For over 60 years, women who claimed they were sexually abused by Stuart Copperman, a former pediatrician who owned and operated a Merrick practice, have waited for answers, and now, some form of justice may be on the horizon. Copperman was recently found liable in a civil lawsuit against him, a case made possible by the New York State Child Victims Act (see box), signed into law by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in February 2019.
Copperman lost his medical license in 2000, after six women testified to the state Board of Professional Medical Conduct that he had molested them while they were patients of the medical practice he ran out of the basement of his Hewlett Avenue home. The lawsuit states that he abused his first victim in 1961, during his internship and residency, before he opened his practice in 1965.
Victims who spoke with the Herald estimate that over the course of 40 years, Copperman abused thousands of young girls from Merrick, Bellmore and the surrounding area.
As previously reported by the Herald, in 2000 Copperman told another publication, “I am not a pervert or a child molester. I’ve always lived my life so that someone could never say something bad about it.”
Copperman now lives in Boca Raton, Florida, in the private country club Boca West, and may also still own a home on Long Island.
According to court documents filed with the Nassau County clerk’s office on Jan. 6, Copperman did not submit any opposition papers in the case against him. On document reads, “Plaintiffs have submitted proof that the defaulting defendants were properly served. Defaulting defendants have failed to timely answer the complaint within the statutory period or otherwise appear and no request for an extension of time has been made.”
The Herald’s attempt to reach Copperman’s last known attorney was unsuccessful.
A case search on New York’s Unified Court System’s website, NYCourts.gov, showed Copperman was unrepresented.
Because Copperman did not defend himself in the case, a legal inquest is now required to determine the damages.
“Particularly in sexual abuse cases, one of the things the court has to consider, or the jury or whoever the fact-finder is, is how to make the plaintiff whole again,” Kristin Gibbons Feden, an attorney with Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, one of the firms representing the victims, said. “An inquest is nothing more than a fact-finder, in this particular case it will be the judge, to assess the amount of harm.”
Kathy Burg, 53, one of Copperman’s victims, said she was first under his care in 1976, around the time her family moved to Merrick. She remembers giving her mother permission to leave the room, after being manipulated into thinking that it was OK.
“I remember being on that table, naked,” Burg recounted. “I could feel his breath. He said I was not clean. Every time that I went to the doctor, whether it be a scrape on my knee or something like a skin rash, he had a vaginal exam where he told me I was dirty.
“I was a little girl,” she said. “I was dead. He killed me. I used to walk around, just empty in my brain — I was devastated.”
Burg said that what happened to her was traumatizing. She turned to alcohol in high school, developed an eating disorder, and was prescribed Valium at age 15.
“I thought this was normal — he was a very respected and well-known doctor, and I wanted him to like me,” she said through tears. “I didn’t understand. I was so sad. The shame was overwhelming.”
Beth Handelman-Maffei, 54, grew up in Seaford, and was under Copperman’s care for her entire adolescence. She testified against Copperman in 2000, when his license was revoked. When she was around age 21, she was working at a summer camp and needed to get a physical. It was then that Maffei realized that the doctor’s “normal” exams — where he’d cup her breasts, among other acts of abuse — were in fact not normal.
“I never knew anything was wrong,” she said, “until I was old enough to realize that what he was doing was wrong.”
Amy Goldberg Dietz, 57, and her sister, Cheryl Murray, 54, lived in Merrick, were patients of Copperman, and grew up just blocks from his house. Murray said she was friends with Copperman’s daughter and would visit to his family’s home throughout her childhood.
Goldberg Dietz remembers voicing concerns about his exams, but being told, “Oh, you’re crazy — that’s not happening. He’s not like that.”
What is especially difficult for many of the plaintiffs in the case is knowing that for the past 20 years, Copperman has faced no form of punishment, aside from losing his license.
Goldberg Dietz said she wants it known that Copperman is an abuser. “This is who he is,” she said. “He should not be able to live the lifestyle that he’s living.”
“You think about it, and you’re like ‘Oh my god,’” Murray said of her experiences. “The whole thing is disgusting.”
Lynn Barnett Seigerman, 55, another victim, said there has been a lot of media attention on other sex abuse cases, but not so much on theirs. “It’s about getting the story out there,” she said, “so people become more aware of what kind of abuse goes on, so they can protect themselves and protect their children, and to make sure that he’s not still harming people — because we don’t know, we have no guarantee. In my eyes, he’s given up the right to live a peaceful life.”
The Rev. Debbi Geller Rhodes, 61, a victim who is now a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church in the Community of Mary, Mother of the Redeemer in Michigan City, Indiana, said that a form of justice would be helping victims of abuse know their stories are being heard.
“For people that were abused or are currently being abused and were too afraid to say anything, or if they weren’t taken seriously, know there are people who are going to listen to you,” Geller Rhodes said. “Don’t stop telling your truth.”
Mike Della, an attorney with Gruenberg Kelly Della, another firm representing the victims, said the inquest will take place in front of a judge and not a jury, because Copperman failed to appear in the case.
Gibbons Feden and Della said the inquest may take place as early as this summer in a Nassau County court, but the date is still being determined. At a trial, the legal team will present evidence as to what transpired. Plaintiffs will then testify before the judge.
“They will testify how it affected them, and how it changed their life forever,” Della said. “And then at that point, the judge will make an assessment on damages.”
As of now, it is still unclear if the testimonies will all have to be live, or if they can be in the form of affidavits, confirmed written statements used as evidence in court. Because it is a civil suit, Copperman cannot be sentenced to any prison time.
“He’s left scars on many women,” Maffei said. “He deserves anything he gets. He’s got to live his life — he should be in jail.”
“I’ve never lived a day that I was able to breathe,” Burg said. “I just want to be able to relax and live. Hopefully, one day, things like this will never happen again.”