Vt. doctor pleads no contest in sex case

Gets probation, gives up license

By John Curran
Associated Press / January 20, 2010

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ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. - With his second trial about to begin, an orthopedic surgeon accused of molesting a female patient during an exam pleaded no contest yesterday to a misdemeanor and agreed to a lifetime revocation of his medical license.

Under the deal, Dr. Joseph Abate entered the plea to one count of a prohibited act - lewdness - in exchange for a suspended sentence of 9 to 12 months in jail, two years’ probation, and the lifetime ban. He will not be required to register as a sex offender.

The 24-year-old victim consented to the plea to bring some closure. But she remains angry at Abate, whom she accused of touching her genitals during a 2007 exam.

“I’m thankful that you will no longer have the opportunity to flex the power of your medical license to hurt other young, innocent females that never expected that you’d use them for your own selfish gratification,’’ she said in a victim impact statement filed with Vermont District Court.

“Although you’ve broken my spirit, I’ve tried to find the strength and the courage to grow in the broken places. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve stood up to you and I’ve stood up for the truth,’’ she wrote.

The Associated Press does not identify victims of sexual assault.

Abate, 49, declined comment as he left court. In a statement issued later yesterday, his lawyer, Eric Miller, said Abate was confident that the jury in the second trial would have found the state’s case deficient but that the plea allows him to move on with his life.

“Throughout the case, Dr. Abate never wavered in his position that his examinations of the complaining patients were performed solely for legitimate medical purposes. During the first trial, four prominent surgeons testified that Dr. Abate’s examination methods were medically legitimate and diagnostically valuable,’’ the statement said.

The plea, announced in court just as opening statements were to begin, caps a 2 1/2-year prosecution stemming from alleged attacks by the South Burlington doctor, who practiced in Colchester. He was charged with four counts of sexual assault and three counts of aggravated sexual assault, but his trial in May ended in a hung jury.

Prosecutors opted to try him again with only one alleged victim, which Assistant Attorney General Cindy Maguire said was a strategic decision and didn’t reflect on the others’ willingness to go to trial a second time.

In the second trial, he faced two counts - one count each of sexual assault and lewd and lascivious conduct.

The first trial was held in Burlington, but the second was moved to St. Johnsbury amid concerns about the effect of pretrial publicity on would-be jurors. A seven-woman, five-man jury was set to hear the case beginning yesterday but never entered the courtroom because of the plea.

Abate had voluntarily ceased practicing medicine while the charges were pending.

Maguire defended the state’s decision to prosecute the case and called the plea a fair outcome.