Becoming a physician requires considerable effort and often overcoming significant hurdles. For Frank Spinelli, MD, FACP, his hurdle was overcoming being sexually abused by his scoutmaster.
Becoming a physician requires considerable effort and often overcoming significant hurdles. Frank Spinelli, MD, FACP, a licensed and board-certified internist working at Chelsea Village Medical in New York City, says that’s as it should be.
But when those hurdles include being sexually abused by your scoutmaster, who was also a beloved local police officer, the deck might seem stacked against you.
Those were the odds facing Spinelli.
“When I was molested, it completely derailed me because of the consequences that happened afterward,” Spinelli recalls. “I felt shame and guilt, and I blamed myself. And I ended up losing a scholarship to NYU. I really was thinking about alternatives. I asked colleagues, ‘What should I do?’ And I had several good advisors tell me, ‘If this is your dream, do it.’”
Today Spinelli looks back and knows he got some good advice.
Desire to practice
Spinelli grew up on Staten Island in New York City and recalls having a natural curiosity for examining and seeing what was inside animals. That manifested itself in the doctor and medical shows he watched on television, and sparked his interest in a career in medicine.
“Doctors all have this macabre interest in the human body,” he says. “That’s what is fascinating to us, but probably disgusting to everyone else.”
His immigrant parents also encouraged him. His father had no education, and learned to read by watching “Wheel of Fortune,” and his mother had limited schooling. But they made it clear they wanted Spinelli to attend college.
“I don’t know what a parent does to make that happen,” Spinelli says. “But I had that burning desire to be better than my father.”
At age 13, while a member of a local Boy Scout troop, Spinelli and other boys in his troop were molested by their scoutmaster. When he spoke out, his parents were advised by the assistant scoutmasters not to go to the police, because the scoutmaster was also a well-respected police officer. That was difficult for Spinelli to understand.
“With many cases of alleged child molestation, we focus on the perpetrator,” Spinelli says. “We vilify him. We protect him. But we don’t focus on the children. The child primarily does not understand what happened. The child has been invited into an adult situation; has been sexualized by someone who their parents or the child probably knows. That child sees this person as an extension of their parents, and there is this devout loyalty to this person, because they were introduced to them. And it’s very hard for the child to live this dual life.
“I lived one life where I was the son of my parents and I was a good Catholic boy who went to school; but I was also involved in a sexual, sadistic relationship with a man who was a cop and my scoutmaster,” he says.
The abuser was eventually fired, and Spinelli—with the assistance of years of therapy—persevered. He became a successful physician and, later, an acclaimed author with the 2008 publication of The Advocate Guide to Gay Men’s Health and Wellness—a book he felt was desperately needed.
“I had been hired by a mentor of mine, and we were treating a lot of HIV-positive patients, which is my specialty,” Spinelli explains. “And I felt, as a young gay man myself, there wasn’t a resource. I felt like there wasn’t this book that I could just go to and see ‘what do I do if I’m a gay man.’”
He began publishing articles, and soon felt he had enough material for a manual. He approached the publishers of The Advocate, the oldest gay magazine in the US, and they agreed to co-brand the manual.
The abuser returns
In 2011, Spinelli learned that his former abuser was not only still tormenting young children, but he was living with three mentally challenged teens he had “adopted,” had written a book on the subject, and was being touted as the devoted father of the year with an appearance on “The Today Show.” Spinelli’s nightmare returned.
“All I kept thinking about was all the children we could have saved if my parents and the scoutmasters had gone to the police,” Spinelli recalls. “These people are sociopaths. They do not see what they’re doing as wrong; that’s what’s so damaging. And I think that’s what we don’t really understand. Right now, we’re focusing on the fact that the Boy Scouts of America don’t want to allow gay leaders, because they’re afraid they’re going to molest boys. We have to really differentiate child molestation and pedophilia from homosexuality. Men who molest boys are not gay: they’re child molesters.”
Spinelli pursued his molester through a grindingly slow legal system to make certain justice was served. Doing so, and publishing his account of the journey, Pee-Shy (Kensington Books, December 2013), forced Spinelli to confront his past while straining his relationship with his partner.
But in November 2011, justice was served. William Fox, a retired NYPD officer, was sentenced to 35 years in jail for sexually abusing his two adopted sons and another child. Spinelli had finally achieved closure.
“I used to carry [the molestation] around with me in everything I did,” Spinelli acknowledges. “Obviously, I had a very difficult time using restaurants. I had a very difficult time with social interactions with other adults, especially colleagues; just looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand, saying hello, presenting myself with authority—which as you know as a doctor you have to do. You have to be the authority.”
But now Spinelli says he’s able to put those memories in a suitcase of sorts that he keeps in the closet on a shelf. And every once in a while he takes down that suitcase and looks in it and remembers, and learns.
“But I know I can just put it away,” he adds. “I don’t carry it with me every day any more.”
Growing old together
Spinelli looks back over his 13-year career as a physician and says the most rewarding aspect of what he does is growing older with his patients.
“Whenever I see a patient, I feel like, oh, we’ve grown old together and I’m taking care of you,” Spinelli says. “And I think that’s one of the most precious things about being a doctor, is that someone has invited you into their world and they’re trusting you to take care of them. I think that is an amazing accomplishment.”