LOS ANGELES (AP) — A former gynecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles pleaded not guilty Monday to sexually abusing two non-student patients.
Dr. James Heaps, who worked at UCLA for three decades, entered pleas to two counts of sexual battery by fraud and one count of sexual exploitation of a patient. He was released without bail.
“Sexual abuse in any form is unacceptable and represents an inexcusable breach of the physician-patient relationship,” Chancellor Gene Block and Vice Chancellor John Mazziotta said in a statement. “We are deeply sorry that a former UCLA physician violated our policies and standards, our trust and the trust of his patients.”
The charges recall similar allegations against a former University of Southern California gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall. Hundreds of current and former USC students accused Tyndall of misconduct. He denied wrongdoing and hasn’t been criminally charged, but USC agreed to pay $215 million to settle a class-action lawsuit.
Heaps, 62, worked part-time at UCLA’s student health clinic from 1983 to 2010. In 2014, his private practice was bought by UCLA Health and he was employed into 2018, when following an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct he was notified that his contract wasn’t being renewed, which was equivalent to a notification of intent to fire him, UCLA spokeswoman Rhonda Curry said.
At that point, he retired.
Curry said UCLA to date is aware of only four complaints involving Heaps and only one involved a woman who claimed she had attended UCLA.
That complaint, which came to light last year during the school’s investigation, was a 2015 Yelp review of a 2008 examination, she said.
The criminal allegations involve two women, one of them a 48-year-old mother of three, whom Heaps examined in 2017 and 2018, Green said.
The 2017 patient alleged that Heaps improperly fingered her genital ring piercing and the mother alleged that he improperly placed his fingers in her vagina during an examination, Green said.
UCLA settled a claim by the 2017 patient but details were not disclosed.
Heaps’ attorney said the exams were conducted in accord with proper procedure.
The Medical Board of California showed no records of discipline against Heaps and he has a current license to practice medicine.
“It’s very clear that he only treated patients with dignity and respect,” Green said.
UCLA alumnus Holly Kurtz said she was stunned by the news but impressed that her alma mater seems to be making an effort to be as transparent as possible.
“I was kind of surprised. I thought they would tell students, faculty, staff,” she said. “I thought it was good that they’re also telling alumni.”
Kurtz, who attended UCLA in the 1970s and worked on the campus newspaper The Daily Bruin, said she never had any interaction with Heaps, who didn’t arrive until the 1980s.
Still, the revelation shocked her.
“Every time one of these things come out at a university campus or wherever, you think, ‘How can this happen again?’ But it does. It does,” she said.
The university said current or former students who have concerns or complaints about Heaps can contact Praesidium, a company that works with businesses and organizations to help prevent sexual abuses.
Praesidium will pass on reports to UCLA and any that require reporting to law enforcement will be forwarded, Curry said.
In March, UCLA also launched an independent review of the university’s response to sexual misconduct in clinical settings, and changes will be made where necessary.
“We know in health care we can always do better,” Curry said. “We are deeply distressed that we have broken trust with patients … we are always looking for improvements.”
California lawmakers are trying to make it easier this year for people who were abused by doctors at campus health centers as far back as 30 years ago to file for damages against the university.
However, the bill explicitly exempts public universities, meaning it wouldn’t apply to UCLA. The exemption was added as an amendment earlier this year. The bill has passed the Assembly and is now in the state Senate.
Under the bill, anyone who was sexually abused by a doctor at a campus health center between Jan. 1, 1988, and Jan. 1, 2017, has a fresh one-year window to file claims for damages.
UCLA students would be able to access a state law that took effect this January that extends the timeline to file claims related to sexual abuse for up to 10 years after the incident occurred or three years after the victim realized what happened. But that would only apply to more recent incidents of abuse.
Associated Press writers John Rogers, Kathleen Ronayne and Don Thompson contributed to this story.