A retired gynecologist who worked at the University of California, Los Angeles for decades has pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing two patients during examinations and the campus is asking anyone who may have other complaints against him to step forward.
Dr. James Heaps, 62, pleaded not guilty Monday to sexual battery by fraud against two patients in 2017 and 2018. He also pleaded not guilty to a count of sexual exploitation of a patient and was released without bail.
The women weren’t UCLA students but they were seen at Heaps’ office on the UCLA campus.
“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.”
But Heaps’ attorney, Tracy Green, accused the university of rushing to judgment in the wake of a headline-making scandal involving similar allegations against a former gynecologist at the University of Southern California.
USC paid out $215 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that Dr. George Tyndall engaged in misconduct with patients. Hundreds of current and former USC students have made allegations against Tyndall, who has denied them and hasn’t been criminally charged.
“I think they were very scared about happened at USC,” Green said. “Dr. Heaps knows that he did not do this.”
The USC scandal prompted a bill now in the state Senate that would make it easier 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.
Green said Heaps, 62, worked a half-day a month at the UCLA student health center from 1989 to 2010 and had a private practice on campus from 1991 to 2014, when he sold it to UCLA Health and became an employee, Green said.
In 2018, following an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct, Heaps 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.
“These are two baseless allegations and James Heaps’ examinations were medically indicated, with medical assistants or a nurse present, and done solely for proper medical and professional purposes,” Green said.
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, 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.”
Associated Press writers John Rogers, Kathleen Ronayne and Don Thompson contributed to this story.
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