, who said that Levine performed unnecessary genital examinations.

Boston lawyer Carmen L. Durso said his suit seeks to represent all children examined by Levine when he worked at Children’s Hospital, from 1966 through 1985. Durso estimated there could be as many as 5,000 boys who were victims of Levine.

“On a typical visit, he would tell the parents that they could not come into the examining room, because that would interfere with his ability to perform a proper examination,’’ Durso said at a press conference yesterday in his Boston office. “He would require the boys to strip naked, not just for when he did the exam, but for the whole time of the exam, regardless of the reason for the treatment.’’

Durso said Levine performed prolonged genital exams. “He would do this in a nonprofessional, sexual manner,’’ he said. “He would not wear gloves during the examination. And on each subsequent visit, he would require the boys to undergo the same kind of physical examination, even if he performed this exam previously, even if it was a short time ago.’’

Edward Mahoney — a Boston attorney representing Levine, who now lives in North Carolina and agreed to stop practicing medicine two years ago — said his client denies the allegations in the strongest terms possible.

“His contributions to the field of developmental behavioral pediatrics have benefited tens of thousands of children worldwide,’’ Mahoney said in a statement. “He has received widespread and unflagging support from patients and peers, and this means a great deal to him.’’

The suit also alleges that the hospital “knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, that defendant Levine was not a fit person to be placed in charge of the treatment of minor male pediatric patients or to be allowed to provide unsupervised care.’’

Children’s Hospital officials issued a statement saying it was “a national leader in child protection, and we are committed to protecting all children, including those treated at the hospital.’’

“Children’s would not, and did not, cover up any inappropriate conduct relating to Dr. Levine,’’ the statement said.

The hospital said that Levine had not practiced there for 25 years, and that the allegations went back earlier than that. One complaint received after he left was investigated, his actions were found appropriate, and a court dismissed the complaint, the hospital said.

“The fact of the matter is that except for the one complaint we investigated, no one alerted the hospital to any concerns regarding Dr. Levine,’’ the hospital statment said. “The hospital supervised Dr. Levine’s practice in accordance with the applicable standards of the time.

“If the allegations of these former patients are true, we are devastated,’’ the statement said, “and our most heartfelt sympathies go out to the victims of Dr. Levine’s wrongdoing.’’

In March 2009, Levine signed an agreement with the North Carolina Medical Board, saying he would never again practice medicine. The agreement followed allegations that Levine had performed improper genital examinations on boys there.

A lawsuit filed by Durso in 2008 in Superior Court accused Levine of abusing at least seven boys who came to him for treatment at Children’s. Durso suggested the case had been settled, but he would not comment on the terms of the settlement.

Erika Gully-Santiago, spokeswoman for the Suffolk district attorney’s office, said prosecutors investigated the allegations Durso brought to them in 2008.

“Working together with the Boston Police Department, this office conducted a thorough investigation of the case,’’ she said. “The investigation did not produce the type of evidence necessary to support a criminal prosecution.’’

Durso said it was difficult to prosecute such cases because of the time that has passed and the shame that they engendered. He noted that many sexual abuse victims repress their memories of the crimes and that it is common for such cases to surface many years after the crimes were committed, especially when the victims were minors.

He said Levin abused one of the victims in his latest lawsuit in 1967, while the two were in Washington, D.C. He said the boy told his mother, who complained to officials at Children’s.

“She told them that Melvin Levine had sexually abused her son,’’ Durso said. “Since 1967, Children’s Hospital has been on notice that Levine was a child molester, that Levine was acting inappropriately with children at the hospital. But they took no action.’’

Officials at Children’s Hospital declined to comment further.

Durso did not make any of the alleged victims available to speak to reporters.

In 2008, Levine voluntarily stopped seeing patients at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. He was a professor in the department of pediatrics at the university between 1987 and 2006.

Until the allegations surfaced, Levine held an unpaid appointment as an adjunct professor at the university, continuing to see patients twice a month, university officials said.

Levine appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show’’ to promote his books. He specialized in children with developmental and educational issues.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.