For children struggling in school, Dr. Melvin Levine has been a great advocate. For decades, Levine, a pediatrician, has championed the idea that poorly performing students are not lazy or dumb but need to be educated in a different way.
Or, as he has summed up his philosophy: “Every child has strengths. No exception.”
Levine's advocacy made him famous. PBS broadcast a series, “Misunderstood Minds,” based on his work. He appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and his book “A Mind at a Time” became a best-seller. All Kinds of Minds, the nonprofit he founded with Charles Schwab, has trained 42,000 teachers in his methods, and contracts with dozens of schools each year to carry out his ideas.
The acclaim benefited both Children's Hospital Boston, the teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, where he practiced until 1985, and the Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning at UNC Chapel Hill, where he served as director until retiring in 2006.
So it came as a shock in March when Carmen Durso, a lawyer in Massachusetts who had sued the Archdiocese of Boston for sexual abuse by priests, held a news conference accusing Levine, 68, of sexually abusing five former patients when they were boys. The accusations relate to events between 1967 and 1985, but the first of the four lawsuits on behalf of these men was filed three years ago. There are no criminal charges against him.
Levine vehemently denies both the accusations and ever sexually touching a patient. And many defenders argue that he could not have worked at the pinnacle of his profession for so long if the accusations were true.
There have been, however, other complaints, dating back 20 years. In 1985, a few months after he left Boston, court records show that a letter of complaint was sent to the president of Children's Hospital. That complaint turned into a civil lawsuit filed in 1988 in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts. There was also a formal complaint to the Massachusetts medical board in 1993. And Dr. William Coleman, a longtime medical colleague, said Levine told him in 2002 that another former patient was claiming sexual abuse.
None of the cases was proved in court. The lawsuit was dismissed in 1991 for lack of evidence. The Massachusetts medical board did not find enough evidence to act on the 1993 complaint. The patient who made the complaint to Levine in 2002 is now a plaintiff represented by Durso.
But these decisions are not as clear-cut as they may seem. There is little evidence that Children's Hospital, the University of North Carolina or the medical board ever tried to thoroughly investigate the accusations. For instance, in at least two cases, parents and children were never interviewed. And the institutions did not notify one another about the individual complaints.
The pattern itself may also be troubling. Dr. Douglas Diekema, chairman of the committee on bioethics at the American Academy of Pediatricians, said it was difficult to know how many complaints an average pediatrician would receive during a career because such complaints, unless proved, are usually hidden from the public. But, he added, “in my experience, three or more is above average.”
Because of the litigation, Levine's lawyers advised him not to be interviewed for this article. He sent a 14-page autobiography that described his career, his hobbies and his wife of 40 years, Bambi. They have no children.
A Rhodes scholar, Levine attended Harvard Medical School and later joined the faculty. By the 1970s, he was focused on treating children with learning disabilities, winning millions of dollars in grants. The five men who have filed lawsuits against Levine say they do not know one another, but their charges are similar: During physical examinations, which parents were discouraged from attending, the boys, ages 5 to 13, were asked to strip naked. They were then allegedly touched inappropriately.
Because of the nature of the accusations, these men have chosen not to disclose their identities to the public. Their names, however, are known to defendants.
Since Durso's news conference, he says, 43 former male patients – or their mothers speaking for them – have also said they were victims of abuse. All were treated at Children's Hospital or at the University of North Carolina.
Those from North Carolina are represented by Elizabeth Kuniholm, a lawyer working with Durso.
Kuniholm says four men and the parents of two others told their stories to the North Carolina Medical Board. She does not yet know how many will sue.