Curtis Institute Issues More Apologies After Sexual Abuse Article

August 3, 2019, 4:25 PM · The Curtis Institute of Music on Friday issued another message to its community, saying that "We are heartbroken that there have been times in Curtis’s earlier history when the voices of its community members were not heard at critical moments when they needed the school to listen with empathy and support."

The message follows the publication of front-page story in last Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer that detailed allegations of sexual abuse by the late violinist Jascha Brodsky, who taught at Curtis from the 1950s until shortly before his death in 1997.

Inquirer article about Curtis
Sunday's front page on the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The most serious allegations of abuse were described by well-known violinist Lara St. John and corroborated by multiple sources. The article also details St. John's multiple attempts -- all unsuccessful -- to report the abuse to Curtis. The article also described allegations by several other former students, who were not named.

Curtis was criticized for its initial reaction to the article: sending an e-mail to Curtis alumni, parents, and students asking them not to speak to journalists about the story, shortly after it came out online on July 24, prior to its publication in the newspaper. The e-mail caused great consternation among Curtis alumni, with alumnus Bronwyn Banerdt even writing an opinion piece for the Inquirer called "Don’t expect Curtis alumni like me to stay silent on sexual-assault investigations."

Several days later on July 27, Curtis issued an apology for its initial response, expressing regret that "we communicated with all of you in a way that was not consistent with our values." (Read that full apology At the bottom of this story).

The newest message posted on Friday from Curtis President and CEO Roberto Díaz and Board Chair Deborah M. Fretz says that its "past institutional culture may not have always provided the safety net needed to thoroughly address the full gamut of our community’s needs" and promises a new hotline for reporting "inappropriate behavior from the past or present." It also maintains that Curtis has "zero tolerance toward all forms of abusive behavior, and we will continue to go to great lengths to prevent it.")

None of the messages from Curtis directly address the initial allegations brought forth in the Philadelphia Inquirer article, and St. John maintains that Curtis has not communicated with her -- directly or in its mass e-mails to alumni -- about it.

"Seems like they are apologizing to everybody but me," Lara St. John said in a follow-up article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. On her Facebook page, St. John has maintained that Curtis has left her out of the loop: "Apology to their alumni, minus one of course," she wrote in a post about Curtis's reaction.

Here is the entire message from Curtis President and CEO Roberto Díaz and Board Chair Deborah M. Fretz that was issued on Friday:

To the Curtis community:

At Curtis, we condemn sexual violence, racism, discrimination, harassment of any type, or any form of intimidation. We are heartbroken that there have been times in Curtis’s earlier history when the voices of its community members were not heard at critical moments when they needed the school to listen with empathy and support. We profoundly apologize to and sympathize with anyone who may have had such experiences, and sincerely regret that our past institutional culture may not have always provided the safety net needed to thoroughly address the full gamut of our community’s needs. We have zero tolerance toward all forms of abusive behavior, and we will continue to go to great lengths to prevent it.

We believe that an informed, educated, and enlightened community can improve upon its past, and we invite you to join us in this effort. As this work continues, we encourage you to visit where you can learn about the many ways in which Curtis has evolved to foster a vibrant culture while ensuring a safe and healthy campus environment.

We will continue to adapt our policies and procedures. Curtis is working with an independent vendor to establish a new hotline so that individuals from our community will have an additional channel to report inappropriate behavior from the past or present. Work on this hotline is in progress and information will be released shortly, once the hotline is active and testing is complete.

We promise to stay true to this essential work and elevate our commitment toward it.

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August 3, 2019 at 10:05 PM · They better not merely hope that all such things are in their "earlier history." They need to be vigilant and open-minded now.

August 3, 2019 at 10:20 PM · really concerns me because I was to audition in the mid 70's. Suddenly when my viola teacher passed due to a traffic accident, I was shocked to the core and decided to remain home and take over his teaching load at the College he was working. This makes me feel God was looking over me. I was only in my early 20's.

August 4, 2019 at 06:11 AM · Re ~ Curtis Debacle

I still maintain the idea that reporting such long range personal psychological & mental/personal Damage most definitely

should've been demonstrably noted & should have had the full support of the parents of the Violinist victim, at The Time ~ After near 44 Years, to step forward in a Front Page Interview in one of the more prominent newspapers in America, seems and is distressing because the Late (since 1997) Jascha Brodsky, is Not Alive to speak for himself nor answer/address most serious allegations of one of his Made Good pupil's ...

The response of the Curtis President to immediately establish a Student Hotline is excellent. Yet it will require neutral expert monitoring to prevent erroneous reports, some of which could be motivated by career publicity seeking students, I fear ...

The irony is that none of Jascha Brodsky's contemporaries are with us to comment &/or refute or suggest this was or was not an ongoing mode of behaviour???

It is a truly Dark Day for American Music Education as there may well be a backlash against funding such well established Higher Learning Conservatories which have not experienced this. One must Always take the High Road as a trusted Artist Teacher, Instructor, Coach, Mentor, for this is an unwritten & little spoken about 'Oath of Allegiance' we, as Teaching Pro's, must adhere to as we do adhere to the sanctity of the Great Music we study & perform for loving Music Aficionados ...

Sincerely saddened by it all ~

Elisabeth Matesky

August 4, 2019 at 06:24 AM · Sounds like damage control to me; hope they actually come good on these promises.

P.S. She reported it at the time, not 34yrs later. There is very little reason to doubt these claims unless one decides to insert their own biases into the discussion.

August 4, 2019 at 07:36 AM · There are always reasons to doubt claims of guilt...or claims of innocence.

To do anything else is in fact to insert one's own biases into the discussion. Only lunch mobs operate in that fashion.

August 4, 2019 at 01:13 PM · She did report the claim and was brushed off.

We cannot apply expectations for adult responses today to teenagers in the 1980s. A family member of mine was assaulted at another highly respected conservatory at about the same time that Lara St John was at Curtis. If my relative did not report her assault at the time, it was because she was well aware that she would not be believed. Current comments on various SlippeDisc articles on this subject make it clear that this is still the case and that any woman reporting such abuse had better be ready to become a target herself. Lara St John's artistry, appearance, and integrity have all been maligned in public online discussion.

August 4, 2019 at 02:09 PM · I still don’t understand how people continue to think she didn’t come forward until now. It’s so clear in the article that she was ignored when it happened, yet this false argument happens over and over. As a male violinist and college professor, it is appalling how so many “great musicians” felt they could get away with this terrible criminal behavior for so long. It likely still happens unfortunately.

I don’t care how “great” these teachers were, no one should ever be protected from punishment or consequences for their actions by any institution. I also don’t care if his family is shocked or is having difficulty dealing with this. Yes, Brodsky was guilty, and although you are innocent until proven guilty in this country there is also something called common sense. It is obvious this happened when considering how Lara tried to report it at the time, and there is absolutely no reason for her to lie about it now.

August 4, 2019 at 02:37 PM · Less clear in my view is the complicity of the other contemporaneous faculty members and administrators. A predator can be quite proficient at hiding his dark side from his colleagues.

August 4, 2019 at 06:32 PM · Here is a link to a CBC News interview with Lara that was published on Friday. In it she talks about the various ways she tried to report the abuse to Curtis, first while she was still a student at Curtis, then in the '90s, then again in 2013.

August 4, 2019 at 07:05 PM · This happens in various learning institutions all over the country, and has been for a long time - faculty/student assaults, student/student assaults. The victims (mostly women) are nearly ALWAYS told that they will not be believed, and when they make reports to the police, they are treated with such disdain and victim-blaming that it is is doubly traumatic for them.

This kind of trauma affects a person for the rest of their lives - it is not something that one drops and moves on from. You can recover to the best of your ability, and heal as much as possible, but you are forever changed.

I'm proud of Lara for reporting this to the school and doing her best to ensure that some kind of justice is achieved (not just for herself, but for others) - especially after all this time, and after all of the ill-treatment that the school has reaped upon her.

Pamela M.

August 5, 2019 at 01:38 PM · Unfortunately we don't teach people how to deal with power. As Robert Caro noted in his books about Lyndon Johnson, "Power Reveals" and what gets revealed is often negative.

Pedagogy is rife with abusive teachers who often create the next generation of abusive teachers, who then create another generation,... The highest level teachers all have the most power over not only the futures of their students, but to demand whatever they want.

While the ancient dictum of: "Do not do to others that which you would not have done to you" is often lost when the doing of nasty things to subordinates is part of a long line of abuse that stretches back generations.

It is not excusable to simply claim that "I was abused, therefore I abuse." That being said, we need to work on stopping the cycle. The first step is admitting that Pedagogy has an abuse problem, until we do that, nothing is ever going to change.

It is sad that some of our great artists are not, at their core, nice people and that they use their power position to abuse others.

August 5, 2019 at 02:46 PM · Curtis’s behavior is despicable. After a long history of ignoring Lara St John’s multiple reports of abuse, they have apologized to everyone but the very victim, Ms. St. John herself. The establishment of a hotline will be completely ineffective if Curtis continues to ignore or deny its students complaints. I am also appalled that other people have said that people filing complaints of sexual abuse may do so to attract attention and further their own careers. Please stop blaming the victims! I am glad that Ms. St. John’s reports of sexual abuse are finally being aired publicly by our free press. Finally I send my sympathy to Ms. St. John and hope that her brave actions will help other victims of sexual abuse and coverups.

August 5, 2019 at 03:08 PM · As a cousin of Efrem Zimbalist, who founded Curtis, I am sickened by this story and the way Curtis has behaved. I am so sorry that Lara St, John and other talented players were subjected to this at the school my cousin founded. Curtis' recent email gag order is reprehensible, and were it not for a free press they would not have rescinded it. Using the explanation that is doesn't comport with their values is clearly false. No one wrote that response for them or forced them to send it. Their plan of action was a cover up that they expected their entire community to participate in. Their recent contrition rings false given the email and the fact that it came on the heels of a major expose in the Philadelphia press.

The administrators who ignored these women should be held accountable. An independent third party should be assigned to handle future complaints and under no circumstances should the administration of Curtis be entrusted with this role.

My cousin founded Curtis to provide world-class instruction to the most talented of string players. All of these talented young players deserve a nurturing environment in which to grow, free of harassment of any sort. No teacher, no matter their talent, should be allowed to impinge on a young, yearning soul.

August 5, 2019 at 03:43 PM · That's silly, Elizabeth. Plenty of Brodsky's contemporaries are alive and have commented - Notably Lara St. John. What would you suggest as a standard? Would you like to know if his quartet partners were ever raped by him? Would you like to know what Nathan Milstein thought of him? Yeesh!

August 6, 2019 at 12:24 AM · I've fixed the link for the Inquirer's follow-up article, it should work now. (Thanks, Jim Hastings!)

August 6, 2019 at 12:53 AM ·, there was no gag order. Curtis has no control over what its alumni and supporters choose to say. They asked them not to speak to the press, but had no power to enforce that, and indeed, people ignored the request.

The "administrators who ignored these women" 20+ years ago are no longer administrators at Curtis. I do not believe any of them have been credibly accused of criminal acts. About all one could do now is attempt to shame the living.

And your cousin did not found the Curtis Institute, Mary Curtis Bok did, in 1924. Zimbalist did not start teaching there until 4 years later, in 1928.

August 6, 2019 at 11:56 AM · Seems some members don't see the irony in asking for "contemporaries" to come forward as if their memory of his character would be concrete evidence against her claims. Then in the same breath, saying her testimony of his character/actions is not enough proof.

August 6, 2019 at 06:53 PM · Gemma, it must have been meant as Alanis Morisette "irony".

August 10, 2019 at 09:25 PM · I read the follow-up Inquirier article and CBC interview last weekend -- both linked above. I also read the related Inquirer op-ed by a professional cellist and 2008 Curtis graduate.

If this case had gone to trial, a lack of DNA evidence alone would probably have been enough to derail the matter. DNA testing in 1986 was nowhere near as advanced as it is now, although forensics experts have solved cases older than this one. DNA was crucial in nailing the Vanderbilt football players -- and in clearing the Duke lacrosse players.

One particular exchange in the CBC interview raises a red flag:

Q. And how long did it all [the abuse] go on?

A. From the beginning to actual rape was about eight months …."

I'd like to know -- and a defense attorney would probably ask: "Why did you let this abuse go on for eight months before you told the dean?" Not that a time-lapse like this would be enough to derail the case, as long as there was enough clear evidence that the assault took place. I'd also want to know: Where were the parents during all of this? What did they know, and when did they know it?

I've heard and read multiple reasons why some women don't come forward in these cases. One already mentioned in this thread is the fear that they won't be believed. More likely, I suspect, is that they don't want to face a defense attorney's cross-questioning -- or even the prosecutor's direct-questioning. The prospect of re-living the ordeal in court, with all the emotional wounds this can re-open, is too much for some to deal with. Research online sometime what the Vanderbilt victim went through before her case went to trial. From what I've researched, the odds of getting a conviction in a case like this are very slim. It's not at all hard to create reasonable doubt in jurors' minds.

Again, I'm not about to dismiss the victim's allegations; but since the accused can no longer speak for himself, I'm not ready to convict him, either. Such acts as he is accused of are HEINOUS -- whether by young men like the convicted Vanderbilt players or older ones like the accused teacher. My parents and teachers instilled in me from a very young age that you don't touch a woman who isn't your own lawful wedded wife. You just don't. I have lived up to this standard my whole life. I'm not the only one. It's not so hard.


EDIT: Laurie, I read the Welner article you linked below -- thanks. The steps are similar to what I've heard on the subject -- although I don't remember seeing the term "grooming" used in this sense before.

What I suggested a defense attorney might ask is, actually, more than fantasy -- it's the sort of cross-questioning I've heard as a trial juror -- although the case I'm thinking of involved personal injury, not sexual abuse.

August 12, 2019 at 11:21 PM · Jim, since maybe you don't have a lot of knowledge on the subject of sexual abuse when it comes to young people, that eight-month period is textbook; it's called "grooming." You can read more about that here.

"Grooming," as defined on the page linked above, is the process by which an offender draws a victim into a sexual relationship and maintains that relationship in secrecy. It's a process that takes some time.

I'm not sure about this fantasy of a defense attorney cross-examining a child about their abuse, but hopefully such a person would know the very basics about sexual abuse.

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