Suburbs

A Twist of Fate Led a Main Line Doc and Her Patient on a Fight for Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights

It wasn’t until a patient revealed her abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar that psychiatrist Liz Goldman decided to go public with her own sexual assault in the Lower Merion School District.

liz goldman

Liz Goldman (left) and Sarah Klein. Photograph by Emily Assiran

Hi, this is Dr. Liz Goldman. Please feel free to leave me a message, and I will return your call within 24 hours. I apologize, but I am not accepting new patients.

[Beep.]

Those are the words that Sarah Klein heard when she called Bryn Mawr-based psychiatrist Liz Goldman in November of 2015. Klein, 36 at the time, had recently moved from Florida to the Main Line and just had a baby, and she was looking for a therapist, in part because her doctors told her she might be suffering from postpartum depression.

Klein, an intense, stylish attorney with piercing eyes, delicately asked around for references, the way you do when you’re new to the area and in search of something a bit more personal than, say, a plumber or an auto mechanic. She’d get the number of a therapist and make the call, but she heard the same thing over and over again: no new patients.

Eventually, one therapist who couldn’t fit Klein in gave her Liz Goldman’s number. Klein made the call. In spite of what she heard on Goldman’s voicemail greeting, Klein left a message. Goldman retrieved Klein’s message just after a longtime patient canceled an appointment scheduled for the next afternoon. She immediately called Klein and offered her the spot.

“To this day, I have no idea why I did that,” says Goldman, a comparatively introspective woman who’s been in private practice since 2003, when she was chief resident of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. “I never do that. I hadn’t seen a new patient in maybe 10 years.”

Klein sat on the couch in Goldman’s ground-floor office in a sprawling brick apartment complex just off Lancaster Avenue and told the doctor about some of her struggles. What Klein had to say at that time was pretty garden-variety compared to some of the cases Goldman has handled, which have ranged from psychosis to full-blown personality disorders. But Klein clearly needed help, and she continued seeing Goldman regularly for the next two years. Then the regular visits stopped, and Klein vanished from Goldman’s world.

“I had no idea what had happened to her,” Goldman says. “But sometimes patients do that.”

Weeks went by. Months passed. And then, in April 2018, Klein phoned Goldman and asked to see her. When the two reconnected in Goldman’s office a few days later, niceties were exchanged. And then …

“So, where ya been, Sarah?” Goldman asked.

“Have you ever heard of a guy named Larry Nassar?” replied Klein.

Silence ensued.

“Of course I had heard about Larry Nassar,” Goldman recalls today. “Who hadn’t, at that point?”

Klein soon revealed to Goldman that decades earlier, she’d been a victim — reportedly the first — of USA Gymnastics’ notorious team doctor, the man who’s now been accused of sexually assaulting at least 300 girls and young women, Olympic gold medalists included. Klein explained to Goldman that she hadn’t been in for an appointment because she’d been going back and forth to Michigan to attend Nassar’s various court proceedings.

But that out-of-nowhere revelation was just the beginning of the drama that would unfold. In the nearly two years since, Goldman’s relationship with Klein has spurred the doctor to confront secrets from her own past, and the two women are now fighting for the rights of sexual abuse victims here in Pennsylvania and all over the country.

Sarah Klein was just a child when she first met Larry Nassar. She was a rising gymnast in Lansing, Michigan, and Nassar was a volunteer athletic trainer at her gym, providing physical therapy and other medical treatments unique to the demands of those involved in the grueling world of gymnastics.

Klein says she was first physically abused by Nassar when she was eight. At his sentencing hearing in January 2018, after which he was given a maximum of 175 years in prison, Klein was one of 156 accusers who gave specific, wrenching details of their abuse.

In court, Klein said that when she was 12, Nassar invited her to be part of a “flexibility study” he said he was conducting for Michigan State University, where he was a sports medicine physician. Based on the account she gave in her impact statement, there was nothing scientific or medical about what happened next.

“You massaged the entirety of my 12-year-old body, suggesting that I relax as you slipped your adult fingers in and out and in and out of my body,” Klein told Nassar in court that day. (She testified anonymously, with her face blurred out in the courtroom video feed; at the time, she was known only as Victim 125.) “That was one of the many, many times that your hands were in me, on me, over the next many years.”

This is one of numerous sexual assaults Klein says Nassar perpetrated on her, well into her 20s. The details of those other assaults, and those laid out in court by other accusers, are hard to stomach. The vast majority of the assaults occurred under the guise of medical treatment, by one of the most prominent doctors in town.

Back in Bryn Mawr, as Klein told her story to Goldman, the psychiatrist quickly realized that in the two years Klein sat on her couch prior to the revelation, Nassar’s name never once came up. There wasn’t even an allusion to a history of sexual abuse or childhood trauma.

“I never processed what happened to me,” Klein explains. “I grew up with it. I didn’t ‘get’ that it was wrong. This was a highly respected doctor in the community. I pushed it back somewhere in my brain.”

Experts say this type of compartmentalization isn’t unusual, whether the victim is a child or an adult. Beyond that, victims can be reluctant to come forward because of doubts and lingering questions about their stories. How often did we hear things like “Why is she just speaking up now?” even as Bill Cosby’s accusers entered the double digits? It’s complicated.

With Klein back from Michigan for good, the patient and her doctor started working through the enormity of her trauma, which included not just psychological effects but also physical complications, including the painful uterine condition endometriosis, believed to be caused by Nassar’s numerous sexual assaults.

At the same time, Klein found the power to emerge as a vocal advocate for Nassar’s other victims, many of whom are years younger than she is. She decided to go public and became the de facto spokesperson for the group, trading in “Victim 125” for her full name and image. In July 2018 she was center stage, with 140 other Nassar victims, at ESPN’s ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. Between awards presented to LeBron James and Nick Foles, the women were honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. It was a #MeToo moment like few others.

“Make no mistake, we are here on this stage to present an image for the world to see,” Klein told the crowd of sports-world dignitaries and celebrities, almost all of whom were on their feet, many with tears in their eyes. “A portrait of survival, a new vision of courage.”

During the heart-wrenching 10-minute segment, as childhood photos of the women appeared on the expansive video display behind them, Klein went on to eviscerate the United States Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State for placing “money and medals above the safety of child athletes.” Since then, a Congressional report has concluded that all of those institutions “had opportunities to stop Nassar but failed to do so.”

As Klein’s story became more public, and as Liz Goldman saw the empowerment and clarity that advocacy seemed to bring to Klein, something stirred inside her. Something that she’d hidden away for years and kept a closely guarded secret from most other people. That secret was ready to come out, thanks in no small part to Klein, her patient.

“Sarah definitely revved me up,” Goldman told me in her office. “And I decided I wanted to do something. After working with her, I couldn’t not do something.”

So Goldman did something. She decided to go public herself, bringing her own story of institutional sexual assault to me, as I originally detailed in a 2018 article for Phillymag.com. (At the time, she was unable to disclose her relationship with Klein.)

Goldman’s abuse took place during her time as a student at Bala Cynwyd Middle School in Lower Merion, where Bill McKendry was once a popular history teacher and wrestling coach. He started his career there in 1969 and became known as “Mr. Mac.”

According to allegations made by Goldman, who’s now 47, McKendry sexually assaulted her repeatedly in the mid-1980s, beginning when she was a 13-year-old student and he was 40. “I was a barely pubertal, non-precocious middle-schooler,” she says.

I’ve reviewed letters McKendry wrote to Goldman during that time, and they make clear the relationship was not simply one of teacher and student. When I reached McKendry, 73, at his suburban home, he didn’t dispute the existence of an “inappropriate” relationship with Goldman but insisted, “I never sexually assaulted anyone.”

“I’m not saying she’s lying,” McKendry continued, after I pressed him further about Goldman’s accusations. “But I don’t think there was anything sexual. That’s what I remember. I was drinking a lot at the time.”

McKendry went on to point out that he completed mental-health treatment, as mandated by the school district.

In 1986, Goldman went to her parents, who confronted McKendry in the presence of a guidance counselor who’s now dead. According to Goldman’s mother, the meeting basically went like this: McKendry apologized, and the guidance counselor pointed out that McKendry was a young man with a family whose career would be ruined if this ever got out. She told Goldman and McKendry to stay away from each other, and Goldman’s parents decided to let the matter end there — something they came to regret.

But as the years went on, Goldman took it upon herself to press the school further. Two years after her parents went to see McKendry, Goldman told a teacher she respected about the assaults. As she remembers it, the teacher, also now deceased, said something to the effect of “these things happen” and pointed out that the two-year statute of limitations had passed — there wasn’t any legal recourse. Goldman didn’t even know what a statute of limitations was.

Goldman went on to attend medical school at Case Western, where she learned the concept of “Do no harm.” It was then, she says, that a dreadful sense of guilt began to overwhelm her, because McKendry remained at Bala Cynwyd Middle School.

“I realized that I was doing harm to young girls because he was still at the school,” says Goldman. “I had this panicked sense that I was complicit and that I needed to do something. How many hundreds of girls my age crossed his path since me?” (Philly Mag isn’t aware of any other allegations against McKendry, and no criminal charges have ever been filed against him. He told me that he “never did anything like that before that or since then.”)

So in 1999, she met with two administrators at the school district, 13 years after officials there first became aware of her allegations. At that meeting, she turned over pages and pages of “love letters” written to her by McKendry — they include lines like “hope these things I’ve said are only between you and I” and “we must use discretion.” The meeting, she says, became “hostile and antagonistic.”

Six years later, with McKendry still teaching, Goldman again approached administrators but was told the investigation had been closed and the matter resolved as far as they were concerned. Goldman then made photocopies of all the letters McKendry had sent her and blasted them out to six school district officials. Within days — and nearly 20 years after Goldman’s parents first complained to the school — McKendry resigned. The Lower Merion School District says it has since updated its policies and procedures for “investigating situations where improprieties may have occurred.”

During an office visit in June 2018, Goldman decided it was time to tell Sarah Klein about their shared history.

“She felt confused about what had happened to her, and so alone,” says Goldman. “I’m rarely one to self-disclose with patients, but I knew this would help. I was so nervous to say anything, and I’ll never forget the look of shock on her face when I told her. But I’m glad I did, and it has connected us in a way I could have never imagined or hoped for.”

The Lower Merion School District may be a safer place for students thanks to the updated policies and procedures it says are in place, but Pennsylvania remains behind the times when it comes to protecting victims. The Commonwealth’s statute-of-limitation laws pertaining to sexual abuse victims lag behind those of other states, thanks in part to the monied lobbies working on behalf of the Catholic Church and other institutions, as well as the insurance companies that represent them. Klein and Goldman are now working in their own ways to try to change things here and elsewhere around the country, with Klein testifying before legislative committees, including in Harrisburg, and Goldman advocating in a quieter way, calling legislators, writing letters, and donating to organizations pushing for reform.

You may have seen certain Pennsylvania legislators patting themselves on the back last fall when they finally managed to make some changes to the statute-of-limitation laws many years after some of those changes were first proposed. There’s no longer a criminal statute of limitations for future victims of childhood sexual assault, meaning charges can be brought at any time. And the civil statute of limitations for future victims has been raised so they can file suit until they’re 55, as opposed to the previous age of 30. But those changes only apply to future victims and to past victims whose claims hadn’t already expired under the previous law, so they do nothing for people like Goldman and thousands of others across the state. And some of the changes Pennsylvania finally got around to making had already been put in place in 44 states, including many not exactly considered progressive. The changes just don’t go far enough.

“What the lawmakers did was move Pennsylvania from the worst state in the country into the solidly mediocre category, at a time when many states are going much farther,” says University of Pennsylvania legal scholar Marci Hamilton, founder of Child USA, the nation’s leading think tank on child protection.

Regrettably, the state couldn’t manage to pass into law a retroactive window that would have given victims whose claims have expired a two-year time period during which they could file claims against their perpetrators and the institutions that harbored — and in some cases enabled — them. At the last minute, some lawmakers turned the bill into a constitutional amendment, which means it will continue winding its way through Harrisburg toward a possible ballot measure in 2021.

“It’s a delay tactic by some legislators who fear crossing the Catholic Church and the Insurance Federation, who have spent literally millions of dollars lobbying against these reforms,” says Pennsylvania AG Josh Shapiro, who oversaw the scathing 2018 grand jury report on clergy abuse and pushed for strong reforms to state law. “Lawmakers have helped future survivors, but they failed to help those whose bravery led to this reform.”

Hamilton and other experts have said there’s very little hope the amendment will even make it to the ballot. Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey already have windows in effect, and 14 other states, plus Washington, D.C., have passed window laws as well.

“There are very strong forces at work who don’t want to see that happen,” says Hamilton. “But this law isn’t even just about the victims. There are benefits to the public knowing who has sexually abused children, and only with the window do you get this kind of information on a large scale.”

So Goldman and Klein still have their work cut out for them, even as Goldman continues to treat Klein while unpacking her own childhood trauma. And Klein, when she’s not flying around the country to give speeches on behalf of sexual abuse victims or taking care of her four-year-old daughter, is advocating for victims in a much different way. She’s launched a full-time career as a plaintiff’s attorney, exclusively for cases involving childhood sexual assault. She’s currently representing more than 100 alleged victims of former Johns-town, Pennsylvania, pediatrician Johnnie Barto, a “pillar of the community” who was sentenced to up to 158 years in prison last year after admitting to molesting generations of children in his practice. Complaints were made about Barto over the years, but little to nothing was done. Sound familiar?

“I am very busy these days,” says Klein. “And I’m going to be busy for a long time to come. Unfortunately, there are so many of these guys out there. And we don’t even know about most of them. Yet.”

Published as “A Tale of Two Women” in the February 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.