This USC Student Got Paid To Investigate His School — And Discovered New Details About Major Sexual Misconduct Allegations
An investigative story published today by BuzzFeed News and USC's Annenberg Media details extensive new allegations of inappropriate behavior by USC men's health physician Dr. Dennis Kelly, who has now been accused by 48 men of sexually abusing them.
The story is written by a current USC student and reports, for the first time, that at least five men say they complained about Kelly to USC officials, dating back to 2009. Among their claims: Kelly made them kneel on an exam table as he conducted medically dubious rectal probes and prolonged genital exams and asked invasive questions about their sex lives.
All of the men were USC students at the time of the exams. They are all gay or bisexual, and Kelly is openly gay.
Kelly, who has said he always behaved appropriately, first made news in February, when six accusers filed a lawsuit against him and USC.
The Daily Trojan's coverage inspired student protests and prompted more men to come forward and join the suit. As the number of litigants grew to 50, the student news outlet kept reporting and publishing updates. Still, the case didn't generate much outrage beyond USC's campus.
Sasha Urban, the 20-year-old student journalist who reported the BuzzFeed News story, thinks that was due, in part, to scandal fatigue.
LAist talked to Urban about his experience reporting on his own university.
"I think everyone was kind of fatigued from all of the Tyndall stuff happening last year, the endless stories coming out in the L.A. Times. I think it exhausted a lot of people," Urban said. He was referring to the hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse made against USC gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall.
There were plenty of other scandals roiling USC:
- The college admissions scandal, the one in which 33 wealthy parents, including former Full House star Lori Loughlin, were indicted for bribing their kids' way into USC.
- The lurid backstory behind the resignation of the dean of USC's Keck School of Medicine, Dr. Carmen Puliafito.
- The resignation less than a year later of his replacement, Dr. Rohit Varma, when it came to light that in 2003, USC had disciplined him "following allegations that he had sexually harassed a researcher."
The Daily Trojan followed Kelly's case through the spring 2019 semester.
Urban, then in his sophomore year, was working as one of the paper's news editors.
"From that moment, I was kind of like, this is crazy," he said. "I kind of expected it to blow up. I was expecting a whole investigation to take place."
Instead, this sexual harassment scandal didn't blow up. The student reporters at the Daily Trojan had other stories to chase and couldn't devote much time to it. But the story stuck with Urban.
A Chance To Investigate
We often find it hard to hear, let alone believe, women's stories of abuse. In some ways, men's stories of abuse are even more buried.
"On top of that, these are all gay and bisexual men who experienced something that I think most of the country maybe doesn't even understand totally," Urban said. "A sexual health exam for a man who has sex with men is very personal. It's based on their own practices, whatever they're doing, and a lot of the doctors talked about how a lot of stigma goes into it."
So when Urban heard USC's journalism school planned to launch its first summer reporting internship program, he saw it as an opportunity to investigate what had happened and bring renewed attention to the allegations.
Urban was one of six USC journalism students chosen for the Beacon Project, which paid him to spend 12 weeks working full-time on the Kelly story.
Urban began by establishing a timeline of Kelly's life. Then he reached out to the two lawyers representing the majority of Kelly's accusers. They put Urban in touch with men who were willing to talk.
He ended up interviewing 12 men — 10 who are involved in the lawsuit and two who are not — and was struck by how consistent their accounts were. Urban kept a spreadsheet of all the plaintiffs and people he spoke to so he could track who said what.
"There were so many consistent details that even today it's hard to fully grasp how awful and how consistent these men's experiences were," he said.
'Extremely Rare' Opportunity
Throughout the reporting and editing process, Urban was guided by veteran journalists Christina Bellantoni, Gary Cohn, Gabe Kahn and Mark Schoofs, who all teach at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and lead the Beacon Project. Schoofs is also an adviser to KPCC/LAist's investigative team.
After the string of scandals, Schoofs said the faculty at the journalism school felt they had to do something.
What they did was hire half a dozen student journalists to investigate USC and the issues underpinning its administration and culture. "I think that is, if not unprecedented, extremely rare," Schoofs said.
"And I think that's positive. There's no possible way that somebody would've been able to do this story had they not been given this opportunity," he said. "Sasha had a full-time job and his full-time job was to report this story."
To do that, Urban had to delve into sensitive and, in some cases, traumatic experiences for people. Many of the men making allegations against Kelly have had to repeat their accounts multiple times, in both personal and legal contexts, and here was Urban, asking them to talk about it yet again.
"The main thing that I had to keep consistently in my mind is that this isn't like any other news story," Urban said. "I feel like there's often a desire for a reporter to keep pushing until they get that answer, if someone's deflecting a question."
Urban said he worked hard to create a level of comfort for the men who he interviewed. He made clear the steps he would take to protect their anonymity, when that was a condition of talking to him.
Urban also worked to corroborate the men's stories, knowing many of the alleged incidents occurred years ago and often didn't involve other witnesses. Urban asked his interview subjects to look for emails and dig up appointment records, anything that might back up their claims.
"In general, you want to make sure the stories you are hearing are consistent, otherwise you have questions that come up," Urban said. "For me, what really solidified my trust in what all of these men were saying is that they were all saying almost the same thing, with varying details. There were discrepancies but, in general, they all painted a picture of the same doctor."
After the L.A. Times and Daily Trojan published stories about Kelly in February, Urban said several men came forward and decided to join the lawsuit. He talked to men who said they had gone to an exam and felt uncomfortable, like something was off, or just that Kelly was "kind of a weird guy," but they hadn't initially thought of it as malpractice or as abuse. Many of these patients had never been to another sexual health exam and didn't know what was normal.
(Not knowing what to expect in exams was also a factor in cases involving girls and women treated by USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar and former USC gynecologist George Tyndall.)
"Once they read the story and just had it laid out for them," Urban said, "then they can say, 'Oh, I was right. I understood that there was something wrong.'"
It's unclear whether Kelly's colleagues were aware of any complaints made about his behavior. BuzzFeed News reports that at least one person with direct knowledge confirmed USC officials received multiple complaints prior to Kelly's retirement in 2018. At the time the BuzzFeed story published, USC's administration had only issued one short statement about the case, saying that they take "this matter very seriously" and will "provide more information as it's available."
In response to the BuzzFeed story, the university issued a length statement that read, in part:
The university is committed to providing all patients, students, faculty and staff with a culture of respect and support. We care deeply about our entire Trojan family, and the concerns of the LGBTQ+ community are especially of importance to us in this matter.
The experiences expressed by plaintiffs in the lawsuit are of a serious nature, which is why it is important to continue a process of fact-finding in the most complete manner possible.
In matters involving pending litigation, the university works to understand the facts of the matter and will communicate information, to the extent possible, to affected communities as cases make their way through the court process.
Overall, the university has revised and updated centralized coordination for reviewing concerns raised by members of the community, including the recently developed Office of Professionalism and Ethics.
Kelly previously told the Los Angeles Times that he has never abused patients and has always treated them appropriately. He resigned from USC in July 2018. In February, the day after news of the lawsuit against Kelly broke, he was placed on administrative leave at Cal State Northridge, where he had worked since 2002 as a part-time men's health physician.
This morning, Cal State Northridge issued the following statement:
As a policy, the university does not comment on personnel matters.
The health and safety of our students is our top priority. We take the disturbing allegations by the former USC students, as well as any sexual assault, battery or harassment allegation against anyone at the university, seriously.
Out of an abundance of caution, while CSUN is investigating this matter, Dr. Kelly was placed on immediate administrative leave beginning Feb. 12, and this remains in effect.
Urban hopes his reporting — along with the complaints about Tyndall and other USC scandals — will change higher education's circle-the-wagons culture regarding allegations of misconduct.
"I think there's often a desire to ignore the unthinkable," said Urban. "I hope that all universities implement more proactive approaches to say, 'We're never going to let this happen and if it already has happened, we have to stop it now before it gets worse.'"
11:23 a.m.: This article was updated to include a statement issued by Cal State Northridge.
9:15 a.m.: This article was updated to include a statement issued by USC.
This article was originally published at 7 a.m.