08/07/07 — Cherry Hospital doctor will return to work

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Cherry Hospital doctor will return to work

By Lee Williams
Published in News on August 7, 2007 1:45 PM

An acting medical director at Cherry Hospital, who was suspended with pay amid questions about his nearly 20-year-old felony conviction for inappropriately touching a 9-year-old girl in Burke County, will return to work this month.

Dr. Robert C. Owens, 53, of Hardingwood Drive, was placed on an investigatory leave with pay on July 25 after questions surfaced about his 1989 conviction for felony taking indecent liberties with a child.

The questions were directed to Cherry Hospital Director Jack St. Clair and Debbie Crane, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, after concerns were raised about why Owens was hired at the hospital on July 1, 1993 -- two years before he had a clear medical license.

Owens' license was suspended by the North Carolina Medical Board on Jan. 27, 1989, just eight days after he was convicted.

On May 15, 1988, in Morganton, a friend of Owens' daughter accused him of entering a room where she slept during a sleepover and inappropriately touching her.

In a letter from the state Board of Medical Examiner's, Owens was reported to have "consumed either alcohol, drugs, narcotics, medicines, pills, or other intoxicants on the day preceding the incident for which he has been convicted of ..."

The Board stated in the letter that the crime involved "moral turpitude and constituted immoral or dishonorable conduct."

Since joining the Cherry Hospital staff in 1993, DHHS officials said Owens has maintained a clean record.

In a follow-up e-mail, DHHS spokesman Mark Van Sciver said Owens will on investigatory leave until Aug. 26.

But some share mixed emotions about whether Owens should be allowed to keep his job at the state hospital, which provides care to mentally ill patients, including adults and children.

Some, including a former official who worked on the Owens case in Burke County, called Owens' actions an "isolated, bizarre thing that happened."

The former official called Owens "an excellent doctor," and said an event that happened nearly 20 years ago should not end his career.

More than 19 people, including 11 doctors and/or members of Cherry Hospital's medical staff, have thrown their support behind Owens.

"... the Medical Staff of Cherry Hospital know Dr. Owens to be a professional and ethical physician," in a support letter dated July 31. "He did not hide his past when he applied for the job at Cherry in 1993. On the contrary, he fully disclosed what happened in 1988 and came highly recommended from several respected experts in the field as a talented and knowledgeable physician."

However, a North Carolina woman who is the founder of Mothers Against Sexual Abuse and the author of a book on child sexual abuse, said she believes Owens should be removed from his position.

Claire Reeves, who regularly is called to testify as an expert witness in child sexual abuse cases, said state officials are making a mistake.

"In my opinion, the hospital should get rid of him immediately," Mrs. Reeves said. "He is a liability."

She said failure to remove Owens could have implications in the future should another allegation be brought forward.

"Pedophiles put themselves in positions where they will have access to children, and there's no such thing as an isolated incident," she said. "It just doesn't happen."

Mrs. Reeves said the Department of Justice and law enforcement officials say pedophiles have the highest recidivism rate of any other criminals -- even burglars -- 90 percent.