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Corporate crisis rocks Baptist; charges of sexual child abuse cause officials to circle the wagons as tabloid TV arrives.

EITHER A STRONG foundation of truth lies at the bottom of Baptist Medical System's public relations nightmare of alleged sexual abuse by an employee, or this is one of the most bizarre instances of mass rumor-mongering ever to be treated as fact.

A Little Rock police investigation, brought to light by KARK-TV's new brand of aggressive, tabloid journalism, is focusing on an official at Little Rock's Baptist Rehabilitation Institute. The allegation is that an official, under the guise of helping troubled youths at the facility, used his authority to gain sexual favors from boys under his care.

Former and current hospital staff members say they are convinced a dark secret buried for years is finally seeing the light of day, while the administration at Baptist -- with the advice of legal counsel -- has maintained a "no comment" posture without denying the allegations.

Throw in veiled hints of corruption, conspiracy and cover-up and you have the stuff that tabloid television thrives on.

KARK-TV, Channel 4, seized the story and coverage first aired on Oct. 11, followed by three other installments and the promise of more to come. The faces of sources and their voices were altered to protect their identities. The dialogue was so heavily distorted that captions were inserted to make sure viewers could understand what was said. What the faceless blobs had to say was compelling, even if most Arkansans aren't used to having their local TV news served up a la "A Current Affair."

Baptist Remains Silent

Adding more fuel to the flames of speculation was the decision by officials at Baptist Medical System to remain silent.

"We have tried to be the most open health care organization in Arkansas," says Russ Harrington, president of Baptist Medical System, "but sometimes a situation dictates that another course of action is necessary. I've been advised there's really nothing more I can say until the investigation is completed."

And no one is for certain how long that process will last.

"Our juvenile squad is preparing information for submission to the prosecutor's office," says Lt. Charles Holladay, public affairs officer for the Little Rock Police Department. "To my knowledge, there is only one individual being investigated. When you get into a case of this nature, it gets very complex, and a lot of people are interviewed."

What about allegations that Baptist officials were aware of concerns or complaints but did nothing?

"I'm really not in a position to say what is in the file," Holladay says.

After the police finish their investigation, the file will be forwarded to the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney for a decision on whether to press charges and make an arrest.

"Until they complete their investigation and we review it, the whole thing is under wraps," says Larry Jegley, chief deputy prosecuting attorney for Pulaski County. "This office will have to carefully scrutinize the investigation before we decide where to go from there."

The whole situation has cast a pall over one of the state's most venerated health care institutions, and the tight-lipped response from the normally effusive organization is unsettling.

"The day we were going to run the story, we contacted them and they issued a 'no comment,'" says Al Sandubrae, KARK news director. "That was a little hard to understand but certainly their prerogative. We contacted Baptist again to make sure they understood we were airing the story and wanted to give them an opportunity to respond."

The way Baptist officials have chosen to respond to media inquiries is no surprise to some observers.

"If I were in their shoes, I don't think I would make a comment until someone was formally charged," one Arkansas hospital administrator says. "It would be too early to make a comment at this stage. This is America, and he is innocent until proven guilty.

"Baptist Medical System is fortunate to have Russ Harrington. He's well-educated, well-informed and highly thought of. I'm sure he's handling this the best way possible.

Allegations Aren't New

A former BRI staff member who worked during the mid-'80s says stories about alleged sexual abuse by a hospital official were "almost part of the |employee~ orientation" and describes the situation as "an open secret."

Talk of alleged sexual impropriety was a familiar topic even outside Baptist Medical System, the former staff member says. "This is one of the first things I heard about when I went to work there, from someone outside the organization."

With such fertile ground of information, the chase for more details by the news media was afoot. However, the other television stations maintained a holding pattern while the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was forced to write a perfunctory follow-up after the KARK story aired.

"We started the story with several good sources around town and went from there," Sandubrae says. "We had direct or peripheral sources contact us with more info and tell us not to give up, that this is a story worth pursuing."

But is a scoop mentality overriding other concerns in the name of truth and accuracy? Some observers think so.

"If the media got their way, I think it would be very unfair because their interest is just to get the information first," one Little Rock public relations executive says.

Competitiveness for news is undeniable, but the identities of the alleged victim and alleged perpetrator are certainly not a secret. It's all public information.

The incident report at the Little Rock Police Department contains the names, addresses, phone numbers and even birthdays of the teen-ager who filed the complaint and the accused BRI official.

The report was filed after a juvenile court probation officer learned of an alleged sexual abuse case from one of his charges on Sept. 8 and he reported it to the Little Rock Police Department as required by Arkansas law.

Details in the incident report are brief. Here is what it says, with words in brackets substituted for the actual names:

"|The~ juvenile court probation officer reported that |a juvenile offender~ has recently discussed that he had been fondled by |a Baptist Rehabilitation official~ on several occasions while spending the weekend at |the official's~ home. |The 17-year-old~ stated he spent almost every weekend with |the official~ from March-May '93."

Media observers say the primary self-restraints from publishing the names are a sense of fair play or fear of a lawsuit if no charges are ever filed.

"Fear of a lawsuit wasn't my motivation," says Sandubrae, whose station has not used the individual's name. "You want to pursue a story aggressively but not impugn someone's name and reputation."

KARK unsuccessfully used stake-out tactics to interview the official being investigated. While critics hold siege journalism in disdain, others call it blitz-krieg broadcasting and they like it just fine.

"The response in general has been good," Sandubrae says. "The best way to gauge that is we get a significant number of calls from people encouraging us and wanting us to look at other things."

What's Going On?

Well-placed sources within Baptist Medical System confirm that several years ago BRI staffers expressed their concerns about allegations of sexual impropriety involving an official and young male patients.

The Baptist administration apparently could find no evidence to substantiate the allegations. Details of the internal investigation remain shrouded under Baptist's blanket "no comment."

A third-party witness to any illicit behavior has yet to step forward although circumstantial evidence is said to abound. One piece of evidence is the alleged unusual practice by the official of taking youths home for the weekend.

However, this was presented as something different when staffers questioned it. Sources say the BRI official under investigation described the weekend live-in arrangement as an outpatient program for kids who needed a father figure and special attention.

Instead of allaying fears, the explanation only raised more eyebrows and concerns among some staffers about the weekend stays.

"I've been in the business 30 years, and I've never seen any outpatient program like that," a veteran rehabilitation administrator says. "That would be prohibited activity at our facility."
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Title Annotation:Baptist Rehabilitation Institute
Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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