Frontline: Predator on the Reservation. PBS. Wednesday, Feb. 14, 10 p.m.
If there's a silver lining in Frontline: Predator on the Reservation, it's that we're apparently through the era of "I believe the children": the time in the 1980s when any accusation of child abuse, no matter how fantastic (molestation accompanied by devil worship, animal sacrifice, murder) was instantly credible because little kids were regarded as unimpeachable witnesses.
Predator tells a story that's exactly the opposite—the refusal of officials at the federal Indian Health Service, for nearly two decades, to acknowledge evidence that a serial child molester was loose in reservation hospitals.
Produced in cooperation with the Wall Street Journal, which covered the case extensively, Predator follows the trail of childhood destruction left by pediatrician Stanley Patrick Weber, who only a few weeks ago was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for molestation of six reservation kids. A trial on 12 more charges is expected to start soon.
Weber was under suspicion almost instantly when he went to work in the hospital on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana in 1992. Tribal housing inspectors discovered the unmarried and childless Weber had a basement treasure-trove of candy, soft drinks and games—"stacks of stuff," as one of them put it.
Coupled with his odd case load—almost entirely boys, aged 12 to 15, from broken homes—some hospital officials quickly wanted an investigation. Others had a more benign view. "He seemed to be genuinely interested in our young people," recalls one, oblivious to the leaden irony in his own words.
The latter scenario became harder to support when a male relative of one of Weber's young patients drove over to his home and punched him in the mouth. The gossip about what happened and why quickly drove Weber's bosses to kick him out—from the hospital, but not the Indian Health Service.
In a move that recalls the Catholic Church's cover-up tactics for pederast priests (a comparison that repeatedly comes to mind in Predator), the Montana hospital administrators simply shuffled Weber off to the more remote Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota.
In the single most horrifying scene in Predator, one Montana administrators mildly muses that "I guess the better response would be to launch an investigation," as if somebody forgot to close a refrigerator door or left a bed unmade.
Instead, they opened the way for the formation of what the rest of the medical staff in South Dakota would call "the Weber Boys," a collection of busted-luck kids lured into sexual encounters with booze and pills.
It wasn't until another beating of the doctor—this time by some of the teenage members of the Weber Boys who wanted more drugs—that he came under serious investigation. Even then, it took years to bring Weber down, and it was done not by the Indian Health Service but by tribal prosecutors.
Predator is anything but tabloid in its low-key approach to the Weber story. It rumbles along more like a reality version of CSI as investigators blunder off the track or fail to even follow it.
It's true that child-molestation investigations can be tough to pursue, with victims who are difficult to find (especially so on the vast, trackless reservation), reluctant to talk when located, and not entirely reliable. And Weber's critics in the Indian Health Service didn't always do themselves any favor in pressing their case.
One, accused of bullying Weber, snapped: "If I'd have wanted to intimidate him, I'd have cut his nuts off with a rusty knife." Typically, that doctor—judged potentially violent and dangerous—was shipped off to an obscure corner of the reservation tundra.
And that's the chilling bottom line of Predator, not that the investigation was difficult but that it mostly didn't exist. His bosses found it easier to shove him off under somebody else's bed.
It's of a piece with other scandals, from pervasive malpractice to chronic misdiagnosis, that have repeatedly surfaced over the past decade at the Indian Health Service. Other federal health agencies, particularly the Veterans Administration, have had similar problems. As the calls to put the U.S. medical system under control of a single, benevolent Washington payer echo around the halls of Congress, Predator is worth paying attention to.