NEW YORK (AP) — Health officials are investigating a doctor they say branded women under unsafe conditions at the behest of the spiritual leader of a secretive self-help group based in upstate New York, according to court documents about the accusations.

The papers containing the revelations stem from a legal fight pitting the state Department of Health against women it says have refused to answer questions about Dr. Danielle Roberts. The Times Union of Albany first reported the investigation Friday.

Officials launched the inquiry into suspected professional misconduct by Roberts in response to a 2017 complaint alleging "the physician participated in the initiation ceremony for a secret society, which involved the branding of female initiates with a cautery pen without anesthesia and under duress," according to a ruling last year by Acting Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O'Connor.

The judge allowed the administrative investigation to go forward, rejecting arguments by lawyers for eight women — identified only as "Jane Does" — that they could defy subpoenas demanding answers because "the branding was a voluntary free expression of personal beliefs that they engaged in as a manifestation of their right to private association."

Roberts hasn't been charged with a crime. But the court documents made clear she is under investigation on suspicion of violating state standards for doctors by branding several women with the symbols representing the initials of Keith Raniere, the onetime leader of the group called NXIVM.

Email messages seeking comment were left Friday with lawyers representing Roberts and the women, who haven't been identified. Health officials declined to comment on the status of her case.

Details of the inquiry surfaced as Raniere nears trial on charges he used his cultlike organization to form a subgroup of sex slaves at his command. The legal dispute also demonstrates the sharp divide between followers who have refused to betray someone known within NXIVM as "Vanguard" and those who have admitted to enabling his alleged dark side.

On Monday, TV actress Allison Mack pleaded guilty to charges she helped recruit and manipulate women to serve Raniere against their will. Mack, best known for her role as a young Superman's close friend on the series "Smallville," admitted she obtained compromising information and images of two unidentified women — called "collateral" within the group — that she threatened to make public if they didn't perform "so-called acts of love."

Another woman charged in the alleged conspiracy, Lauren Salzman, admitted in a guilty plea that she held a woman from Mexico hostage in an upstate home for more than two years under threat of having her deported "if she did not complete labor requested by myself and others."

Raniere is due to go on trial early next month with heiress Clare Bronfman, a NXIVM benefactor who is a daughter of the late billionaire Seagram chairman Edgar Bronfman Sr., and another group member, Kathy Russell. All have pleaded not guilty and denied the charges.


Klepper reported from Albany.

More From WIBX 950