(AP) - A Pennsylvania pediatric practice knew that one of its physicians was a threat to molest young patients but did nothing to protect them, and in fact took steps to shield the longtime staffer before he was finally arrested and pleaded guilty to sexually abusing dozens of children, according to a civil suit filed Wednesday.
Laurel Pediatric Associates in Johnstown knew at least two decades ago that Dr. Johnnie Barto's patients were in "serious danger," but continued to allow him to treat - and molest - children, explaining away parents' complaints about his sexual misconduct, the suit said.
Barto, 71, was sentenced in March to an effective life sentence for sexually assaulting 31 children, most of them patients. Prosecutors said he spent decades abusing patients in the exam room of the pediatric practice.
Five former patients of Barto, including two sets of siblings, are seeking unspecified money damages from Barto, Laurel Pediatric and Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, a hospital where he had privileges.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they represent nearly 40 former patients of Barto, and they said the number continues to grow. More lawsuits are planned.
"We're really just getting started," said attorney Sarah Klein, a former gymnast who was one of the first known sexual abuse victims of former national team doctor Larry Nassar. "There's a massive problem in the medical community here and in other places, and we're going to insist on change that makes children safe."
A woman who answered the phone at Laurel Pediatric said "no comment" and hung up. In a statement, Conemaugh, which is owned by Tennessee-based Duke LifePoint Healthcare, called Barto's conduct "reprehensible" but noted he wasn't an employee. "We dispute any allegations of wrongdoing on the part of DLP Conemaugh Memorial," the statement said.
State authorities had a chance to stop Barto in 2000, when he appeared before the Pennsylvania Board of Medicine on administrative charges that he molested two young girls in the 1990s. But regulators threw out the case and allowed him to keep practicing medicine, saying the allegations were "incongruous to his reputation."
Barto was a beloved pediatrician in Johnstown - and an elected school board member - with hundreds of supporters who refused to believe he was a pedophile.
After the medical board cleared him, Barto felt "invincible," he later told authorities. Barto went on to violate at least a dozen more young patients before his arrest in January 2018.
Given the allegations, Barto's colleagues were "on notice that Barto presented an unreasonably high risk of harm to his minor patients, and yet through silence, acquiescence, denial, and misrepresentation they failed to act in any way to protect Barto's minor patients," the suit said.
Two of the health providers who allegedly minimized patients' complaints about Barto - pediatrician Dr. Elaine Confer and nurse practitioner Bradley Callihan - still work at Laurel Pediatric, according to the practice's website.
After Barto molested an 8-year-old girl and her 10-year-old brother at Laurel in October 2016, the suit said, the children's mother confronted Confer, their regular pediatrician. Confer "confirmed that she had been informed previously about Barto's inappropriate conduct with children," and promised "they would speak with him again about his 'odd bedside manner,'" the suit said. The suit said Confer did nothing.
Nearly a decade earlier, Barto, Callihan and an unidentified office manager met with the parents of a 16-year-old girl who had accused Barto of performing unnecessary breast and genital exams. The suit said Callihan and the manager claimed Barto was merely being "thorough" and that the girl's parents would be "singing (Barto's) praises if he had discovered a lump."
Messages were left at home phone listings for Confer and Callihan seeking their comment on the allegations.