Child Abuse Suit Against Former Prof. Continues

Defendant's motion to dismiss negligence claims denied

In wasn’t until March 2006 that 49-year-old John Doe No. 4 was able to recall the dark memories of psychotherapy sessions as a prepubescent teenager.

The unnamed plaintiff filed a lawsuit that July against the doctor who had treated him almost 40 years ago, alleging that the defendant sexually abused at least six patients over a period of more than 17 years. That doctor was Melvin D. Levine, a former Harvard Medical School professor who served as chief of ambulatory pediatrics for 14 years at Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital, which is accused in the suit of negligence.

John Doe No. 4 received word today that the hospital’s motion to dismiss the negligence claims on the grounds of “charitable immunity”—a legal doctrine currently recognized in only three states limiting liability in civil suits against charities—was denied.

The plaintiff’s lawyer, Carmen L. Durso, hailed the Mass. Superior Court decision as a significant victory for not only John Doe No. 4 but also other victims of sexual abuse.

“The judge recognized the problem of applying charitable immunity to sexual abuse cases,” Durso said. “That, I think, is the significant thing—[charitable immunity] doesn’t belong in those cases.”

Had the motion been approved, Children’s would have gotten off on a “legal technicality,” Durso said.

Durso said he expects more motions to prevent the trial by jury demanded by both plaintiffs, John Does No. 3 and 4. Durso added that depositions will be taken sometime in the next six months.

Children’s Hospital’s attorney, William J. Dailey, Jr. of the Boston law firm Sloane and Walsh, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Yesterday’s decision was the first ruling on charitable immunity in favor of the plaintiff that Durso, whose practice focuses on victims of sexual abuse and medical malpractice, said he has seen in recent years.

Charitable immunity, which has been struck down or limited in almost every state, holds that funds contributed to an organization performing charitable work should not be diverted to pay for claims against the charity. Massachusetts law currently caps such damages against nonprofit entities at $20,000.

Though the Massachusetts Hospital Association has previously expressed strong support of the charitable immunity cap, a spokesperson for the organization told the Globe in January 2006 that it would not oppose a bill to lift the charitable immunity exemption for sexual abuse claims against charities, as the bill was aligned with the hospitals’ mission.

“It’s enormously unfair and unrealistic in this day and age,” Durso said of the doctrine, explaining that people “can be harmed by a charity just as they can be harmed by anybody else.”

The lawsuit—which accuses Levine of sexual abuse, including “numerous acts of genital fondling, masturbation, and other attempted and threatened acts of assault”—is one of five pending cases of child abuse allegations recently filed against the former Medical School professor in court, Durso said.

Levine, who left the Medical School in 1985 to serve as the director of a clinical center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has vehemently and publicly denied ever sexually touching a patient.

But similar allegations of Levine’s misconduct had been brought to the state’s attention over 10 years ago.

In September of 1993, the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine received a complaint for unprofessional conduct, sexual misconduct, and patient abuse from another of Levine’s former patients.

In April of last year, Levine voluntarily suspended his medical license in North Carolina, where he has been seeing patients at Chapel Hill for over 20 years, and is under investigation by the state medical board.

And in late November, Levine resigned from All Kinds of Minds, the North Carolina institute he founded in 1995 to train teachers to help children with learning disabilities.

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.