Richard Jerome
July 26, 1999 12:00 PM

Mark Komlosi is safe now, sipping iced tea in his snug Manhattan apartment. But his eyes are haunted by recollections of the horror that almost destroyed him. In May 1985, Komlosi, then a psychologist at the Williamsburg Residential Training Center in Brooklyn, a state home for the mentally retarded, was accused of sexually abusing several adult patients. Komlosi insisted that the charges were untrue. Jailed for two weeks, he was terrorized by inmates who likened him to a child molester and placed on suicide watch. “I thought I’d kill myself,” says Komlosi, 59. “Then I thought, ‘People will say I did it because I felt guilty. I have to be in control.’ ”

His professional reputation had been so thoroughly tarnished by the time he was released, Komlosi left the center to take a series of survival jobs before finding a haven of sorts—he may be the only certified psychologist in New York City working as a doorman. At the same time, Komlosi waged a tortuous but tenacious legal battle for restitution. In more than a decade of court actions, he argued that the patients’ accusations had been incited by Melanie Fudenberg, a former Williamsburg mental health aide with whom he’d had a hostile working relationship. It was only this past June 3, his life by then a shambles, that a federal jury in Manhattan finally agreed with him, awarding Komlosi $16.6 million in damages. Fudenberg is now unemployed and has no money to pay, so Komlosi is pursuing compensation from the state, which his attorneys argue should also be held liable. He wept as the verdict was read. “It was,” he says, “the happiest crying of my life.”

The jurors found that Fudenberg, 43, “knew with absolute certainty,” according to the verdict form, that the abuse allegations were false. Not surprisingly, Fudenberg denies this. “Obviously, we’re sorely disappointed,” says Mark Goidell, her attorney, who has appealed the decision and who characterizes his client as a dedicated therapist who did her job by reporting the accusations.

How could Komlosi have been jailed on such unfounded claims? Sonia Crannage, one of his lawyers, says that the psychologist was a victim of a mid-’80s climate of hysteria over sexual abuse. “That was when we had the witch-hunts in the daycare system,” she says. “Half of those people had done nothing.”

Ironically, Komlosi first came to this country in search of political freedom. He was born in Martin, Czechoslovakia (now part of the Slovak Republic), the son of Ludovit, a social services administrator, and his wife, Edita. Komlosi was completing psychology studies at Comenius University in 1968 when the Soviets overthrew reform party leader Alexander Dubcek. “When Dubcek was crushed,” he says, “I was crushed along with him.” Komlosi went to England, earned a bachelor of science in psychology from University College of London, then emigrated in 1970 to New York City, where he married a psychotherapist and fathered a son, Alexander, now 25. In 1974 he began working with the mentally retarded, becoming a clinical psychologist at Williamsburg in 1983 while making intermittent trips to Florida Institute of Technology, where he pursued a doctorate.

By then split from his wife, Komlosi was working on his dissertation in August 1984 when, without explanation, he says, security guards hustled him out of Williamsburg, and he was suspended. Four days later an administrator called him back to work. A female patient had accused Komlosi of sexual impropriety, then admitted she had fabricated the story in exchange for cigarettes from Fudenberg, who later claimed Komlosi had also molested three men. Those charges, too, were found baseless. Still, Komlosi grew skittish. “I walked on eggshells,” he says, “leaving the door ajar when I was with patients.”

On March 13, 1985, Komlosi was again removed from work and again suspended. This time a patient named David reported that the psychologist had forced him to engage in oral sex. On May 2, Komlosi was instructed by his court-appointed attorney to report to a Brooklyn police station. “They kept me in a little room for hours,” he says. Although he was initially accused of several sexual crimes, Komlosi was indicted only on two counts of forcible sodomy. Shackled to other prisoners, he was taken to the Brooklyn House of Detention. “They gave us mushy sandwiches and put us in a cell with one toilet,” Komlosi says. “I wanted to urinate, but the toilet was clogged with the sandwiches.”

Dr. Walter Stern, a now-retired state physician who worked with Komlosi, recalls a desperate phone call. “Mark told me other prisoners were threatening to burn him to death,” he says. “He said, ‘Please, please, Walter, help me.’ ” By then, the lurid story had hit the press. “To take sick people and make them sicker, that’s really sick,” Fudenberg told the New York Post. Komlosi’s son, then 11 years old, was unaware of the ordeal. “My mom said he was on vacation,” recalls Alexander. “My only memory is of his calling from a pay phone, saying, ‘I’m okay. I love you.’ ”

Friends tried in vain to raise Komlosi’s $75,000 bail. Then, after 14 days, he was released on his own recognizance because new evidence had weakened the prosecution’s case. According to court papers, in May 1986, a week into Komlosi’s trial, David admitted that he had lied and that Fudenberg had coerced him into making the allegations.

“I had seven beers that night,” says Komlosi. Though he was eventually reinstated at the clinic, Komlosi, who was by then being treated for depression and anxiety, found it too painful to go back. Citing health reasons, he resigned. “Maybe that was a mistake,” says Stern. “He lost 10 years of seniority, retirement benefits—an awful, awful lot.” Komlosi worked sporadically in sales before becoming a doorman. “I’ve met Woody Allen, George Bush, Margaret Thatcher,” he says. “I have nice clothes, though I’m ashamed to say they were given to me by a tenant.”

Throughout, Komlosi was determined to make someone accountable for his travails. He consulted numerous attorneys, pored over law books and occasionally represented himself. In 1988 he sued mental health officials who, he felt, could have stopped Fudenberg’s campaign. When the courts ruled the officials immune from prosecution, “I had to go after Melanie,” says Komlosi.

Now engaged to medical technologist Parwin Hashimi and with no plans to resume his career in psychology, Komlosi is picking up the pieces of his life, beginning with his son. “For a few years our relationship was strained,” says Alexander, who is moving to Prague to study theater. “His ability to give me what I needed emotionally was limited, and he was unable to give me what I needed financially. By the time I was 18, I’d come to terms with it.” The court victory, he says, has energized his father. “It’s given him strength.”

If not equanimity. “I wish I could have continued my life as it was before this nightmare began,” Komlosi says. “I would have preferred my freedom and peace to $16 million.”

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