NEW YORK — Dr. Kevin M. Cahill has been a New York institution for decades. As a close friend and senior adviser to Gov. Hugh L. Carey in the 1970s, he helped shape the state’s health agencies and was considered the administration’s most influential voice on health policy.
Celebrities like Leonard Bernstein visited Cahill’s private practice on Fifth Avenue, as did Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Cahill and his family have for years run the American Irish Historical Society from an ornate mansion nearby.
Then, two years ago, a Colorado woman sued Cahill, 86, in federal court, alleging that he began pursuing a romantic relationship with her 13 years ago, when she was 19 and made an appointment to see him for a bad case of traveler’s diarrhea.
The patient’s lawsuit claims that Cahill sexually assaulted her during medical exams, ripping open her paper gown, fondling her breasts, penetrating her anus with his finger or an object, forcefully kissing her and telling her that he loved her.
Another former patient has come forward with similar allegations about the doctor since the suit was filed. The State Health Department has begun an investigation, according to Leo F. McGinity Jr., the doctor’s lawyer.
He said that the allegations were false and that Cahill had behaved professionally at all times. Cahill, who has not been charged with any crimes, did not respond to requests for an interview.
McGinity said the woman who sued Cahill, whose practice has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, was exploiting a friendship for financial gain and had demanded compensation even before she took legal action. “I don’t believe there’s any truth whatsoever to the suggestion that he pressured her for something more than friendship,” he said.
The case joins a litany of others recently in which patients have alleged that they were sexually abused by doctors, members of a profession that is largely self-regulated and accustomed to deferential treatment from the public.
The former patient who sued Cahill is Megan Wesko, 32, who is identifying herself publicly for the first time in this article.
Because of statutes of limitations that were in effect when her lawsuit was filed in 2020, Wesko’s lawsuit sought damages only for alleged events dating back two years. But legal experts are expecting a flood of similar litigation next year.
In May, New York state passed the Adult Survivors Act, giving sexual assault victims one year, beginning at the end of 2022, to file lawsuits against their assailants — even if the assaults occurred decades ago. The law allows for the expansion of existing lawsuits, like Wesko’s, to include instances of abuse over longer periods of time.
The New York Times has reviewed hundreds of emails and dozens of handwritten cards and voice messages from Cahill to Wesko that appear to support her contention that the physician pursued a romantic relationship with her for a decade after meeting her as a teenage patient.
In interviews with the Times, Wesko said she made clear to Cahill that she valued his support but was not interested in an intimate relationship with him.
“I care about you deeply, but in my heart I know I would like nothing more than a friendship,” she said in a Feb. 5, 2011, email.
“Can a younger beautiful woman fall in love with an old widower?” he mused in a Feb. 6, 2011, email. “Maybe that will not happen for us and love will vanish in the stars.”
Sexual contact between a physician and a patient is forbidden by the American Medical Association and has been proscribed by codes of medical ethics crafted as early as the Hippocratic oath.
“Romantic relationships between physicians and patients are absolutely prohibited,” Dr. Joseph A. Carrese, a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, said in an interview. “There is no controversy about that. It is absolutely forbidden.”
Wesko did not cut off communications with Cahill. That is not uncommon, said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, as patients are often uncertain about whether exams are inappropriate and fear no one will take their word.
“They worry, ‘I’ll end his career, and he was so nice to me and has done so many good things and helped so many people,’” Appelbaum added.
Wesko said she first consulted Cahill, a tropical disease specialist, on Sept. 2, 2009, after a trip to Nepal. There was no chaperone in the room, and Cahill performed an intrusive physical exam, she said, penetrating her anally with his finger or an object. (She was not sure which.)
No such exam is necessary at a first appointment like this, according to travel-medicine experts and medical association guidelines. Normally, doctors prescribe an antibiotic.
After the exam, Cahill spoke to Wesko in his office, she recalled, asking about her travels, suggesting he could open doors for her to the world of international humanitarian work and reciting a poem by W.B. Yeats. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is the smartest, most charming, well-read person,’” Wesko said. “I thought he would be a kind of mentor.”
After the appointment, Cahill called Wesko at her home several times and said she must come for a follow-up visit and attend a concert that evening at the American Irish Historical Society. He told her she could stay overnight in a room he had at Lenox Hill Hospital, she said.
He repeated the intrusive exam at the follow-up visit, and when he showed Wesko to his office in Lenox Hill Hospital’s tropical disease center after the concert, he tried to kiss her, she said.
She turned away, and he apologized, saying, as she recalled, “I’m sorry, I thought there was a connection.”
Margarita Oksenkrug, a spokeswoman for Lenox Hill Hospital, which is now part of Northwell Health, declined to comment. She said Cahill had not worked for the hospital since 2020, the year Wesko filed her lawsuit.
Wesko moved to the West and did not see Cahill again for 10 years. But he emailed, wrote letters and called, leaving scores of voice messages.
Cahill repeatedly invited her to visit, saying he wanted to show his Manhattan apartment to her. He replied to an email saying she wanted only a friendship with a string of messages, demanding to know how she could be so certain and accusing her of spurning his love because she was immature and cowardly.
Wesko responded less often and more tersely. But over the next few years, she started experiencing severe, unexplained pain, she said, and was repeatedly taken to emergency rooms. She could not locate a doctor able to treat her condition, she said, and in desperation emailed Cahill in 2018 to ask if he knew of a good physician in Colorado, where she was living.
She eventually got a diagnosis of endometriosis that required a specific kind of surgery. Specialists were located in New York, at Lenox Hill Hospital, and Cahill arranged for them to take her case. “He jumped in and took over everything,” she said.
Her health plan would not cover procedures done out of state, so Cahill arranged for both the hospital and the surgeons to waive their fees. But he insisted that Wesko come to him for two preoperative exams.
When Wesko objected to an exam Jan. 30, 2019, according to her lawsuit: “Dr. Cahill insisted that as her referring physician he needed to complete it. The implication was clear: She needed to meet Dr. Cahill’s demand or else she would not be able to receive the surgery that he had arranged and that she desperately needed.”
During that exam and a subsequent one, Cahill again penetrated her anally, and during the second exam, Cahill fondled her breasts, ripped open her paper gown, touched her stomach and pelvic area, and kissed her on the mouth, according to Wesko’s lawsuit.
There was no nurse or chaperone in the exam room, as is standard in most doctors’ offices, she said.
Cahill again told Wesko he loved her, later lamenting in a Feb. 7, 2019, voice message that he could not address “the insurmountable barriers you have erected. I can’t make myself young.”
A few months after her surgery, Wesko started talking with a therapist about her experience with Cahill. She came to believe he had preyed on her when she was vulnerable and used his position as a doctor to touch her sexually.
“I was just being groomed the whole time,” Wesko said.
Enraged, she said, she emailed him and demanded that he hand over the title to the Manhattan apartment that he had pressured her to visit, in order to make up for the trauma she felt he had inflicted.
She received a reply from McGinity, Cahill’s lawyer, saying that her email was an extortion attempt and that she could go to jail if Cahill pressed charges.
Even if Wesko prevails, she is unlikely to receive a big payout. Around the time that she filed her lawsuit, she declared bankruptcy because of mounting medical bills, and a judge has ruled that any monetary compensation in the case be capped at the amount of her debt, about $30,000, and go to reimburse her creditors.
“If all I wanted was his money, I could have married him,” Wesko said.
“Holding an abuser accountable is such a grueling process that not many women do it, and abusers know they can count on that,” she added. “But certain evils are too big to ignore.”
In an interview with the Times, another former patient described a similar exam.
Natalie Mauro, 35, said Fordham University referred her to Cahill for shots before a trip to Guyana in 2006 sponsored by a global outreach program. She was sick when she returned and was again referred to Cahill.
Cahill gave Mauro a paper gown to change into, she said, but it was so small that it did not close, so she put it on with the opening to the back. “He came in — there was no nurse — and immediately walked up beside me and ripped the front of my gown open,” Mauro said in an interview.
Though she was experiencing gastrointestinal problems, he examined her breasts and then had her lie on her side and inserted something — she is not sure what — into her anus, she said. “I remember gasping,” Mauro said.
She recalled telling her boyfriend afterward, “I feel like I just got raped by a 70-year-old doctor.”
Bob Howe, a spokesman for Fordham, said that any referrals made by university representatives to Cahill were “informal.” Cahill held numerous positions at the university, but, Howe said, they were honorary. Fordham also severed ties with Cahill in 2020, he said.
McGinity, his lawyer, said that Cahill “categorically denies these allegations” but that he does not deny conducting anal exams. “He is a doctor, and as a doctor performs rectal exams,” McGinity said.
The lawyer said that there was nothing unusual about the gowns that Cahill provided to the young women and that they were standard gowns that should have fit an adult woman.
He did not deny that Cahill tore patients’ gowns open but said that the behavior was appropriate, adding that Cahill only ripped the gown “if the patient put it on backwards.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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