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Scope of child abuse case 'unheard of'
Doctor's case presents challenge for legal teams to set aside personal feelings
The News Journal
December 28, 2009

Delaware Online

In addition to being "gruesome," allegations of child sex abuse against a Lewes pediatrician are unprecedented.

And because of their magnitude, the wounds suffered by children, families and the community at large will run deep.

That's the consensus of three nationally known child abuse experts about charges against Dr. Earl B. Bradley, who is suspected by police and prosecutors of molesting as many as 100 infants and young children during the past 11 years.

"I would imagine it's like an earthquake, or a bomb going off in that community," said Francis S. Waters, a clinical social worker in Michigan who has worked on cases with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and serves on the American Psychological Association's Trauma Division.

"For a pediatrician to do this kind of thing on such a large scale -- it's unheard of, from my knowledge," Waters said.

Former Delaware prosecutor Ferris W. Wharton, who at times directed the state Justice Department's rape and sexual-offense unit, said the possible scale of the crimes dwarfs any in his experience.

"Obviously, the potential number of victims that has been put out there exceeds any that I've heard of in Delaware before," said Wharton, now in private practice. "It's an order of magnitude greater than what I'm familiar with."

Because of that, defense and prosecution teams could face an extra challenge in focusing on the legal issues of the case "without allowing their feelings about what the allegations are to override," Wharton said.

Bradley's arrest capped months of suspicions and unsettled investigations into his conduct at BayBees Pediatrics, 18259 Coastal Highway, that were prompted by complaints. Police said after the arrest that Bradley had six cameras that recorded apparent crimes involving children, including one incident in which he appeared to be "violently enraged."

Joyanna L. Silberg, coordinator of Trauma Disorder Services for Children at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, said the reported existence of so many videos, if borne out, makes Bradley's case "somewhat unique."

What isn't unique is that a sex offender often will have an extraordinarily high number of victims," said Silberg, who has written on the issue and served as president of an international association on disorders suffered by victims.

"Because there are so many victims in Delaware's case, I think neighboring states will have to offer support as well," for victims and their families, Silberg said.

Lewes resident James G. Gayhardt, who lives a few blocks from Bradley's home, said most residents of the small city are "probably stunned" by the charges.

"A lot of people are waiting to see how it plays out," Gayhardt said, adding, "I did not know the doctor personally, and I've never met him."

Gayhardt said people have to be considered innocent until proved guilty, even for the most heinous crimes.

"My question is: How come it took so long?" Gayhardt said. "I understand that you can't accuse somebody until you have some proof, but you wonder why the state did not step in sooner."

Community support is key

Waters, the Michigan trauma expert, said communities are sometimes better able to cope with sexual attacks when it involves "drifters" or stereotypical, outsider figures. But sex offenders have surfaced in many trusted professions and social groups, from teachers and priests to doctors and counselors.

In recent years, charges have been lodged against pediatricians in Ohio , Minnesota, Nevada and California, as well as Canada and Portugal, according to news reports. Earlier this year, a widely known pediatrician-researcher and author in North Carolina was barred from practicing medicine after he was accused of improperly touching boys during examinations earlier in his career.

Phil Kinsler, an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School and past president of the New Hampshire Psychological Association, said that help from a supportive community, one ready to hear and believe victim accounts, is essential to healing in Delaware .

"I want to be cautious about convicting this guy before he gets into the courtroom," Kinsler said, adding he was unaware of cases involving so many victims. "If these allegations are true and if we are to assume things are as they say, that would be awfully odd behavior for a pediatrician. He would have to be awfully disturbed."

Wharton, the former prosecutor, said the time, expense and complications for the prosecution and defense are hard to predict so early in the investigation. Claims of mental illness as a defense could prolong the prosecution, as could attempts to prove a large number of cases.

"There are very severe punishments for this kind of behavior," Wharton said. "You don ' t need to prove 100 cases to accomplish what you need in terms of punishment. You can accomplish it with maybe only one or two cases."

Talking with children

Bradley was accused of using ruses to separate children from parents during office visits, in some cases saying he had a "treat" for the child in another room.

"A parent never has to leave the child alone with the doctor. They never have to do that," said Silberg, who is vice president and co-founder of the Baltimore-based Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence.

"Second, you need to talk to your child about what's appropriate and inappropriate, and open the channels so children will always tell these things. Parents who aren't affected need to learn that lesson, and make this an opportunity to talk to their children about what is safe touching and what is not."

Waters said children react in complex ways to abuse, with possible long-term psychological injury and a variety of physical symptoms.

"The damage is quite severe," Waters said. "At that young age, the child is building trust in other adults. They're very vulnerable and cannot escape. Oftentimes what a child will do, because it's so overwhelmingly frightful, is disassociate -- begin to block out what happened. That can cause a disruption in the child's identity, a separation from one's self."

Silberg said many organizations, including the Leadership Council, are available to help. Council members can be reached through the group's e-mail, desk1@leadership

"Its a dangerous world for our children, and I think the only defense that we have, besides good police, is education for our children and families about what to look for, and trusting people and talking about things," Silberg said, "so that children don't feel that they have to live with secrets."

Wharton said that well-meaning adults need to help children recover from the alleged crimes, despite their horrifying nature.

"I've spent a lot of times with kids who have been victimized by people in positions of trust," Wharton said. "It seems to me that kids are pretty resilient, particularly at a younger age. It's not until the adults get into the act, telling them how awful this is -- adults have to be careful about not compounding the crime in a way by telling kids that their lives are ruined when it clearly isn't."