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David Werner

Activist and founder David Werner is no longer affiliated with Hesperian. He resigned in 1993 and is no longer in contact with the organization. An article from the Washington Post and the following article from the San Jose Mercury News were published shortly after his resignation. The experience led us to understand that silence about child sexual abuse grants impunity to the victimizer and permits further abuse. You can read more of our thoughts in, this editorial from the Hesperian Foundation News from Spring/Summer 1999. All of our books that discuss the health of children now address child sexual abuse. We encourage you to review our materials, especially the materials in the chapters “Preventing child sexual abuse” in our books Helping Children Who Are Deaf and Helping Children Who Are Blind.


San Jose Mercury News (CA)
December 11, 1994
Section: Front
Edition: Morning Final
Page: 1A

LINDA GOLDSTON, Mercury News Staff Writer

David Werner, an internationally known MacArthur “genius grant” winner whose medical self-help guide revolutionized health care in the Third World, quietly resigned from the Palo Alto foundation he helped start amid allegations that he sexually molested some of the very children from Mexico he was honored for helping.

Werner, 60, was unanimously voted out as president of the Hesperian Foundation during a strained July 30, 1993, meeting, according to seven members of the board of directors at the time. The remaining three members were out of the country when the meeting seeking his resignation was held. Hesperian is a non-profit foundation that promotes health care in developing countries.

While his one-sentence letter of resignation makes no mention of the allegations, the board accused Werner of molesting an unknown number of boys between the ages of 12 and 16. The board acted after a staff member became concerned about sexual behavior by boys staying in Werner’s home and came to the board with his suspicions.

“We confronted David with the accusations and told him there was no alternative to him doing anything but resigning immediately from the Hesperian Foundation,” said board member Michael Blake, who first met Werner in Africa in 1979 and immediately wrote to a friend that he had met “a living saint for the first time.”

Werner, who told the board at the meeting that he had never abused any children, refused to be interviewed for this story. But in a letter to the Mercury News, he said “extensive investigations by the Hesperian Foundation and by the Palo Alto Police Department . . . have turned up nothing.”

“For me to care so intensely for the well-being of these children has put me in a vulnerable position — I am accused of having extended my intense caring for children into the realm of sexual abuse.

“I categorically deny that I have sexually abused any children.”

Indeed, more than a year after the Hesperian board filed a complaint with the Palo Alto Police Department alleging “that its founder and former president, David Werner, was sexually involved with a number of male adolescents,” investigators have not questioned Werner and consider the case inactive.

This year, Werner began forming a new group to continue much of the work he did with Hesperian: providing grass-roots health care to disadvantaged communities, helping the disabled and working with children.

After Hesperian complained to police, Palo Alto Police Detective Luis Verbera interviewed five Hesperian staff members and volunteers and two board members. “There wasn’t an extensive investigation,” Verbera said. “We attempted as much as we could to locate the whereabouts of possible victims, but that wasn’t possible” because the alleged victims are in Mexico.

Verbera’s boss, Sgt. Dennis Burns, said no detectives were sent to Mexico “because it would have been a fishing expedition. It was also unclear if the allegations of sex abuse occurred in Palo Alto, elsewhere in the United States or in Mexico. We couldn’t prosecute unless they occurred in Santa Clara County.”

Burns said his officers would have questioned Werner “but the suspect had an attorney” and the attorney refused to allow Werner to speak with investigators because he had not been charged with a crime.

Call to cabin

Werner told to return

WERNER WAS at his summer cabin in New Hampshire when a member of the board called and told him to return immediately to discuss the allegations. He was by this time an almost mythical figure in health care circles for his three decades of work in the small, remote villages of the Sierra Madre.

It was there, with no doctor for hundreds of miles, no electricity or running water, that Werner wrote Where There Is No Doctor, his self-help medical manual credited with saving tens of thousands of lives. It has sold more than 2 million copies and is printed in 52 languages.

Board members say that reputation made it painful to oust Werner, and they are careful to say they have no direct knowledge of his sexual involvement with any child. But four board members and two staffers say that over the past year, Werner confirmed to them that he had sex with underage boys from Mexico, telling them he considered the encounters a positive influence on the children.

“I said, ‘These were sexual relationships with minors?’ ” said Dr. Davida Coady, a Berkeley pediatrician who became Hesperian’s president after Werner’s resignation. Coady, a board member at the time, was in Guatemala when Werner resigned.

“David said, ‘Yes.’ He said he never abused anybody, that it was part of mentoring.”

A small group at Hesperian — including two board members and three staffers — say they had known for years about Werner’s alleged sexual involvement with underage boys and failed to either report it to police or ask Werner to leave the foundation. Werner admitted his activities to them, they said.

Five of them, including then-board member Deborah Bickel and Dr. Lonny Shavelson, a Berkeley physician and longtime friend of Werner’s, said Werner was issued “rules and regulations” at an informal meeting in 1991. All said they had worked with Werner in Mexico and believed it more important for his work in the Third World to continue than to report him to others — as long as children could be protected at the same time.

Conditions given

Meeting not documented

“WE NEVER SAID to David, ‘You cannot have relationships with young men,'” said Bickel, who took a leave of absence as a board member last year to work on health projects in Guatemala. “Our bottom line was 16 years old, and he must never confuse his relationships with boys with his work for Hesperian.”

Both Bickel and Shavelson, as well as two former staff members, said Werner agreed to those conditions. But because it was not a board meeting, no minutes exist, Shavelson and Bickel said. Others involved with the foundation say they did not find out about the 1991 meeting until allegations about Werner resurfaced last year.

This time, the allegations came from Rob Rosenfeld, a Hesperian volunteer who worked alongside Werner in Mexico and Palo Alto as part of his graduate work. He had also been caretaker at Werner’s Palo Alto home for two summers while Werner was in New Hampshire.

According to Rosenfeld, several disabled children from Mexico were staying at the Palo Alto home while waiting for or recuperating from corrective surgery. Rosenfeld, who spent a summer working with sexually abused children, said he became suspicious when he found two boys from Mexico undressed and “playing around” at 3 a.m. in the garage.

Rosenfeld said he counseled the boys that the behavior was not appropriate but allowed them to return home to Mexico as scheduled the next day on the Hesperian van. But because Rosenfeld believed the behavior was symptomatic of children who have been sexually molested, he mentioned it to other Hesperian staffers. Two of them say they told Rosenfeld they’d had their own discussions with Werner about having sex with underage boys and that Werner had confirmed it.

Rosenfeld also confronted Werner and asked, “What do you do with these kids?” “(Werner) said, ‘there are children I have been intimate with, but it’s based on love. These are kids I’ve known for years. I don’t love them and leave them; I maintain friendships with them. They come out better for the loving exchange we had,’ ” Rosenfeld said.

After talking again with other staff members at Hesperian, Rosenfeld arranged a conference call with them and Medea Benjamin and Dyanne Ladine, two recent additions to Hesperian’s board. After everyone shared their information, a board meeting was called to confront Werner.

Two weeks after Werner resigned, the Hesperian board met again in mid- August 1993. They elected Coady president and voted to report Werner to Palo Alto police. In addition to the Hesperian complaint, two others were filed: one from Rosenfeld, who now works as a youth counselor in Alaska, and one from Carol Maddox of Palo Alto, an occupational therapist.

Maddox said she made her report after hearing the allegations from a friend, Barbara George of Palo Alto, a former Hesperian staffer.

Right before that second board meeting, Coady said that Werner and she met at her Berkeley home.

“David told me there had been approximately seven boys,” said Coady, who also is president of the San Carlos Foundation, a non-profit group she started in 1984 that provides health and educational aide to refugees. “He told me most of them were 15 to 16 years old, and one may have been as young as 13 when it started. He said most of them were Mexican, and some of them were disabled.”

Other Hesperian staffers and volunteers said Werner, who himself has a disability caused by a degenerative muscle disease, made similar statements to them, including Kay Schauer, a bookkeeper at Hesperian for 8 1/2 years, and Ralf Hotchkiss, his longtime friend and Hesperian board member who won his own MacArthur award in 1989 for work with the disabled.

“In our discussions, David was primarily saying that it absolutely was not abusive,” said Hotchkiss, technical director at the Wheeled Mobility Center at San Francisco State University.

“We had no choice but to ask him to resign because we couldn’t establish that David wasn’t going to carry out activities like that in the future. He could not assure us.”

A new project

Fund-raising begins

EVEN AFTER ALL THIS, the entire incident might have remained nothing more than the subject of whispers in the international health care community had Werner not started fund-raising in June for HealthWrights, a new Palo Alto- based group he formed to tackle many of the same medical issues as Hesperian — and to work with children.

Most of the people interviewed for this story said they only agreed to talk because Werner formed the new organization, fearing he could be involved with children again.

“For many of us, he was like a god,” said Marjorie Wang of Palo Alto, a former businesswoman who came to think of Werner as her adviser on philanthropic projects. Wang contacted the Mercury News about the allegations this summer.

“(But) the police weren’t going to prosecute, and when I learned he was starting another group and might bring kids up from Mexico to do the same thing, I knew it had to be stopped. I would have been an accomplice if I hadn’t said anything.”

HealthWrights’ literature mentions Werner’s involvement with Hesperian but not why he left. And it has attracted former Hesperian members who defend Werner — including three who agreed to sit on HealthWright’s board.

“I feel there have been people out there snooping around trying to attack David,” said former Hesperian vice president Allison Akana. She said she was at both the mediation meeting in 1991 and the board meeting where Werner resigned. And even though she resigned from Hesperian at the same time Werner was forced out, Akana said she did not fight his resignation. She is on the board of Werner’s new group.

“David’s never had one legal charge brought against him,” said Akana, a physician’s assistant at Stanford University who has known and worked with Werner since 1969. “You have to look at the big picture. David Werner has probably done more for health care for the medically unserved in the world than any other single person.”

Even some of those who voted for Werner’s resignation said they haven’t been able to reconcile everything.

“I’m really torn by this whole thing,” said Benjamin, a Hesperian board member for two years and executive director of Global Exchange, a human rights organization based in San Francisco.

“I knew David for his work and thought it was really amazing. (But) there have been allegations we’ve taken extremely seriously as a board and asked David to resign. But they’ve never gone beyond allegations. We never had a victim that came up and said, ‘this is what David did to me.’ “

Dr. Greg Troll, a doctor in Yosemite who stepped down from the Hesperian board late last year, said Werner admitted to him a few years earlier that he had had sexual relationships with underage boys but denied that any of them were among the children helped by Hesperian. He said Werner also had told him that even that was stopped five years before.

Former board member Bickel, like many others who have worked with Werner in western Mexico, said, “What is clearest to me is that David inspires people to heroic effort. He’s not a hero himself, but he certainly has formed the thinking of dozens if not hundreds of people. Despite his personal limitations, David is a great man.”

A medical bible

Book used worldwide

A BIOLOGIST by training, Werner was head of Hesperian for 22 years. In 1977 he published Where There Is No Doctor, a book quickly denounced by the medical community but whose simple, easy-to-understand advice and drawings became a medical bible for health workers in more than 100 countries.

“When the book came out, David was called irresponsible by the World Health Organization (WHO) for advocating that medical knowledge be shared outside the medical community,” said board member Blake, who is also an executive with the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund in San Francisco, the largest of four philanthropies started by heirs to the Levi Strauss fortune. “Now the approach is WHO gospel.”

By the summer of 1993, when Blake said he had several discussions with Werner about the allegations, Blake said he told Werner, “I don’t buy your explanation that the relationships with boys are helpful. I think it’s an illness, and I hope you’re going to move into therapy.”

Blake said he realized “David has had this big secret for so long, he’s had to wall off all but a small circle of people who knew the secret and bought his explanation for it.”

Today, Blake believes his longtime friend “is a victim of his own success. He was right and the rest of the world was wrong 25 years ago about self-help medical care. I think he feels he’s right again, that 25 years from now, the rest of the world will come around to his way of seeing that adult sex with boys is a healthy thing to do.”

Where There Is No Doctor is considered so valuable that the U.S. Peace Corps gives a copy to each worker. It has been so successful that Hesperian has published other self-help guides and is researching Where There Is No Doctor for Women.

All of the books stem from Werner’s groundbreaking work in Ajoya, Mexico, the village at the end of the dirt road that he first visited in 1965. Werner discovered the place on a field trip with biology students he was teaching at tiny Pacific School, a now-defunct private alternative high school above Saratoga. He then taught at another alternative high school, Peninsula School in Palo Alto, before beginning to work full-time on health care issues in Mexico and other parts of the Third World.

In 1991, the MacArthur Foundation recognized him with a $335,000 “genius grant” for his work with the ill and disabled of the Third World.

Four days after Werner was forced to resign, Schauer, the bookkeeper for Hesperian, had to call him about a business issue. Werner answered the phone. “He said, ‘I miss my friends so much,’ ” Schauer recalled. “He said, ‘I will never do those acts again, and believe me, that will not be easy.’ “