The Rabbi Defends the Pediatrician

He was perfect: self-assured, with sterling credentials, and generations of adoring mothers entrusted their children to him. He was active in his community, and in his Reform synagogue. So when the New York State Health Department last December revoked the license of Dr. Stuart Copperman, 66, after an investigation revealed that he had sexually molested six female patients, the affluent Long Island community where he had practiced pediatrics for 35 years went into convulsions, followed by denial.

Over and over again, people in Merrick, New York, where Dr. Copperman had his in-house office, said that they couldn’t believe that the good doctor, whom many described as “like a god,” had committed the hideous acts of which he was accused. One woman, who said she had known the doctor and his family for years, speculated that the young women who testified were all pathological liars. Six former patients, now adults, had testified to a state panel in the summer of 2000 that Dr. Copperman had molested them when they were teenagers. Their allegations of the abuse were strikingly similar, and graphic: the doctor, after telling their mothers that he wanted to talk to their daughters in private, would then perform a “vaginal cleaning” with his bare fingers. Moreover, after the story hit the media, dozens of additional women came forward with testimony, both to the media and to the State Health Department. Debra Geller Lieberman, 39, said that the doctor had molested her three times, when she was 8, 9, and 10. Lieberman’s father, also a doctor, was a colleague of Dr. Copperman. But, said Lieberman, when she later complained to her mother, the response she got was “a nice Jewish doctor from Long Island just doesn’t do things like that.”

Dr. Copperman has not to date been accused of a crime, although the Nassau County District Attorney continues to investigate the case. Revocation of his medical license was done under the state’s administrative law, which states that he can seek to reclaim it after three years.

Shortly after the story broke in Long Island Newsday last December, Rabbi Ronald Brown, rabbi of Dr. Copperman’s synagogue. Temple Beth Am of Merrick, where the doctor was a generous donor, wrote a letter to the local paper stating that the pediatrician “was a caring person and a dedicated physician,” that he had known the doctor for years, that the doctor had taken care of the rabbi’s own children, and that Dr. Copperman was “a person to whom I can entrust the care of those I love.”

And while this public support of Dr. Copperman made many congregants angry, the rabbi did not retract his letter. One woman, who did not want to be identified, said that “the rabbi is still the rabbi, and you have to forgive him. Rabbi Brown didn’t know all the facts.”

Reporting this story for The New York Times this past September reminded me how risky it is for a woman to tell the truth, especially when she is going up against powerful men like the rabbi and the pediatrician. Nearly everybody I interviewed for the story later expressed regret for having commented on the case. A woman from the congregation who had agreed to he quoted called a few days later her voice shaking with anger, as she accused me of “trying to embarrass our temple.” Then another woman whom I had interviewed, whose daughter had been the first victim to come forward, screamed at me over the telephone after the Times article ran for supposedly “whitewashing ” the doctor. Never again, she told me, would she speak to a reporter I told her that however much she hated the way I had told the story, she had done the world a service by talking to me. How else would the victims ‘ voices have been heard?