Western University has acknowledged the pain and suffering of female students sexually abused by Student Health Services psychiatrist Stanley Dobrowolski more than 20 years ago.
“We apologize for the trauma and pain his victims endured as a result of Dr. Dobrowolski’s conduct while at Western, and we apologize for any role that Western may have played in contributing to that trauma and pain,” president Amit Chakma said in a statement yesterday.
The president’s apology comes six weeks after a former student—a 49-year-old identified only as Jane Doe—filed a $2.85 million civil suit against the jailed doctor and the London, Ont., school for sexual assault she says she suffered while under his care at Western in the late 1980s. Her statement of claim filed in Ontario Superior Court in January says the psychiatrist conducted unnecessary and inappropriate breast and vaginal exams over two years as she was being treated for psychological issues. Western Provost Janice Deakin says the apology was not prompted by the lawsuit.
Jane Doe’s lawsuit alleges the university failed to adequately monitor the psychiatrist, failed to protect students in its care, and didn’t do enough to address other students’ allegations of misconduct and abuse, among other things. She never reported her complaints until now, partly because of the way the university and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) handled complaints from other women who came forward. The allegations have not been proven in court and the university has yet to file a defence. The lawyer who represented Dobrowolski in his 2014 criminal trial was travelling and couldn’t respond to Maclean’s.
The woman was happy about the apology. “I think that their public condemnation of Dobrowolski’s abuse and their acknowledgement around not responding appropriately at the time is an important step.”
But she is confused after President Chakma’s statement said the university is investigating what happened with Dobrowolski to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“The fact they’re investigating this in March of 2016 when the abuse has been happening since the late ’80s, it’s perplexing to me, quite honestly, that they haven’t got to the bottom of it in all these ensuing years.”
Provost Deakin says she didn’t find out about the sexual predator until 2013 when a former student told the school she had been abused by the psychiatrist and was reporting it to the police.
“We supported that decision and we were not aware at that time of Dr. Dobrowolski’s actions,” says Deakin. She’s not familiar with the details of the cases and she says it has been difficult to find answers, because no one currently in a “position of authority” was there during 1985-1994, when the psychiatrist worked for the university.
Western had received at least three previous complaints about Dobrowolski, and settled a lawsuit with one student over how they handled her case. In the late 1980s, then-student Michelle Stanford says Dobrowolski touched her inappropriately. Stanford worked at the health centre and brought the issue to the university’s attention. She told the London Free Press she was motivated to come forward not only because of her experience with Dobrowolski as a patient, but because she saw vulnerable women being referred to Dobrowolski, and saw him meeting with patients after hours.
Stanford has said she felt the university did not take her concerns seriously. In 1991, two female staff members at the health centre resigned in protest after the CPSO allowed Dobrowolski to continue seeing students. Stanford eventually sued Western, and settled in the mid-1990s for an undisclosed sum, which she donated to a local women’s shelter.
Deakin describes the apology as an attempt to right a historical wrong. “We need to acknowledge that this occurred and to apologize for the damage that this did to the young women that were affected in the ’80s and ’90s.” She says the university is contacting survivors in an effort to understand what happened. So far, they have reached out to three women.
After he left Western in 1994, Dobrowolski continued to see patients, including former students, in a private practice run out of his home in London.
The CPSO disciplined the London psychiatrist twice in 1995, once in 1999 and once in 2004, when the college said a supervising psychiatrist had to monitor him with the goal of transferring as many female patients as possible to other doctors. His license was finally revoked in November 2015 — two decades after he left Western. The college listed incidents with 31 women in its decision to take away his license, but doesn’t say whether they were students at Western.
In May 2014, Dobrowolski was convicted on 16 counts of sexual assault, one count of voyeurism involving nine women, and one count of breaking a court order involving 12 women. He was found to have carried out unnecessary physical examinations on female patients, including “cancer screenings” that involved touching their breasts and vaginas. He also had a collection of almost 10,000 photos of nude and semi-nude female patients, many of which were taken with a secret camera. He is currently serving a four-year prison sentence.
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Following a January 2016 investigation by CBC’s The Fifth Estate, which detailed the decades of complaints against the doctor and featured interviews with multiple survivors, some of whom said both the university and the CPSO did not listen to them, the college issued a statement of its own.
“We are greatly saddened that despite the College’s good faith efforts through its investigative, disciplinary and compliance monitoring processes, the outcome from Dr. Dobrowolski’s prior disciplinary proceedings over ten years ago did not ultimately protect patients from further harm. For that, we are truly sorry.”
Western’s apology is being welcomed by University Students’ Council vice-president internal Alex Benac: “I think it’s indicative of administration being much more open and receptive to having conversations about issues like sexual violence and sexual assault as opposed to kind of sweeping them under the rug.”
Reporter Zane Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-764-2828.