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Michigan failed to act on warning signs as doctor molested athletes for decades, report finds

Tad DeLuca, center, listened as attorney Parker Stinar addressed the media during a news conference in February 2020. The earliest allegation against Robert Anderson came in 1975, when DeLuca, a wrestler, complained in writing to his coach. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

A longtime University of Michigan doctor, now dead, molested hundreds of patients, including many former athletes, and top university officials failed to act on warning signs and ignored complaints dating from 1975, according to a law firm’s report released by the university Tuesday.

The 240-page report, produced by D.C. law firm WilmerHale, largely supports allegations made in lawsuits and news accounts over the past year against Robert Anderson, who worked for the university from 1966 to 2003 and died in 2008. Anderson, who worked in Michigan’s athletic department from 1981 to 1999, routinely conducted medically unnecessary rectal and genital examinations as part of what investigators termed a “pervasive, decades-long, destructive pattern of sexual misconduct.”

More than 230 former patients have filed lawsuits against Michigan in U.S. District Court in Detroit, the university has acknowledged, and those cases are in confidential mediation. Stephen Estey, an attorney for 75 alleged victims of Anderson, said in a phone interview that Tuesday’s report supports what his clients have been saying since allegations against Anderson came to public attention in early 2020.

“Basically, the report confirms what we already knew: There were decades of sexual abuse that went on at the University of Michigan, and they had plenty of opportunities to prevent this,” Estey said.

Anderson’s abusive conduct continued for decades after university officials ignored complaints against him in the late 1970s, the report said, and it was such common knowledge among students that they developed nicknames for him, such as “Handy Andy,” “Dr. Handerson” and “Dr. Drop Your Drawers Anderson.”

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“The University of Michigan offers its heartfelt apology for the abuse perpetrated by the late Robert Anderson,” said a statement released Tuesday by Michigan President Mark Schlissel and the school’s board of regents. “We will thoughtfully and diligently review and assess the report’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations; and we will work to regain the trust of survivors and to assure that we foster a safe environment for our students, our employees, and our community.”

The earliest allegation against Anderson came in 1975, when Tad DeLuca, a Michigan wrestler, complained in writing to his coach, Bill Johannesen.

“Something is wrong with Dr. Anderson. Regardless of what you were there for, he asks that you ‘drop your drawers’ and cough,” DeLuca wrote to Johannesen.

In interviews with investigators, Johannesen denied receiving a complaint about Anderson but did acknowledge hearing “scuttlebutt” among his wrestlers, the report stated, “such as ‘you go to see Dr. Anderson for a sore elbow and he tells you to take your pants down.’ ”

“But Mr. Johannesen told us that no one ever said, ‘Hey, Coach, there’s something weird about this doctor,’ ” investigators wrote.

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In late 1978 or 1979, several complaints about Anderson were made to an assistant vice president at Michigan, Thomas Easthope, who told investigators he confronted the doctor and fired him but was overruled by his boss, then-vice president for student services Henry Johnson. In his interview, Johnson denied being made aware of any complaints about Anderson, according to the report, and investigators did not find any documentary evidence to contradict his claim.

The report is inconclusive as it relates to legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, who died in 2006 but has been accused in lawsuits of ignoring complaints about Anderson. One former football player told investigators he informed Schembechler in 1976 that Anderson had given him a rectal exam and fondled his testicles as part of a routine physical. Another former football player told investigators of a similar incident in 1982, in which Schembechler told the player he would look into his allegations.

There is no evidence Schembechler ever acted on the complaints, but no documentary evidence exists to corroborate them, investigators acknowledged. The report also described several other allegations of Schembechler ignoring complaints made in lawsuits by former football players who declined to participate in the investigation.

“Multiple University personnel who worked with Mr. Schembechler told us that had he been aware of Dr. Anderson’s misconduct with patients, he would not have tolerated it,” the report stated.

No current members of university leadership were implicated in the report, but Michigan head athletic trainer Paul Schmidt did acknowledge, in his interview with investigators, an awareness of Anderson performing rectal exams on athletes that several experts told investigators were medically unnecessary.

Schmidt, an assistant athletic director, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Schmidt denied to investigators an allegation by an athlete that he had said “get used to that” in response to a complaint about Anderson. But Schmidt — who acknowledged he held Anderson in high regard — said he had heard of allegations that athletes who saw Anderson for a cold “had to drop their pants.”

“He believes that Dr. Anderson may have been checking their lymph nodes for signs of an infection,” the report said. “... The medical experts we consulted all agree that it was not the standard of care at the time to check lymph nodes in the groin area when examining a patient for a common cold.”

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