Pediatrician’s suicide soothes no wounds

Plaintiffs speak of repeated abuse

Dr. Melvin Levine, shown in a 1996 photo. Dr. Melvin Levine, shown in a 1996 photo. (Andy Kuno/Associated Press/file)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / February 25, 2011

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Christopher Dean was in fourth grade, but says he remembers that first meeting as if it were yesterday.

Dr. Melvin D. Levine, the eminent doctor from Children’s Hospital Boston, was visiting Dean’s Brookline school to offer students free checkups. They met in the nurse’s office for about 15 minutes, and the boy left in tears, unwilling to say what happened.

“It was intensely embarrassing and humiliating,’’ said Dean, now 50, a Roslindale architect and one of several people speaking publicly for the first time about alleged abuse by Levine.

Last week, a day after a lawsuit accused Levine of sexually abusing thousands of pediatric patients during an accolade-filled career, the former chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Children’s, a Rhodes Scholar, and a best-selling author walked into a wooded area near his home in North Carolina and killed himself with a 12-gauge shotgun blast to the forehead.

Neither relatives of Levine nor an attorney in Boston who represented the doctor returned calls for comment. They have previously said Levine was innocent.

The 71-year-old doctor’s suicide, confirmed yesterday by the state medical examiner’s office in North Carolina, left some of his alleged victims saying they felt violated again, denied a chance to confront him in court and seek justice.

Several of those suing the doctor said they had complicated feelings about Levine’s death and have trouble reconciling how a man who seemed to help so many children could have committed such crimes.

“He would ask the most cursory questions, get my clothes off, and start fondling me,’’ said Dean, who said Levine abused him during about 10 visits to Children’s Hospital when he was between the ages of 9 and 13. “I don’t feel good about [the suicide], but I don’t feel sorry for him.’’

He added: “I thought this was going to be my big moment of closure, but he denied me of that, and more than anything else, that made me angry.’’

Several of Levine’s former patients interviewed for this report, each of whom said he did not know other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, fought back tears as they recounted having to disrobe for the doctor and his groping them, without a parent present. The suit, which plaintiffs plan to pursue against Levine’s estate and Children’s Hospital, cites 40 former patients, who said Levine performed unnecessary genital exams when he worked in Boston from 1966 through 1985.

David F. Cullen, 54, who grew up in Mission Hill, said he has blacked out much of the abuse but remembers how Levine took him to Washington, D.C., when he was 10 or 11. He said his mother thought it was a great opportunity for her son, who had never been on a plane or far from home. Levine promised to bring him to a medical museum and the Smithsonian.

“During the day, at odd times, he would bring me back to a room at the hotel,’’ said Cullen, a firefighter and father of three who lives in West Palm Beach, Fla.

He said Levine would make him undress in the bathroom. “I remember standing in the doorway, feeling like what was electricity shooting through my body,’’ he said. “I was confused. This was Dr. Levine, who I was supposed to trust. I didn’t know it was wrong.’’

As he recalled the experience, he cried. “He would make me get in bed with him and take his clothes off,’’ he said. “I have vivid memories of the dark hair on his arms and his chest. I remember the dark glasses. He would put his arm around me, and he would [fondle me]. He used to play this game with me, and he taught me all the bones in the body, and I remembered that throughout my entire life.’’

He said he told his mother and said she complained to officials at Children’s. Hospital officials have said they received only one complaint against Levine, which they dismissed, and never covered up “any inappropriate conduct’’ related to him.

Cullen said the experience has made it hard for him to express feelings and develop relationships. “It has really distorted my perspective on how normal people live their lives,’’ he said. “I have a 20-year-old daughter, and I can’t even hug her. . . . What happened affected everything about me.’’

Donald Roy, 46, a father of six and former alderman from Chicopee who works at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he met Levine in 1976, when he was 10 or 11, to be treated for migraines and behavioral issues. He said Levine abused him during two of his four visits to Children’s.

“The first time I felt awkward during a visit was when he had me walk from one wall to another wall in his exam room, naked,’’ Roy said. “I couldn’t understand why he would need me to do that.’’

During one visit, after having surgery to remove a growth on his head, Roy said Levine undressed him on an examining table. “He was very liberal in handling my private parts,’’ Roy said. “. . . I didn’t understand what he was doing, and I didn’t know it wasn’t right. I was just really uncomfortable.’’

He said he feels ashamed of the experience, which made him “extremely overly defensive’’ as a parent. “It’s really tragic, catastrophic, what he did to us and to himself,’’ Roy said. “The experience is never going to leave my head.’’

The suit filed last week was the second against Levine by Boston lawyer Carmen L. Durso. In 2008, Durso’s suit in Suffolk Superior Court accused Levine of abusing at least seven boys at Children’s. Durso suggested that case had been settled, but he would not comment on terms.

In March 2009, Levine signed an agreement with the North Carolina Medical Board, saying he would no longer practice medicine. The agreement followed allegations that Levine had performed improper genital examinations on boys while he was at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, where he was a professor in the department of pediatrics between 1987 and 2006.

Prosecutors in Boston have said they had insufficient criminal evidence to charge Levine.

Durso noted it was difficult to prosecute such cases because of the time that has passed and the shame they engendered. He pointed out that many sexual abuse victims repress memories of the crimes and that such cases often surface years later.

Levine, who specialized in children with developmental and educational issues, had appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show’’ to promote his books.

Among the alleged victims who joined Durso’s latest lawsuit, Neil Liston still harbors deep anger toward Levine. The 38-year-old personal trainer from Nahant said Levine fondled and performed oral sex on him during an appointment at Children’s in 1979 when he was 7.

“When I saw my mom after it happened, I was so freaked out that I wet my pants,’’ Liston said. “I remember looking at his head and not understanding what was happening. I remember holding my breath.’’

He said he told his family what happened, but his grandfather decided to keep quiet because he thought nobody would believe them and that it would cause Liston more problems if they made a big deal about it.

He blames the experience on a long list of personal problems and said he requires therapy and struggles with depression.

“When I learned that he died, the truth is that I felt robbed,’’ he said. “I just wanted to look at him and see what his reaction was when he had to look us in the eye . . . I didn’t want an apology; I would have liked to punch him right in the head. Maybe I wanted some sort of admission of guilt.’’

David Abel can be reached at