How the abuses of a small-town family doctor tore his community apart

Sins of a Small-Town Doctor

Wameed Ateyah was the answer to Schomberg’s prayers—a family physician who took walk-ins, made house calls, gave to local charities. When his dark secret was revealed, it tore the community apart

By Lauren McKeon| Photography by Patrick Marcoux
| May 27, 2024

With a population of only 2,600, Schomberg, Ontario, is so small that it can sustain no more than just about one of anything. There is one main street (called Main Street), one community hall, one Tim Hortons, one LCBO, one big-box grocery store. Technically, it qualifies as a village, one of several that make up the larger King Township, a patchwork of farmland and manufacturing plants roughly 70 kilometres north of Toronto. Though primarily white and wealthy, Schomberg isn’t fancy or exclusive. It’s the kind of place that prides itself on being friendly and safe—a place that, in the spirit of bootstraps and neighbourliness, opened its arms in 2007 to a gregarious young doctor from Iraq named Wameed Ateyah.

Related: “I’ve been a family doctor for more than 20 years. Now, I have no choice but to close my practice”

Ateyah didn’t need to work very hard to build his reputation in Schomberg. His clinic was located in the town’s only strip mall, along the same stretch of plaza as Home Hardware and Foodland, within view of the region’s single McDonald’s. To get to his offices, a patient had to enter through the pharmacy and then head to the back, past an aisle of seasonal items, a wall of cheap cosmetics and a sign that read, “We’re Here for You.” The clinic was a busy place. At his peak, Ateyah had a roster of some 2,300 patients from Schomberg and the surrounding area. Many rural communities in Ontario lack health care services, and they can offer doctors like Ateyah, an immigrant who was newly licensed to work in the province, a fast track to success. He was drawn to that opportunity, but he also seemed to like being an intrinsic part of the tiny community. Schomberg had none of the anonymity of a big city—from the start, people greeted him wherever he went. Ateyah was their doctor.

How the abuses of a small-town family doctor tore his community apart
In 2007, Wameed Ateyah set up his clinic to serve the 2,600 residents of Schomberg, a village north of Toronto

Though he lived with his wife, Saba, roughly 30 kilometres to the south, in Richmond Hill, Ateyah opened his pocketbook to local charities and fundraising drives. He laughed with his patients, making small talk about his dogs and his love of classic cars. Children brought him hand-drawn pictures, which he stuck on his office walls near a decal that read “Life is love—share it.” Whenever a patient was very sick, staff would hear Ateyah murmur a prayer. He made house calls and would often buy medication for those who couldn’t afford it. Schomberg residents called him “our Dr. A” and confided in him about their financial stresses, their family troubles, their most intimate health problems. The townsfolk were ill-prepared for the revelations that emerged about their beloved doctor. When patients began coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse—assaults they said had happened behind the closed doors of his exam rooms—many people in Schomberg refused to believe them. Schomberg wasn’t that kind of town, and their doctor wasn’t that kind of doctor.

 

Growing up in Iraq, Ateyah always wanted to be a physician, in part so he could be a role model for his three younger siblings and a source of pride for his parents. In 1988, at age 17, he enrolled in medical school in Baghdad, graduating near the top of his class six years later. He and Saba, who was pregnant with their first child, immigrated to Toronto to give their budding family a chance at a conflict-free life, and Ateyah studied to get his Canadian medical licence. To pay the bills, he delivered pizza and took a gig as a Dickie Dee vendor.

In the spring of 2004, he was hired at a family practice in Innisfil, where he helped oversee a roster of 4,000 patients. When Saba wanted to go back to school, he supported her and shared child care duties for their son, Ryan. He was a member of the Mandaean religion, a small Gnostic faith of fewer than 100,000 worldwide. He sponsored many members’ moves from Iraq, driving around the GTA to collect furniture for their homes, and helped financially support his brothers, nieces, nephews, in-laws. If a friend, or a friend of a friend, was sick, he swooped in, visiting their bedside, looking after their kids.

The first crack in Ateyah’s good-guy veneer appeared not long after he opened his own clinic in Schomberg in 2007. A young woman visited him because she was worried about bug bites around her ankles. Minutes into the examination, with her mother in the room, Ateyah asked her to pull down her pants, then pressed his hand against her genital area. He later claimed he was checking the young woman’s lymph nodes for possible infection—an arguably plausible if unusual procedure—but he didn’t explain that to the patient at the time. She felt sexually violated and reported Ateyah to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, the professional body that regulates doctors in the province. It referred her complaint to the Inquiries, ­Complaints and Reports Committee, known as the ICRC. The committee—made up of doctors and appointed members of the public—oversees investigations into patient complaints and, if necessary, refers cases to a discipline tribunal.

In this instance, the ICRC determined that Ateyah should have left the room while his patient disrobed and should have clearly communicated the purpose of his exam but otherwise did nothing wrong: “The complainant’s impressions relating to her examination in all likelihood arose out of unfortunate misunderstandings on her part.” The committee closed the complaint and sent Ateyah away with a copy of a college policy titled “Maintaining Appropriate Boundaries and Preventing Sexual Abuse.” Among other things, it reminded doctors of the Hippocratic Oath, to remain free of “all mischief and in particular sexual relations,” and to provide the scope and rationale for any examination.

Related: Greed, betrayal and medical misconduct at North York General

If that was meant to serve as a corrective, it didn’t work. Over the next few years, Ateyah performed medically questionable pelvic exams on at least three more women: one who’d visited for pain in her anal cavity, another who wanted help with a persistent migraine and a third who was seeking treatment for depression. In each case, he stayed in the room while the women undressed and failed to provide privacy draping or offer a chaperone (in the form of another health professional or an office assistant)—both standard practice for intimate examinations, and both things Ateyah would have read about in the “Maintaining Boundaries” brochure. In one case, he even rubbed close to the woman’s clitoris, claiming it would help her relax. For years, the women grappled with reporting Ateyah. They couldn’t figure out why he’d been so insistent about doing a pelvic exam, but they also couldn’t believe that their doctor had violated them. They thought they might be wrong. They thought they might be the only ones. They weren’t.

One day in July of 2016, a 17-year-old patient of Ateyah’s sought help for debilitating period cramps. She came in with her mother, who had an appointment for a routine physical. First, Ateyah saw the daughter, alone, and asked her to undo her pants. The girl left her underwear on, but Ateyah pushed them to the side and inserted an ungloved finger into her vagina. He didn’t explain what he was doing, and he left the room without washing his hands. Then he went next door and performed a routine pap test on the mother, this time with a chaperone present. As both he and the chaperone made to leave, Ateyah walked back into the room and asked the older woman not to get dressed. He told her to roll on her stomach—an odd position for an exam. He said he wanted to check some bleeding on her cervix. She then felt him insert his fingers into her vagina. Afterward, she worriedly asked if everything was okay, and he assured her it was. As soon as they got into the car to drive home, the teen turned to her mom and said, “Well, that was weird.”

Ateyah’s clinic was located in a strip mall a few hundred metres off Schomberg’s main street
Ateyah’s clinic was located in a strip mall a few hundred metres off Schomberg’s main street

That same year, he assaulted 10 more women, performing medically unnecessary breast and pelvic exams. Their experiences were eerily similar. Alone in the room with them, he’d ask the women to lie on their sides or stomachs—as opposed to their backs. If they were hesitant, he’d insist. They might be very sick, he’d say; he was looking out for them. He’d often invent a reason to perform internal examinations with his hand. In five cases, he didn’t wear gloves to do so.

One patient visited Ateyah with a rash—and later reported him to the CPSO for what she felt was an unwarranted pelvic exam. Once again, he told the ICRC he’d wanted to check her lymph nodes for infection. The ICRC noted that it “understood why the patient left the appointment with the impression that something was not right” but nevertheless dismissed the incident and chalked it up to a misinterpretation. In February of 2018, the committee ordered Ateyah to complete what’s called a Specified Continuing Education and Remediation Program, which required him to again read a copy of “Maintaining Appropriate Boundaries and Preventing Sexual Abuse.” He was also told to write a report on how he planned to incorporate its policies into his practice—though no one was tasked with ensuring that he followed through.

Perhaps Ateyah was counting on his patients’ confusion, believing that his peers and the power of his profession would safeguard him from any backlash. As one woman later put it, “If anyone else had done that to me, I would have gone straight to the police.” Or perhaps he genuinely believed he was in the right. Regardless of the source of his brazenness, his behaviour continued. Whenever a patient reported a disturbing breast or pelvic exam to the CPSO, Ateyah swore the woman must have misunderstood his actions. He was just doing his job. For years, his colleagues believed him.

 

It’s no small thing that we seek out a doctor when we’re at our most fearful and vulnerable, hoping they can translate the mysteries of our bodies. For the medical system to work, we must place enormous faith in our doctors. And, for the most part, we do: physicians remain the most trusted profession in Canada. In a recent Ipsos poll, they won out over teachers, judges, and “ordinary men and women.” We expect doctors to be dedicated and selfless—the type of person Ateyah positioned himself as. They strive to heal us, working what can seem like miracles in the process. This abundance of trust underpins the belief that the profession can be depended on to adequately regulate itself—something it’s been doing for more than a century.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario was established in 1869. Its mandate is to license qualified physicians, to set professional standards and provide education, and to adjudicate complaints on anything from poor bedside manner to outright abuse. In 2022, the CPSO received roughly 4,000 complaints, on top of a backlog of 1,000 others. Of the cases it managed to close that year, just under half involved what the college calls an “early resolution” process. That may entail mediation, or it may mean a CPSO representative phones the patient to talk through their concerns, after which many complaints are withdrawn. Another 35 per cent of cases were dismissed. The remaining cases were mostly addressed by the ICRC through remediation agreements (such as requiring the accused doctor to take an ethics course) or public cautions (essentially a scolding from the ICRC).

Only one per cent of complaints make it to the tribunal—the ones with the most egregious allegations, like incompetence and sexual abuse. As in the judicial system, the cases with the best chances of success proceed to a hearing, during which both sides, the CPSO and the accused physician, are represented by lawyers. If found guilty, doctors can be reprimanded or fined, or they can have restrictions placed on their licences. Like at the ICRC, discipline cases are heard by a panel comprising members of the public and doctors, usually at a three-to-two ratio. The imbalance is meant to mitigate any bias doctors may have toward their colleagues. It creeps in anyway.

That’s in large part because both the ICRC and the tribunal tend to assume doctors have good intentions. For three decades, the CPSO has had a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse that dictates immediate revocation of a doctor’s licence if found guilty. But doctors rarely lose their licences. More typically, they’re suspended from their practice for a year or less. The college has been so lax in punishing sexual abuse that the province has struck three separate task forces to address the problem since 1991.

Related: How I learned the horrifying truth about my biological father

The most recent one, in 2014, examined all 23 self-regulating medical colleges in Ontario. It was prompted by a Toronto Star investigation that revealed there were at least 20 male doctors practising with gender-based restrictions—meaning that, after having been found guilty of crossing sexual boundaries with female patients, they were temporarily allowed to treat only men. One Mississauga doctor was back to work with such a restriction following an eight-month suspension for placing his mouth on more than 10 patients’ breasts.

In response to the task-force report, the province introduced the Protecting Patients Act, which expanded the list of sexually abusive behaviours included under the zero-tolerance policy and removed the disciplinary ability to impose gender-based restrictions on a doctor’s practice, deeming it an in­adequate measure. The task force also called for the province to establish a watchdog to independently prosecute sexual abuse allegations, a recommendation that was ignored. The result is a zero-tolerance policy that has teeth on paper but in practice is shockingly meek.

It’s not for lack of effort. Many people have attempted to reform the system only to be blocked time and again. Chief among them is ­Marilou McPhedran, a former human rights lawyer and current Canadian senator. She chaired all three task forces, which made similar, sensible, practicable recommendations. Each time, they went largely unimplemented. The central roadblocks to enforcing zero tolerance have remained the same, McPhedran says. For one, medicine is still a male-­dominated profession with a tendecy to close ranks. Also, the power im­balance between doctors and patients is extreme: during disciplinary proceedings, patients are reduced to witnesses with no lawyers of their own, but doctors can draw on extraordinary legal resources—often partly through defence funds paid by ­taxpayers—to argue their cases. And perhaps most crucially, as McPhedran noted in the third task-force report, college tribunals have the discretionary authority to find doctors guilty of lesser charges, such as professional misconduct, instead of sexual abuse.

How the abuses of a small-town family doctor tore his community apart
Ateyah saw patients in three exam rooms at his clinic in the back of a local pharmacy
How the abuses of a small-town family doctor tore his community apart
Throughout his years of practice, Ateyah was repeatedly required to post CPSO-mandated notices in his clinic

Sexual violations by doctors are often reframed as something else by their peers: bad communication, ethical missteps, callous disregard—things that land their actions in the wider bucket of misconduct and allow the CPSO to give doctors chance after chance. When I asked McPhedran what it would take to make zero tolerance a reality, she reminded me that the problems—and solutions, including having an independent watchdog and fast-tracking sexual abuse complaints—are well-known. It’s the desire to enact them that’s lacking.

Over the years, Ateyah repeatedly benefited from unearned goodwill, and he wasn’t the only one. In 2016, the discipline committee concluded that a Toronto doctor named Javad Peirovy had sexually abused patients but then suspended his licence for only six months. Afterward, facing mass criticism, the CPSO took its own discipline committee to court to revoke Peirovy’s licence and won, but the decision was reversed on appeal. Three years after the committee first suspended his licence, Peirovy was suspended again, this time for two months, for dating a patient. In the fall of 2023, he was suspended a third time—for seven months—because he wasn’t abiding by the restrictions on his licence, which required him to have a chaperone in the form of a practice monitor whenever he saw female patients.

In another case, a 73-year-old pain specialist was accused of sexually abusing at least 10 women. The discipline committee allowed him to plead guilty to the lesser charge of misconduct and negotiated that no further reprimand would occur if he agreed to retire. Another doctor was given a six-month suspension after texting a teenage patient, driving her home several times and encouraging her to meet him for coffee. Over the years, Ateyah received both public reprimands and suspensions. Sometimes a lone committee member would suggest a more serious punishment, but they were overruled. The people deciding Ateyah’s fate—and, by extension, the fate of his patients—always seemed to believe he could be rehabilitated.

 

In October of 2016, a woman in her early 50s visited Ateyah for pain in her lower back. I’ll call her Vanessa since her name, like the names of Ateyah’s other victims, is protected by a publication ban. She wondered if the pain was linked to a bladder infection. Ateyah wasn’t her family physician, but she saw him from time to time because she worked near his clinic and her own doctor wasn’t in Schomberg. She’d been in pain for about two weeks, but on that day it was too severe. At the start of her appointment, Ateyah asked whether it hurt when she urinated or had sex; it did not. He also asked about her menstrual cycle, at which point she responded that she was going through menopause. He feigned surprise and inquired about her age. When she responded, his mock astonishment turned solicitous. He placed a hand on her shoulder, rubbed it up and down. “Whatever you’re doing,” he said, “you’re looking really good.”

Then he told her he was worried something “really serious” was wrong. He asked her to undo her pants. Vanessa complied, lying down on the bed. Ateyah pressed his ungloved hand down over her underwear, commenting that she seemed tense. He told her to open her legs. He didn’t tell her what he was doing or why, and it scared her. Then he slipped his hand under her underwear, his fingernails snagging her pubic hair. She stared at the ceiling. When Ateyah retracted his hand, she quickly stood up. She moved to pull her pants back into place, but he stopped her. He had to do one more thing, he said. She needed to drop her pants again.

When Vanessa didn’t, Ateyah stepped behind her and nudged them down himself. He placed his hands back on top of her underwear, pressed himself closer against her and began to rock her back and forth with his body. She protested, reminding Ateyah that the pain was in her back. She shoved her elbow backward, placing the palm of her hand against the place where it hurt—a sharp, desperate movement that created space between them. It was effective. Ateyah didn’t try again. Instead, he gave her an ultrasound requisition, told her to follow up with him and sent her on her way.

As she walked past the clinic’s reception area and through the pharmacy, Vanessa felt shaky. Whatever just happened, she thought, it wasn’t right. Two days later, she went to see her family doctor, who examined her and ordered a kidney ultrasound and chest X-ray before concluding that the pain was muscular. Still unnerved by her experience, she disclosed what had happened. The doctor explained the CPSO’s complaints process. Vanessa filed one online against Ateyah the next day.

Her complaint would take more than three years to wend its way through the disciplinary system. During that time, in May of 2017, the ICRC issued an interim undertaking against Ateyah that required him to have a practice monitor—hired by him, approved by the CPSO—­present for encounters with female patients and to place signs in his clinic saying so. Sometimes Ateyah followed the stipulation to have a practice monitor; sometimes he didn’t. Other times, he’d duck back into the exam room after the monitor had left. Or he’d position his back to them so they couldn’t see what he was doing. If the monitor complained, he grew angry. By this point, he’d assaulted several more women. In at least three cases, he inserted his finger into his patients’ vaginas multiple times. One woman heard him grunt.

Eventually, patients began to notice the signs posted in his office. They were startling—“Dr. Ateyah must not be alone during any professional encounter with any patient”—but vague as to why. Curious parties were directed to visit the CPSO website for more information. Plenty of his patients chose to ignore the signs: they knew Ateyah and thought he was a good doctor. Others asked Ateyah directly and believed him when he dismissed the warnings as no big deal. But a small number of women—many of whom knew Vanessa and knew what had happened—noticed that Ateyah wasn’t consistently following the rules set out for his conduct. So they told her.


It was clear to his victims just how ineffective the College of Physicians and Surgeons really was. Fed up, two women reported Ateyah to York Regional Police

  She was furious. Some days, even the thought of driving past his office was enough to trigger a panic attack, and there he still was, business as usual. She also worried about his other female patients. One of her friends suggested using Schomberg’s community Facebook group to get the word out. The friend was close with the group’s administrator, Susan Heslop, a 64-year-old retired sales and marketing professional who had moved to Schomberg nearly two decades earlier. Heslop had a baby around the same time Ateyah opened his new clinic, so when her son fell sick, she decided to take him there and spare herself the drive to her family doctor in Newmarket. Ateyah misdiagnosed her son’s illness, she says, and she never went back. By the time the mutual friend reached out to her, Heslop hadn’t dealt with Ateyah in years. Soon, he’d consume her thoughts.

Usually, Heslop shared positive news with her Facebook group’s 7,000 followers: the goings-on of the town’s small businesses, inquiries about the best roofers in the area, how to find a good dentist. Whenever difficult news popped up in the page’s feed—a house fire or a shortage at the food bank—the community rallied to help. That’s what Heslop thought she was doing in June of 2017, when she posted a brief note about the complaint against Ateyah. “FYI for residents and particularly patients of our local doctor,” she wrote, linking to the CPSO’s page detailing the investigation. That, she says, is when “shit hit the fan.”

“People didn’t want to believe it,” she says. A few of them expressed shock at the allegations and sympathy for the complainant, but most seemed outraged on Ateyah’s behalf. Heslop was stunned. People commented that he was a great doctor and a great guy—he had never crossed a line with them. The woman must have fabricated her claims. Positive posts flooded his page on ­RateMDs.com. One person wrote, “Unfortunately, his name has been slandered in our town.” Another called the patient who had come forward “a sick woman who just wanted to feel important,” adding that the “Me Too movement is going too far.”

At first, Heslop tried interacting with Ateyah’s defenders. It was their right not to believe the allegations, but she warned against shaming the woman. Her plea for civility didn’t work. They called her a busybody, pointed out that she wasn’t his patient and declared that he would never harm anyone.

Most of the vitriol was contained to Heslop’s Facebook group, but she heard chatter around town too. The village soon became split—and angry. Some people accused Vanessa and her supporters of targeting Ateyah and being a bunch of racist Karens. The Facebook discussion grew so vicious that Heslop turned off the comments.

Ateyah, too, seemed incensed by the suggestion that he’d done anything wrong. He became his own greatest defender, maintaining that the women were liars and the accusations were unfounded. He asked some female patients to write letters of support to the CPSO. Rather than cease his inappropriate conduct, he stopped seeing walk-in patients, convinced that they were the source of his woes. “They don’t know me,” he’d say, “and I don’t know them.”

By October of 2018, his number of daily patients had dwindled by half, and Ateyah decided he was done with Schomberg. Hoping to find a friendly refuge, he moved his practice to the nearby town of Beeton. There, he would have a chance to begin again, with a host of new patients who knew nothing about him.

 

Ateyah may have been hoping for a fresh start in Beeton, but he couldn’t escape himself. By now, more than 15 women, ranging in age from 17 to early 50s, had experienced his unnecessary and unwanted intimate exams. At least three of them had complained to the CPSO. The same month he opened his clinic in its new location, a young woman visited his office for a routine check-up. She’d been his patient since she was a kid, and some of her family members saw him too. As she grew older, he began to treat her regularly for anxiety and depression. That day, he wrote her a prescription. But she was surprised when he texted her the same night, around 9:15. They’d texted before, but only about things like appointment times, and she’d always referred to him as “Sir,” out of respect. This was different. Ateyah wanted to know how she was doing. He told her he was home alone, then proceeded to send her a series of inappropriate messages.

“Can I talk to you about something between us?” He waited a beat. “Nobody. I mean nobody will know about it.”

Shortly afterward, when she didn’t respond: “Are you there?”

The young woman apologized and told him to go ahead.

“I can’t just think of you like just a patient. You are way more than that. You are a very mature woman and I am impressed about the way you look at things.”

He kept going. “I am your friend so don’t say you have no friends. If you want to talk or you feel alone then send me a message and we can talk or meet.” The young woman was taken aback but polite in her response. He then sent another burst of messages.

“Whatever it takes to make you happy.”

“You are very close to me.”

“Open to me and forget that I am your doctor.”

“For me you are a very, very close person.”

Ateyah ended his bombardment with a compliment, calling her a “rosy cheek girl.” If she ever needed to talk or meet him outside of his office, he told her, all she had to do was text. By then, the young woman just wanted Ateyah to stop messaging her. She told him she was fine and that she’d reach out to him if she needed to.

Five minutes later, Ateyah sent her another message: “Are you sad? I feel sadness in the way you talk.”

It was too much. “Not at the moment, no, just tired,” she responded. “Speaking of which, I do have to get up in the morning early. Goodnight sir!”

The next day, Ateyah called her. When she didn’t answer, he texted. She told him she had a counsellor at school and that Ateyah didn’t need to text her anymore. He reassured her again and, half an hour later, apologized if his messages had made her uncomfortable. She was like his daughter or perhaps his friend, he said, and he never imagined she’d be upset by his attention—Didn’t she know how much he cared about her? He then sent her a photo of his dog, Chico, to cheer her up, he said. In response, the young woman said she appreciated his good intentions but that he was being inappropriate.

Ateyah tried a different tactic: guilt. “You used to call me when you needed to talk,” he wrote. He didn’t feel like she was being herself. He once more apologized but also stressed what he considered to be their unique closeness. He added that he had wanted to confide in her—and had only asked her not to tell anybody because, as a doctor, he felt silly having nobody else to turn to. He continued: “I felt you were very close to me and will listen. That is all. I swear I have nothing else.” He didn’t message her again, and the young woman never responded. But, a few months later, in July of 2019, she made a complaint to the CPSO. She didn’t know that another young woman had also come forward that same month about a similar conversation with Ateyah.

In that case, it was a patient in her early 20s who was experiencing pain in her genital area. When she discovered that Ateyah was in the US and that she couldn’t get an in-person appointment, a family member suggested she reach out over Facebook Messenger. After she detailed her symptoms, clearly distressed, Ateyah—whose profile picture was of him in a black tuxedo and matching bow tie—answered quickly. He responded with an exclamation: “OMG.” Instead of referring her to another doctor while he was out of the country, he asked her to send a photo of her vagina. She complied, and he told her what he thought her problem was and called in a prescription. When she asked if he was certain of the diagnosis, he responded, “I hope I am wrong, but if it is and we don’t treat it, it is bad.”

He ended their exchange with a note that unsettled her: “Contact me anytime. You know how much I adore you.” He kept messaging her even after she stopped responding. She never went to see him again. After Ateyah was notified of her complaint, he confronted one of her family members, saying he was “sad” and “dumbfounded” by the young woman’s reaction. And in a wildly misguided bid to prove his innocence, he shared her health information. He’d helped her, hadn’t he? He tried the same tactic with the other patient’s family member. He was upset, he said, and didn’t understand how the woman could make such an accusation. This time, he offered up the text messages as proof. Wasn’t it clear he’d done nothing wrong? Both women, he felt, should retract their complaints.

At best, the breaches of privacy were a reckless attempt to show he had nothing to hide. But that was a lie too. Ateyah was actively keeping many of his patient interactions hidden at his clinic, regularly dodging his CPSO-mandated practice monitor and frequently seeing patients without her present. Often, he ordered her to wait outside the exam room. He’d hired her, and he intimidated her, so she acquiesced. She proceeded with caution, but she knew that what was happening was wrong. After four months in her role, she asked for a meeting between the clinic’s management and Ateyah. Before it could take place, they fired her. In February of 2019, she reported Ateyah to the CPSO. The college didn’t investigate until more than a year later.

 

In July of 2019—the same month the two patients came forward about Ateyah’s texts—the tribunal released its written decision in response to Vanessa’s allegations. Ateyah had denied any wrongdoing and, in fact, claimed he didn’t remember the appointment. He also said that, according to his notes, Vanessa had not come to see him primarily for back pain, as she professed, but for a urinary tract infection. He agreed that for an appointment to go how she described would be “absolutely inappropriate” but stressed that it was not the case. He testified that he would have examined her groin area—her iliac crest, the top of her pelvic bone and her lymph nodes—but not in the way she described. Not only did he deny touching her in a sexual manner, he also testified that he had a condition that reduced his libido—proof, to his mind, that he wouldn’t even want to touch a woman in such a way. He and Saba hadn’t had sex in four years. Ateyah’s doctor appeared before the tribunal and confirmed Ateyah’s condition.

During the week-long hearing, both Ateyah and Vanessa testified, as did several experts, including two doctors who spoke to proper examination techniques. Ateyah’s lawyer, Josh Koziebrocki, presented his client as sympathetic and professional. Conversely, he used his cross-examination of Vanessa to portray her as deceptive and prone to exaggeration. Four of the five members of the panel agreed with him, concluding that Ateyah was credible while she was not. “The Committee cannot explain the patient’s account,” they wrote in their decision, “but is not prepared to believe her over Dr. Ateyah.”

They found Vanessa to be unreliable in part because she used the words “fabulous” and “fantastic” interchangeably when describing Ateyah’s comment on her appearance (“fabulous,” Ateyah said, wasn’t in his vocabulary) and because, in her initial complaint, she noted that she’d been wearing a T-shirt but didn’t specify that it was a Blue Jays T-shirt. Koziebrocki also hammered her on her use of the word “cupping” to describe how Ateyah had placed his hand over her vaginal region, stressing that, in her initial complaint, she’d used the word to describe one incident but that, during the hearing, she’d used it to describe all three times Ateyah touched her. After lengthy questioning over its use, Vanessa snapped back, “I don’t know when I first used the word ‘cupping,’ but it all means the same thing—he had his hands between my legs.”

Only one member of the panel, a family doctor named ­Carole Jean Clapperton, doubted Ateyah’s testimony. She noted that he’d often contradicted himself: he’d claimed not to remember Vanessa’s visit at all and then provided specific recollections from it. Other times, Ateyah’s clinical reasoning made little sense to her. Clapperton was convinced that Ateyah had falsified his notes to cover up the sexual abuse. She also found Vanessa’s testimony to be clear and consistent. Yet her colleagues were certain that Ateyah’s sole misstep was, once again, poor communication.

In the end, the tribunal found Ateyah guilty only of professional misconduct for having failed to properly explain the type of examination he intended to do. After the decision was released, but before his penalty was decided, he attended two ethics ­sessions in an attempt to mitigate the severity of his punishment. He also enrolled in a college-approved education course called “Successful Patient Interactions.” He argued that finishing both ethics refreshers should be consequence enough, and he presented a report from the one he’d already completed, which praised him. The instructor said she’d met with him twice and that he acknowledged the need to more clearly communicate the steps he was taking during intimate examinations.

The tribunal agreed that Ateyah should complete the course as a condition of his penalty. But they also decided to briefly suspend his licence. “A two-month suspension,” they wrote, “should bring that message home to Dr. Ateyah and serve as a specific deterrent to him so that he does not repeat this insensitive behaviour in the future.”

The suspension started in January of 2020. Ateyah was barely back to work before he had to address another complaint. In April, the ICRC decided to publicly caution Ateyah after another woman reported repeated improper breast and pelvic examinations dating back to his time in Schomberg. A subsequent investigation found that he’d demonstrated a lack of skill and knowledge in his examinations—specifically, that he’d performed both types of exams too frequently—and that his record-keeping was poor. The committee acknowledged that another, similar complaint was concerning but claimed it would be unable to prove wrongdoing at a tribunal hearing due to insufficient evidence.

Ateyah was first arrested in September of 2020.
Ateyah was first arrested in September of 2020. Photo by York Regional Police

It was clear to Ateyah’s victims just how ineffective the CPSO and ICRC really were. Fed up, two women bypassed the college and reported Ateyah directly to York Regional Police that August. On September 15, 2020, officers arrested Ateyah and charged him with seven counts of sexual assault. The next day, he was released on $20,000 bail, and the police put out a bulletin asking other victims to come forward. Ateyah denied everything. Those closest to him believed he was incapable of hurting anyone and called him to offer their condolences and support, expressing outrage over the publication of his mugshot. One of Ateyah’s nieces, who described him as her “cheerleader, confidant, motivator, role model and guardian angel,” believed that anyone who didn’t support her uncle was afraid of cancel culture. His brother-in-law called the media’s reporting “character assassination.”

Many of Ateyah’s patients in Schomberg, and now Beeton, agreed. Heslop posted the news of his charges to her Facebook group and once again faced a barrage of comments from people who still loved him. But other patients—women who’d been trying for years to make sense of their traumatic encounters with Ateyah—suddenly knew they weren’t alone. A handful left comments about their experiences. A few reached out to Heslop directly to share their stories. Other women who had been hiding—or questioning—their assaults disclosed for the first time what had happened to them in Ateyah’s exam rooms. They told their partners, their friends, their neighbours. And one by one, they came forward to the police. By the end of the month, the total charges had risen to 20. In early December of 2020, the police were ready to lay even more charges. To avoid another public arrest, Ateyah turned himself in. Eighteen of his current and former patients had made reports.

Two months after police first charged Ateyah, the college finally suspended his licence, pending the outcome of the criminal case against him. Remarkably, however, it remained confident in his rehabilitation. In spring of 2021, the tribunal met to address the inappropriate texting cases. This time, it found Ateyah guilty of professional misconduct and suspended his licence for a year. While it did note that Ateyah wasn’t currently practising anyway and that his licence had already been suspended, it didn’t directly address the criminal charges, referring to them as an unrelated matter. When one member of the tribunal—another doctor—asked for a “good reason” why the panel shouldn’t revoke his licence, Ateyah’s lawyer responded that such an action was extreme and unwarranted. The committee seemed to agree. In addition to his suspension, it ordered Ateyah to complete another ethics course and gave him an official reprimand that urged him to reflect on what being a doctor meant.

“It is not a licence to conduct yourself in any way you choose,” the committee said. “It is not a licence for self-indulgence. A licence to practice medicine is a privilege, not a right. You, sir, have abused this privilege in many, many ways.”

 

Ateyah’s criminal trial began in April of 2023, in Newmarket. Ultimately, he faced 24 counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual interference. To his mind, he was not a villain but a victim—of twisted media reports, of vindictive and misguided walk-in patients, of cancel culture. Friends noted that he’d been sad and withdrawn. He obsessed over what his patients would think and how they’d been coping with his absence. His mental and physical health declined. He was on a bevy of medications, including one for depression. Many of those closest to him blamed the media attention, not his alleged actions, for his problems. But the trial wasn’t his only trouble: after nearly two decades of marriage, Saba had divorced him.

Over the next several weeks, he sat in the courtroom as 14 women testified. Through it all, Ateyah maintained his innocence, in much the same manner as he had with the complaints made to the CPSO. He swore he’d conducted his exams because they were necessary, not because he enjoyed them. His lawyers built their case around the complainants’ supposed unreliability and suggested that they’d fabricated their allegations to support one another.

The judge, Jill Cameron, wasn’t buying it. None of the women, she noted, except for the mother-and-daughter pair, even knew each other. And to her, it was Ateyah, not the women, who’d been caught lying on the stand. Cameron accepted the Crown’s evidence that Ateyah had tampered with his notes before handing them over, adding fake details to justify his examinations—confirming Clapperton’s suspicions from the tribunal hearing. Ateyah said one patient had come to him with a nasty respiratory infection when, in fact, she’d seen him for a case of pink eye. He falsely reported another as having bladder incontinence. He made notes about high blood pressure that never existed and indicated several false appearances of a chaperone. In one case, he invented a sister with breast cancer to justify a breast exam. As for the similarities of the allegations, Cameron remarked: “It strains the boundaries of logic and common sense that this could all be a coincidence.”

She found him guilty of 16 counts of sexual assault—­including Vanessa’s—and one count of sexual interference. Saba and their son, Ryan, as well as Ateyah’s mother and youngest brother, lined the courtroom benches on the day of the verdict. His brother held their mother’s hand as she sobbed.

Before his sentencing in October, Ateyah canvassed his family, friends, colleagues and patients, gathering 99 letters of support. In hers, Saba said he had always treated her with respect during their most intimate moments. Ryan said his father’s “current situation” didn’t make sense to anybody who knew him—his dad’s morals were too high. Ateyah’s mom signed her own letter as “the broken heart mother.” Several former patients came to his defence, as did many doctors and members of his religious community. They all said the same thing: he was a wonderful man, and he deserved mercy. He’d suffered too much already.

Other dedicated patients took their grievances online one final time. On RateMDs.com, one woman called him a “father figure,” adding that “as a young average looking woman I can easily invalidate the claims against this doctor.” Another person who claimed to have been his patient for 15 years was sure that Ateyah’s innocence would still be proven. A third patient echoed the sentiment, adding, absurdly, that “the gold digger that did this to him will get their karma soon.” Heslop tried to counter such posts with her own, citing his conviction, but each was quickly reported and deleted.

 

Doctors have extraordinary power over our bodies, and nobody—not their victims, not their other patients and especially not other doctors—wants to believe they’ll exploit it. Across Canada and throughout history, physician colleges have repeatedly prioritized the protection of their profession over patient safety. But abuse is also dismissed because people desperately want what Ateyah’s patients in Schomberg wanted: accessible and reliable health care. Maybe the fear of losing that skewed their judgment, prompting them to ignore their doctor’s egregious behaviour.

His victims will never be able to forget it. Several will now see only female doctors. Others avoid seeking medical care altogether, instead letting their health deteriorate. One patient who’d been assaulted became so wary of doctors that, when she pinched a nerve in her leg, she waited months to book an appointment, hobbling around in agony until she could no longer walk. Anything was better than seeing a doctor. Several were in regular therapy, and at least one received a diagnosis 0f PTSD. Some of them reduced their work hours or left their jobs entirely—they were unable to make it through their shifts, get out of bed, leave their houses. When given a chance to speak in court, one woman said she hoped Ateyah and his family listened closely to one part of her statement: “You have tried to make it seem like you are the wronged one in this situation, but you are a predator and a monster.”

Judge Cameron sentenced Ateyah to nine years in jail. It was much more than the three years for which his defence team argued. He will, at last, lose his medical licence and, for the rest of his life, be a registered sex offender. For those who stood by him, it was an unjustifiably harsh punishment for a doctor whose only crime was poor communication. For the women whose trust and bodies he violated, it was a first, shaky step toward healing. Ateyah himself has not accepted his conviction. After his sentencing, he immediately appealed and has since retained new counsel—Scott Hutchison, a partner in the same firm as criminal defence lawyer Marie Henein. If the appeal proceeds, Ateyah is expected to launch the same defence he’s made many times before—the one that, until now, has always worked. He didn’t do anything wrong. The women are mistaken. He is a good doctor. He only wanted to help.


This story originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here.

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