Allegations of child sex abuse decades ago create quandary for medical regulators

Credit: Miami-Dade Police Department

Credit: Miami-Dade Police Department

New Georgia law on physicians who sexually exploit patients doesn’t apply in such cases

The allegations against Dr. Thomas C. Wyatt date back more than four decades, when the 65-year-old psychiatrist was still a medical student at the University of Miami.

His accusers, now middle aged, didn’t come forward until August, when they told a police detective that Wyatt committed sexual acts on them when they were around ages 6 to 8, luring them into his bedroom during a more trusting era when children played outside for hours unsupervised in their neighborhood near the university.

“We kept it a secret,” one of the alleged victims told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Very shameful secret.”

Despite the passage of time, law enforcement officials acted swiftly against Wyatt, who worked with veterans at a VA clinic in North Georgia. The Miami-Dade Police Department had him arrested on two counts of sexual battery on a child, causing the gray-haired doctor to spend more than two weeks in the DeKalb County jail before being extradited to Florida. Prosecutors pressed for bond conditions that will make practicing medicine difficult, putting Wyatt under house arrest with an ankle monitor and allowing him to leave only for medical appointments where he is the patient, not the doctor.

Wyatt is also no longer employed by the Atlanta VA Health Care System, which said in a written statement to the AJC that it “takes these accusations very seriously and has zero tolerance for any behavior contrary to our core values.”

But the Georgia Composite Medical Board, which is aware of the arrest, has taken no action, and nothing on his online physician profile would alert potential patients to the pending charges. While the agency has the power to suspend or take Wyatt’s medical license, the case presents a quandary that even a new Georgia law meant to protect patients from sexually abusive doctors may not resolve.

ExploreFrom February: House passes bill on physician sex abuse

The new law came following revelations that the board routinely allowed doctors accused of disturbing sexual misconduct to remain in practice. Still, some experts say that given the alleged crimes took place during the Carter administration, before Wyatt was even a doctor, it may be best to hold off on professional discipline until the charges have been resolved in court.

“It’s hard to know what it means for this physician’s practice, or even if it’s true,” said John K. Hall, who was fired as executive director of Mississippi’s medical board in 2017 after he pushed for a crackdown on drug and sex cases. While the board should launch it’s own investigation, he said, “I have to confess, as a former executive director and an attorney, I would sit on this.”

Credit: Johnny Edwards /

Credit: Johnny Edwards /

The way Georgia’s medical regulators operate, it would be unusual if they had taken action. The board typically waits months, sometimes a year or more, to move against a criminally charged doctor’s license, or it waits until well after the court case is resolved.

Marian Hollingsworth, a patient advocate in San Diego and a frequent critic of California’s medical board, said regulators should at least inform the public about an arrest. “There’s things they can do to protect patients,” Hollingsworth said. “But all too often they end up erring on the side of the doctor, claiming due process and being afraid of lawsuits.”

Contacted by phone, Wyatt declined to comment. His Miami defense attorney, Sam Rabin, did not respond to phone messages from the AJC but told the Miami Herald, “Obviously, there are a number of significant issues with a case that’s 40 years old and with no records of reports.” Wyatt has pleaded not guilty.

Wait and see

House bill 458 was passed this year upon request by the state medical board, part of a nationwide effort by the Federation of State Medical Boards to stamp out a pervasive culture of coddling and forgiving doctors who sexually exploit patients. That culture came to light through the AJC’s groundbreaking Doctors and Sex Abuse series in 2016 as well as other investigative reporting on high-profile abuse cases.

The new law, which went into effect July 1, specifically authorizes the medical board to revoke or suspend a license if a physician is found guilty of sexually assaulting a patient in a criminal case — a power the board already had but wanted codified into law. Even before a conviction, the law says the board can suspend a license if it finds “that the public health, safety, or welfare imperatively requires emergency action pursuant to an alleged sexual assault on a patient by a licensee.”

ExploreAJC special project: Doctors & Sex Abuse

The law did not address alleged assaults on victims who aren’t patients, but the board still has power to act. Licenses can be suspended, or doctors can be allowed to practice with restrictions, such as chaperone requirements or being prohibited to treat female patients.

In one example, the medical board suspended the license of Rome cardiac surgeon Zachary F. Solomon in January 2020, two months after his arrest on charges of rape, aggravated assault, aggravated sodomy, aggravated battery and misdemeanor battery. He is accused of choking a woman and hitting her on the side of her head, causing her eardrum to rupture, in an Athens apartment.

Credit: Clarke County Sheriff's Office

Credit: Clarke County Sheriff's Office

Such quick intervention is rare, though.

Since the new law was enacted, one other case has come to light of a Georgia physician accused of child sex crimes, and the medical board hasn’t acted against that doctor, either. Savannah orthopedic surgeon Mark A. Winchell was arrested in a South Carolina sting operation last month. He is accused of sending nude photos of himself to someone he believed to be a 14-year-old girl.

Neither Winchell nor Solomon responded to messages seeking comment for this story.

John Banja, a medical ethicist at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, said the board is right to hold off on disciplining doctors over criminal allegations before a conviction or a guilty plea.

ExploreFrom 2020: Georgia medical board rarely disciplines doctors, audit confirms

“I think there needs to proof,” Banja said. “And that evidentiary process I think should be navigated, mediated, processed by a court.”

But Hollingsworth said patients are entitled to information that could affect their safety or medical decisions. “If you went to a doctor, or your wife or significant other went to a doctor, and didn’t know that they were being investigated for sexual misconduct — oh my gosh! I would be so upset,” she said.

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

Innocence lost

The arrest warrant for Wyatt involves one alleged victim who says the abuse started around 1978, when he was 6. According to the unnamed man’s account in the warrant, Wyatt showed him pornographic magazines and molested him, then over the next two years subjected him to more sex acts.

Two other men who accompanied that alleged victim to the Miami-Dade Police Department told a detective that Wyatt committed “lewd and lascivious” acts on them, too. One was Gentry Fry, a 49-year-old filmmaker and YouTuber, and the only one of the three willing to speak publicly.

Fry said he recalls a Saturday morning in 1980 when he went outside to climb trees. Wyatt, who was a neighbor, approached him and asked him to come to his house to see some model airplanes, Fry said.

Credit: Gentry Fry

Credit: Gentry Fry

Instead, Fry said, he showed him pornographic magazines. He also gave him a glass of cola, and the last thing Fry said he remembers is the man’s face close to his and his hot breath.

After that morning, Fry said his life went into a tailspin. He began shoplifting adult magazines and alcohol, then went on to live a tumultuous life of addiction, obesity, homelessness and institutionalization.

“I was put on an alternate path of a lifetime of nothing but symptom management — PTSD symptom management,” Fry said.

Credit: Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office

Credit: Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office

He said he finally got sober in 2017. Earlier this year, he came across a one-star review of Wyatt on a doctor locator website alleging he had been inappropriate with a patient.

Fry said that convinced him, his friend, and his friend’s younger brother to go to police.

Wyatt’s next court appearance is Dec. 2, and the case is scheduled for trial in January.