WATERBURY — A medical ethicist testified Tuesday that St. Francis Hospital could not have been expected — under widely accepted scientific guidelines — to monitor Dr. George Reardon's fictitious growth study because the so-called study was never presented as true research or submitted to the hospital for approval.
The assertion by Dr. Robert Levine, an internationally recognized bioethicist at Yale University, supports the hospital's effort in court to portray the sham growth study that Reardon used as a pretext to abuse children as a reflection of what colleagues thought was Reardon's interest in collecting data on pediatric growth rates — not scientific research that the hospital could have been required to approve and monitor.
As the trial of the first suit against St. Francis by a Reardon victim nears its conclusion, the hospital lawyers are trying to refute the argument presented earlier by the anonymous plaintiff that Reardon's so-called study was medical research and that the hospital's failure to supervise it allowed a pedophile to systematically sexually abuse hundreds of his child subjects.
Reardon's victims — there are 93 adults suing St. Francis over abuse that they suffered decades ago as Reardon child subjects — have demanded more than $100 million in damages from St. Francis. So far, efforts to mediate a settlement have failed. The defense could rest Wednesday, meaning that the first suit, now in its fifth week of trial, could go to the six-member civil jury Thursday or Friday.
Levine is a widely published expert on the ethics of medical research involving human subjects. He helped formulate portions of the guidelines that hospitals such as St. Francis agreed to follow before accepting federal research grant money beginning in the 1960s, when Reardon became chief of endocrinology.
Lawyers for the anonymous plaintiff have presented witnesses and records from St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center that they contend show the hospital, at last in Reardon's case, ignored the federal research rules.
Under questioning by hospital lawyer James Rotondo, Levine argued that, under the federal research standards in effect when the first plaintiff was abused in the 1970s and '80s, St. Francis had no responsibility for Reardon's so-called study.
The information that Reardon shared with colleagues and hospital administrators about his work suggested he was simply taking periodic measurements of children to chart how fast they were growing, Levine said.
Because Reardon's work involved no medical intervention and, from what was known at the time, presented no risk to his subjects, he was not required under then-current research standards to submit the work for peer approval by either of two hospital committees charged with approving staff research projects, Levine said.
And because Reardon's so-called study required no hospital approval, Levine said, the hospital had no responsibility under then-current research rules to supervise it.
Michael Stratton, who represents the first plaintiff, known in court as John Doe 2, was unable to open any cracks in Levine's testimony, as he has with other defense witnesses.
Pressed by Stratton, Levine, who has been a tenured professor at Yale's medical school since 1968, said St. Francis had no obligation to "proactively" examine Reardon's work to ensure that his subjects were safe. In the 1960s and '70s, he said, federal rules created "reactive" hospital research committees.
"It was considered the standard of care in the field," Levine said. "That's the way committees worked. They waited for someone to submit something to be considered and then they considered it."
Had Reardon submitted his growth study for approval to an appropriate St. Francis medical committee, Levine said, the committee would have dismissed it as data collection rather than research, and there would have been no supervision.
Witnesses for the victim testified earlier in the trial that Reardon's work should have created a number of questions in the minds of his colleagues and hospital administrators. One witness, an expert in pediatric growth, said there was no reason for Reardon to be collecting growth-rate data because the definitive work in the subject had just been completed and published elsewhere.
Levine's testimony supported an argument by the hospital that it should not be held liable for the abuse that Reardon carried out under the pretext of a growth study. The hospital lawyers continued to have difficulty Tuesday in presenting another aspect of that defense.
Superior Court Judge Dan Shaban ruled that he would limit the testimony Wednesday by Dr. Anna Salter, a widely known defense expert on the behavior of pedophiles. She will be allowed to testify that Reardon was a pedophile and that pedophiles are deceptive and difficult to detect. But Shaban said she would not be allowed to express her opinion that St. Francis could not reasonably have been expected to detect Reardon's pedophilia.
Earlier in the defense case, Shaban prevented another defense expert from testifying that pedophilia was not widely recognized as a threat to children at the time that Reardon was working at St. Francis. The expert would have testified that pedophilia was not generally recognized as a threat until the child abuse scandals that were revealed in the Catholic Church in the 1990s.