Cape Region parents paint a complex portrait of Dr. Earl Bradley: a man who was so shy and socially awkward with adults he could barely make eye contact, yet so able as a doctor that one mother who didn’t even particularly like him still credits him with saving her newborn’s life.
Police now say that since 2003, a few parents reported Bradley’s unusual behavior to police, but until last month, they did not have enough evidence to arrest him. When police with warrants finally searched Bradley’s office, they say they found video evidence that he raped or sexually exploited as many as 100 patients during a period that lasted more than a decade.
Yet even some of the parents who complained about Bradley said he was so adept at manipulation that they questioned themselves or delayed reporting what they had witnessed. One mother said she didn’t immediately report him because her family feared no one would believe her accusations against a popular local doctor.
Bradley’s alleged violent assaults on very young patients have led many to ask how parents could have allowed Bradley to be alone with their children.
But in some cases, he was not. One mother from Lewes, who says she reported Bradley’s behavior to police before 2005, said the doctor digitally penetrated her daughter while the mother was in the room.
The mother said the child was lying on a table behind Bradley, and he turned his back to the mother as he examined the school-aged child. The mother stepped around Bradley to observe and was shocked at what she saw.
She immediately asked what he was doing. Showing no apparent concern, he replied it was his practice with new patients to “see if the hymen is intact.”
While the mother was disturbed by what she saw, she did not report what happened until some time later when she learned other parents of Bradley patients also had observed inappropriate behavior.
Recently released police documents show that Bradley conducted similar examinations of other patients with parents in the room who also complained to police in 2003 and in summer 2009.
Turns tables on parent
Another parent’s story illustrates how Bradley was able to deflect parents’ suspicions. A mother told the Cape Gazette that she noticed her 18-month-old child “began doing things in the bathtub that were not normal.”
She found it disturbing enough that on one of frequent visits to Bradley’s office for ear infections, she asked him about it. Bradley examined the child’s genital area with the mother in the room.
Bradley then left the room, and when he came back told the mother he had contacted the Children’s Advocacy Center of Delaware and that he could not let the mother leave his office until she spoke with the center, because someone could be sexually harming her daughter.
The anxious mother tried to pick up her child, but she says Bradley very aggressively told her that nurses would watch the toddler while the mother was on the phone.
She again tried to pick up her child, but Bradley insisted to the point that the mother says she was terrified he would call police to report her.
The mother was on the phone for an hour, separated from her child the entire time. The mother now bitterly recalls her tearful child’s look of relief when she and the toddler were finally reunited.
The mother says her daughter was later interviewed at Children’s Advocacy Center, but the child became distraught during questioning and tried to get out of the room. Although the mother reports the child was clearly scared, she was unable to verbalize what had happened.
The case was closed, leaving the child’s fears unresolved and the mother in turmoil as to whether someone could be harming her child. Yet even at this point, the mother did not focus her fears on Bradley, although she did eventually change doctors.
Ralph “Buster” Richardson, forensic interviewer and center coordinator of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Delaware, said he was not aware Bradley had made such a report to his office, but said the mother could have been referred to the office through a hotline number or through police. Richardson said until interviews last month, he was aware of no earlier reports of abuse connected to Bradley’s office.
Bradley’s Route 1 BayBees office overflowed with toys and featured its “ShowBuzz” theater, with a child-sized door, where children waiting for their appointments could watch cartoons.
Several parents have also told the Cape Gazette that Bradley’s waiting room was often filled with children who appeared to come from low socio-economic backgrounds or who appeared to lack resources. “My belief is he preyed on the low-income families and single moms,” one parent said.
An unconfirmed report indicates while working in another physician’s office, Bradley didn’t charge low-income patients for office visits and asked that their bills be paid out of his own salary.
Professor Louis B. Schlesinger of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York and an expert on serial sex offenders, said pedophiles frequently select their victims, often seeking out the most vulnerable.
He also said if Bradley were providing free care, low-income families would be “very unlikely to file a complaint or stop bringing their kids there.”
Pedophiles are intensely aroused by children, Schlesinger said, but because it’s illegal, they are forced from a young age to develop skill at keeping their pedophilia secret.
They frequently seek jobs and activities that put them in contact with children, such as teachers, camp and youth counselors, bus drivers and mentors.
“It’s not a coincidence that a pedophile would become a pediatrician as opposed to radiologist,” Schlesinger said.
Robert D. Gingrich, a Wilmington-area psychotherapist who does assessments of sexual offenders for the Department of Correction and Department of Parole and who also works with victims and with sex offenders, said because a doctor is in a position of power and respect, he is immediately trusted, just as a priest would be. “Because of who they are, victims are almost immobilized because of their power,” Gingrich said.
“They develop highly manipulative skills throughout the years and they get very good at selecting the most vulnerable, the easiest to prey on.”
Gingrich also said, “They are very good at courting a child, gaining a child’s trust.”
Although documents show police had reports of unusual behavior that go back at least to 2003, Delaware State Police previously said they had been investigating Bradley for a year before his Dec. 16 arrest, after which they obtained search warrants for Bradley’s office, resulting in the numerous charges he now faces.
Police also said until December, they did not have sufficient evidence to arrest Bradley.
Summing up the difficulty police had developing this case, Lt. Robert Moses, Delaware Child Predator Task Force commander, said, “Our goal is rescuing children. But we have to work within the Constitution and the laws of the State of Delaware.”
Asked how Bradley’s behavior could have gone undetected for more than a decade, Moses said, “We wrestle with this every day.”
Editors’ note: Parents interviewed for this story were not identified in order to protect their privacy and the privacy of their children.