How The Wall Street Journal and FRONTLINE Uncovered a Pedophile Doctor’s Past
Wall Street Journal reporters Christopher Weaver, Dan Frosch and Gabe Johnson spent more than two years investigating the Indian Health Service, the federal agency that provides health care for Native Americans. In collaboration with FRONTLINE, they found that the agency employed a number of problem doctors, including Dr. Stanley Patrick Weber, a pedophile who — despite the suspicions of co-workers up and down the chain of command — continued treating children for more than two decades. FRONTLINE’s Rahima Nasa spoke to Weaver about how he and his colleagues got the story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to learn about Dr. Weber?
We first heard about Dr. Weber over the course of reporting on the Indian Health Service hospitals in the Dakotas. We were covering some regulatory problems those hospitals had, one of them being that they were kicked out of the Medicare program, which is about the stiffest sanction that a U.S. hospital could ever get. In more than 10 years of covering U.S. health care, the only hospitals I’ve encountered that have faced that penalty were the ones that would later be indicted on fraud charges and things like that. It’s just not something that ordinarily happens, so it caught our attention. In this case, the hospitals were getting penalized for poor care.
One of the other things that began to emerge was that a lot of the doctors who were employed by the Indian Health Agency had issues clinically, like maybe they had malpractice claims against them or some track record of adverse effects in the operating room. Also, there were doctors with conduct problems.
We heard about these very serious allegations: that a pediatrician at this one hospital in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, had been sexually assaulting his patients for many years and on possibly more than one reservation. We thought, if this was true, that exemplifies the broader range of issues that this agency has been grappling with and has been unable to put an end to.
What were some of the challenges you, Dan and Gabe faced during your reporting on tribal communities?
Trying to get documents for this story has been a huge challenge, and it’s not just with the tribe. We don’t have the same access or right to government records that members of the tribe would have. We have not had the law on our side in trying to get records of the tribes’ own investigations or some of the incidents that surround the story.
For instance, Dr. Weber faced justice not because of something the IHS or federal investigators did, but because a tribal investigator took the initiative to pursue this guy even though the tribe has no jurisdiction to prosecute a non-Indian perpetrator of an alleged crime. But the records of that investigation, which could have been invaluable, are basically unavailable to us.
But even more vexing is that the federal records, the Indian Health Service’s own records, have been really hard to come by. They’ve not produced substantive responses to our FOIA requests in many cases. In some measure it’s a reflection of the dysfunction of the agency, because I don’t think they are stonewalling us on some specific requests. They may just not have documentation of stuff that you would expect a government agency that’s running hospitals to have at its fingertips.
How did you convince folks to trust you all to tell this complicated and sensitive story?
When we first got there, people were skeptical of us. Then, when we came back again, we were just people who were around — people expected to run into us. We’ve made at least eight trips to Pine Ridge and additional trips to the Blackfeet Reservation near Browning, Montana, and additional reporting trips to other locations. We spent eight weeks on the Pine Ridge reservation over the course of a year and became familiar faces.
How did you approach privacy concerns from victims?
At The Journal, we have a pretty strict policy to not out victims of sexual assault who have not agreed to be identified affirmatively. There are people who we are not naming because of that. There have been some people who have been identified in court records, in the public record, and we named them in some cases.
It’s hard to talk about with people. For many of them this is the last thing in the world that they want to discuss. I don’t worry about offending people when I ask about this. I think it’s clear that we genuinely want to know, and I think in many cases people have agreed to talk to us because of that.
What does the IHS need to do to better handle cases like this in the future?
I mean, it’s a tough thing. The balancing act they are trying to achieve is real, right? They need to fill positions in their hospitals, and they need to keep those hospitals open because in many cases they are the only access that the people they serve have to health care. The pool of medical providers and administrative leaders they have to choose from is not always as good as you would hope. As one senior administrator in the agency told us, they just don’t get “the best of the best.” They’re making compromises all the time because they want to keep their facilities operating.
I don’t know exactly what the answer is. If you take a zero tolerance policy for providers who have conduct issues, or if you fire every provider who gets nailed with a DUI, then you’re reducing the pool of people you have to provide the only health services that are available.
But on the other hand, they have created a situation in which they are running into the inevitable problem of having to make those kinds of compromises. The buck stops not just with the Indian Health Service, but with the federal health department and with Congress, which appropriates the money that they have at their disposal to fix it.
Is there anything that wasn’t captured in the film or print story that you want to emphasize?
We spent a lot of time with these people, and in some cases we spent a lot of time with friends and families of victims, with administrators, with people who one way or another touch a different part of the story … People who, in many cases, were living in these really dire situations. There’s this incredible circumspection about what’s going on in the world that immediately surrounded them and the history that they are living with — that was kind of a surprise to me. You hear a lot about intergenerational trauma when talking about the Sioux Indians … the Wounded Knee massacre was just in the 1890s, so up until recently a lot of great-grandmas may have remembered it.
A lot of reporting on indigenous people by those outside of the community has a tendency to rely on stereotypes — usually with a focus on substance abuse, poverty or exotifying their identity. How did you, Dan and Gabe circumvent that in your reporting?
The first guy we interviewed on the Pine Ridge reservation was named Henry Brown. He didn’t actually make it to the film. What he said to us was that every day of the year, somebody is on Pine Ridge making a documentary …
In looking at other work on the reservation, it’s always about the day in the life of a particular niche — like basketball in America’s poorest place, or about fixing cars in America’s poorest place or whatever. That kind of celebritization of poverty, of guys like Henry Brown, made people skeptical of us at first, because they are so used to having people film the trash piles in people’s backyards and things.
We made this really conscious decision from the beginning to not to let the poverty or the Indian-ness be something that we’d focus on. We wanted to cover this crime the same way we’d cover it in suburban Connecticut. We were there not to cover the story of a pedophile in America’s poorest place, but to cover this incredible tragedy that would have been a tragedy anywhere. At the same time, like any tragedy, it would take on some of the character of the people that it happened to — that it was visited upon. You can’t be on Pine Ridge and not see the poverty, or be affected by it or see people outside of it. We just decided to unravel this crime and what the fact that this was allowed to happen said about the Indian Health Service, an arm of the federal government.