The Intersection Of Ethics, Accountability, and Executive Privilege At The Curtis Institute of Music

Warning: today’s article includes description of sexual violence. The 9/22/20 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article by Peter Dobrin that examines the report filed by law firm Cozen O’Connor into allegations from violinist Lara St. John of rape and sexual abuse by former Curtis faculty member, Jascha Brodsky, during her time at Curtis Institute of Music.

The report not only found St. John’s claims credible, they found her tenacity for justice in the face of ongoing rejection to be what may well become a benchmark for victim advocacy.

In addition, during our interviews, Cozen O’Connor found St. John to be refreshingly open, candid, and engaged in the process. Despite describing significant emotional and life-altering impacts that she attributed to the abuse and Curtis’s failures in responding to notice of the abuse, St. John sought repeatedly to provide Curtis with the opportunity to acknowledge her experience and address the harm.

Curtis is making a copy of the report, unedited, publicly available.

Here’s a point by point list of what the report concluded following their investigations into St. John’s allegations:

With respect to St. John, we find the following:

  • In 1985, St. John enrolled at Curtis as a 14-year-old violin student studying under Brodsky as her major instrument teacher. During the course of the 1985-86 academic year, Brodsky sexually abused St. John.
  • In the fall of 1986, St. John reported the abuse by Brodsky to then-Dean Robert Fitzpatrick, but did not tell Fitzpatrick that Brodsky had raped her. Fitzpatrick acknowledged that St. John said Brodsky “was touching her in ways that made her uncomfortable.” Fitzpatrick shared the information with Gary Graffman, Curtis’s then-Artistic Director, and admonished Brodsky about the conduct. Fitzpatrick and Graffman assigned St. John to a new major instrument teacher. Fitzpatrick said that in hindsight, his response was inadequate and he should have done more. Graffman also acknowledged the disclosure, which he recalled involved inappropriate touching, but said that it was a different era and, had he known the conduct involved rape, he would have responded differently.
  • John also disclosed the abuse to others at Curtis, as follows:
    • In 1986, in an in-person meeting with Naomi Graffman, the wife of Gary Graffman, when Mrs. Graffman invited her to tea;
    • In 1995, in telephone conversations initiated by Mary-Jean Hayden, Counselor for International Students, and Naomi Graffman;
    • In 2012 and 2013, in emails to Anne O’Donnell, Director of Alumni and Parent Relations;
    • On August 12, 2013, in a written letter to Díaz;
    • In 2015, in an in-person meeting, and subsequently by email, with Charles Sterne, Curtis’s Director of Principal Gifts and Planned Giving; and
    • In 2019, through Judson, in emails to Díaz.
  • Each time, St. John provided Curtis administrators or agents with an opportunity to provide care, support, and resources; investigate her report of inappropriate touching by Brodsky; and take action to address her concerns.
  • In each instance, Curtis fell short in its institutional response, particularly with respect to St. John’s 1986 report to Fitzpatrick regarding abuse by Brodsky and her 2013 and 2019 reports regarding the institutional response to her allegations.
  • On each of those occasions, Curtis missed opportunities either to respond meaningfully to St. John or to demonstrate to St. John that it in fact took her reports seriously and/or had taken meaningful steps in response to her outreach.

Be sure to spend some quality time going through Section B, Fall 1986: Initial Report and Disclosure to Dean Fitzpatrick beginning on page 8.

If there were ever a better illustration of why a culture of abuse exists within the classical music communities, I can’t think of one.

What jumped off the page to me was what might be best described as former Dean Robert Fitzpatrick’s need to be portrayed as some great champion for protecting students. He spends nearly as much time chronicling what he defines as his accomplishments as his responses to St. John’s cries for help.

Fitzpatrick told Cozen O’Connor that…he was the administrator who engaged the first health care professional in the 1990s, and the first mental health professional in the late 1990s, and started the first Office of Student Services. He said, “It was a disaster, there’s no other way to frame it; that was why we started to make the moves that we did, which were with resistance, because the faculty only wanted to teach their lessons, go out and become rich and famous.”

The report juxtaposes Fitzpatrick’s narrative with St. John’s reports of sexual abuse.

St. John recalled telling Fitzpatrick that Brodsky had touched her beneath her clothing and performed sexual acts on her. St. John said she told Fitzpatrick that Brodsky made her kiss him and do things to him, and that Brodsky had also touched her and put his fingers inside of her.

St. John said that Fitzpatrick “kinda snorted” at her and scoffed, asking, “What do you want me to do about it?” She said that Zivian threatened to go to the police or the press. St. John said that she was surprised by Zivian’s threat to report the conduct, and that she starting sobbing and said “no” to Zivian’s suggestion. She said Fitzpatrick asked them, “Who do you think they’ll believe, some kid or someone who has been with the institution for decades?”

In response to these accusations, Fitzpatrick decided to put the onus on St. John, the very teenager coming to him for help.

Fitzpatrick explained in his written response, “I had no reaction except to ask her what she would like me to do about it. She said that she just wanted me to know.” He also recalled, “I said that I would investigate further and possibly speak to Brodsky. I believe (but cannot swear to it) that she asked me not to do that or at least not to mention her name because of fear of retaliation of some kind).

The report ultimately puts Fitzpatrick’s savior complex in context.

…the deficiencies in the 1986 institutional response reflect a lack of understanding of the dynamics of child sexual abuse, as evidenced by the lack of training, education, appropriate policies, and institutional infrastructure. Fitzpatrick and Graffman’s failure to respond appropriately resulted in significant and detrimental impacts on a 15-year-old student entrusted to Curtis’s care, including interruption of St. John’s educational development and long-term psychological impacts.

Ultimately, Fitzpatrick spent all of five minutes talking about the situation to Brodsky and that time was partially occupied by reminding the faculty member he was not allowed to smoke during lessons or auditions. Fitzpatrick confirmed this was the only discussion he had with Brodsky on that topic.

According to the report, Fitzpatrick’s only acknowledgement of accountability is that, in hindsight, he felt his response at the time was “inadequate” and has extended an invitation to Curtis that he is “prepared to apologize to Lara St. John in writing or by phone if [they] think it would help.”

Even then, in the same 8/6/2019 letter to current Curtis president, Roberto Díaz, Fitzpatrick’s lack of empathy shines through when he attempts to qualify his actions because St. John only revealed part of her sexual assault (emphasis added).

My reaction to Lara St. John’s accusation of Brodsky’s kissing and touching which made her uncomfortable (rape was never mentioned at that time)…was to speak to Jascha Brodsky concerning his overt and inappropriate show of affection toward some of his female students without mentioning Lara’s case. That was the extent of the Curtis response at that time. The accusations that Curtis did nothing are not accurate. With hindsight, I realize that these actions were not enough.

How Fitzpatrick does not constitute St John’s account that Brodsky “put his fingers inside of her” as rape is stunning. His attempts, as recent as 2019, to conflate details on a semantic level is equally stunning.

While it’s unlikely that Curtis had the fortitude to include a clawback provision in Fitzpatrick’s employment agreement for discovery of misconduct, scandal, or similar poor performance, I am hopeful they will display the report’s findings alongside any of Fitzpatrick’s records of accomplishments.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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