A new civil lawsuit alleges a pediatric practice in Johnstown knew one of its physicians was a threat to young patients, and took steps to protect him before he was arrested.
Five former patients of Johnstown pediatrician Johnnie Barto are seeking financial damages from his employers. In March, Barto was sentenced to at least 79 years in prison for sexually assaulting 31 children, most of them patients.
The suit alleges Laurel Pediatric Associates knew for at least two decades that Barto's patients were in "serious danger," but continued to allow him to treat, and molest children. Laurel Pediatric declined to comment.
The anonymous plaintiffs, four Jane Does and one John Doe, are also seeking damages from Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, a hospital where Barto had privileges. In a statement, Conemaugh Health System said Barto's actions are reprehensible, and they dispute any wrongdoing on the part of Conemaugh Memorial.
"We're really just getting started," said attorney Sarah Klein at a press conference on Wednesday. Klein is a former Olympic gymnast who was one of the first known sexual abuse victims of former national team doctor Larry Nassar. "There's a massive problem in the medical community here and in other places, and we're going to insist on change that makes children safe."
State authorities had a chance to stop Barto in 2000, when he appeared before the Pennsylvania Board of Medicine on administrative charges that he molested two young girls in the 1990s. But regulators threw out the case and allowed him to keep practicing medicine, saying the allegations were "incongruous to his reputation."
Barto was a well-known pediatrician in Johnstown — and an elected school board member — with hundreds of supporters who refused to believe he was a pedophile.
After the medical board cleared him, Barto felt "invincible," he later told authorities. Barto went on to violate at least a dozen more young patients before his arrest in January 2018.
Given the allegations, Barto's colleagues were "on notice that Barto presented an unreasonably high risk of harm to his minor patients, and yet through silence, acquiescence, denial, and misrepresentation they failed to act in any way to protect Barto's minor patients," the suit said.
Two of the health providers who allegedly minimized patients' complaints about Barto — pediatrician Dr. Elaine Confer and nurse practitioner Bradley Callihan — still work at Laurel Pediatric, according to the practice's website.
After Barto molested an 8-year-old girl and her 10-year-old brother at Laurel in October 2016, the suit said, the children's mother confronted Confer, their regular pediatrician. Confer "confirmed that she had been informed previously about Barto's inappropriate conduct with children," and promised "they would speak with him again about his 'odd bedside manner,'" the suit said. The suit said Confer did nothing.
Nearly a decade earlier, Barto, Callihan and an unidentified office manager met with the parents of a 16-year-old girl who had accused Barto of performing unnecessary breast and genital exams. The suit said Callihan and the manager claimed Barto was merely being "thorough" and that the girl's parents would be "singing (Barto's) praises if he had discovered a lump."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.