“Your mess becomes your ministry.” This message has long guided Debbi Geller Rhodes, a sexual assault survivor who has channeled her struggles into her religion.
Geller Rhodes, 59, says the abuse against her began when she was about 8 years old. She was a self-described “Long Island princess,” with a Jewish father who was a successful doctor. His profession, however, didn’t stop the alleged abuse from her pediatrician at the time.
Geller Rhodes alleges in court documents that Merrick pediatrician Stuart Copperman sexually abused her during appointments for nearly five years. For years afterwards, she suffered from an eating disorder and an addiction to alcohol and drugs starting as early as eighth grade, which she connects to the abuse.
“I got so used to victim blaming. I grew up feeling like damaged goods,” Geller Rhodes said. “My goal was to escape my pain.”
Today, Geller Rhodes enjoys her 33rd year of sobriety.
Late last month, Geller Rhodes and 76 other women filed a lawsuit against Copperman, who served the Merrick area and beyond. More women have since joined the lawsuit, bringing the total to 110. Copperman was stripped of his medical license in 2000 because of sexual assault allegations.
Complaints before 2000 had been filed but were ignored by officials, until six women testified in 2000 to the Board of Professional Medical Conduct that he had molested them, resulting in his license being revoked.
Aside from losing his license, Copperman, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., and may still own a home on Long Island, has faced no other legal consequences since. One victim told the Herald that, in her case, the statute of limitations to file a criminal complaint against Copperman had run out, and until recently, when the law was changed, the statute to file a civil suit had as well. Geller Rhodes said pursuing a case “didn’t even occur to me.”
Copperman’s New York-based attorney, Joseph Tacopina, did not respond to requests for comment.
“I am not a pervert or a child molester,” Copperman said in 2000, as reported by the Herald. “I’ve always lived my life so that someone could never say something bad about it.”
Because Copperman is being sued civilly, he would not serve prison time if found responsible.
In the lawsuit, the victims allege that for his nearly four decades of practice, Copperman subjected young patients to fondling, penetration of their genitalia, sexually inappropriate remarks and otherwise invasive practices, all under the guise of administering a “thorough” examination.
“He was a revered figure in Bellmore-Merrick — and who was I?” Geller Rhodes said.
Aside from the struggle with drugs and alcohol, Geller Rhodes also grew up stuck in the thought that her value as a person came from her sexuality — despite being a high-performing student — and would often interact with friends in inappropriate sexual ways, she recalled.
“I lost friends over that,” she said.
She also developed an avoidance of doctors. “I hated going,” she said.
In 2010, Geller Rhodes was baptized, beginning her spiritual journey. In 2011, she attended clinical pastoral education studies, through which she became a chaplain, and she later began seminary in June 2017. Along with her husband, Robert Anthony Rhodes, a priest, the two dreamed of living in a monastery surrounded by a Christian community together.
This summer, Geller Rhodes is settling into that dream. In Michigan City, Ind., she, Robert and a surrounding community live in The Community of Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, which was originally founded in Ohio in 2017. They founded the Abbey, a monastic house, along with another community member in May.
The community is still in its infancy, but it now has the space to grow, Geller Rhodes said. She and her husband spread the belief that “every human being has inherent dignity that no act can take away,” Geller Rhodes said.
“People walk around with a very high level of shame,” Geller Rhodes said. “My calling is to work with other people’s shame.”
More information about the community can be found at http://cmmredeemer.org/.
About Copperman, Geller Rhodes said she wants justice, but doesn’t need it.
“I want women in general to have it,” she said, harkening to the influence behind the “#MeToo” movement. “That kind of disappeared, but I want to bring that back.”
“The word of these women is enough, but we have far more here,” said Kristen Gibbons Feden, an attorney with Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky who is representing the women and who previously prosecuted Bill Cosby for sexual assault. “These 77 women each have substantially similar, horrific accounts — and they don’t know each other.”
For all other victims of abuse, Geller Rhodes shared her advice: “If you can, keep persevering and telling your story. There’s healing in sharing your story.”