Georgia authorities have voted to charge Dr. Walter Presnell, a staff psychiatrist at St. Elizabeths Hospital here, with violating the state's medical practice law following allegations that Presnell sexually abused a male patient in the Boston area in the 1970s.
The administrative action could lead to suspension or revocation of Presnell's license to practice medicine if the charge is upheld, according to Andrew Watry, executive director of the Georgia board of medical examiners.
Presnell received his Georgia license in 1956 and practices at St. Elizabeths, the federally owned mental hospital located in Southeast. Presnell, who does not hold a District license, is able to practice at the federal institution under the auspices of the Georgia certificate.
Presnell, 59, was placed on administrative leave early in June by officials at St. Elizabeths after disclosure of the allegations by The Washington Post. A St. Elizabeths spokesman said the doctor returned to work yesterday while the hospital's investigation continues.
The spokesman, Harold Thomas, said last week that Presnell will be restricted to performing administrative tasks at the hospital and will not be permitted to treat patients pending the outcome of the investigation.
Thomas said hospital officials have had difficulty obtaining "authenticated documentation" relating to the sex abuse allegations and to Presnell's professional history, but are "aggressively pursuing" the investigation.
"Until we are able to develop information requiring that he be excluded from the job site, we think he's entitled to return to work," Thomas said.
Thomas declined to say whether Presnell had continued to receive his $64,764 salary while on leave.
"He's still on the staff and that's as far as I'll go," Thomas said.
Insurance companies providing malpractice coverage to Presnell agreed in April to pay $225,000 to the former patient, settling a lawsuit filed in federal court in Boston that alleged Presnell had sexually abused the patient during therapy sessions throughout the 1970s.
Presnell has denied the allegations.
In a prepared statement, St. Elizabeths said yesterday that the settlement "neither constitutes an admission that the allegations are true, nor does it disqualify Dr.Presnell from employment."
The hospital said a panel will decide whether Presnell will be allowed to begin treating patients again.
Georgia authorities began investigating Presnell after Daniel Burnstein, a Boston lawyer representing the former patient, filed a complaint several months ago.
Watry, the Georgia medical official, said specifics of the charges against Presnell are being processed by the state attorney general's office and will be made public soon.
Asked whether Presnell definitely would be charged, Watry said, "Absolutely."
When contacted by a reporter last week, Presnell said he was unaware of the Georgia medical board's decision and declined further comment. A hearing will follow, Watry said.