In the wake of an Inquirer report in July detailing allegations of sexual misconduct at the Curtis Institute of Music, the school has hired a Philadelphia law firm to investigate across a wide swath of the school’s past.
Cozen O’Connor lawyers Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie M. Gomez are undertaking a comprehensive review of Curtis’ “history present and past when it comes to any kind of sexual misconduct,” president and CEO Roberto Díaz said Thursday.
The firm was brought in after allegations by the violinist Lara St. John that she was raped by violin teacher Jascha Brodsky in the 1980s and had her complaints repeatedly ignored by the school. The Inquirer article contained claims by other women that they were subjected to sexual advances by Brodsky, who died in 1997 after teaching at Curtis for decades.
The Cozen O’Connor investigation is in addition to a hotline set up in August for fielding sexual misconduct claims — a Blue Bell-based service that some Curtis alumni and outside experts have described to The Inquirer as inadequate.
Smith and Gomez specialize in institutional response to allegations of sexual misconduct. After stories of sexual abuse surfaced around 2012 at Carolina Friends School in Durham, N.C., the school engaged the two to conduct what would become a two-year investigation.
Their work at Curtis aims to relate specifically to St. John’s allegations, as well as any others throughout the school’s history through any claims that will come forward. In addition, the two lawyers have already helped the school revamp some of its policies and procedures relating to sexual misconduct, and it will now seek input from the Curtis community that could lead to further revisions.
“We hope that will help build the confidence that people need to have that the school is willing to listen and to do the right thing,” said Díaz, who said that the school’s work with the law firm began in August and had the approval of the school’s board.
“Curtis wants to understand the historical things that may have occurred,” said Gomez. “There are no limits placed on us by Curtis, and Curtis has promised unfettered access to documents, personnel, or any other information we may need.”
In addition, the school has pledged to make the findings public without knowing what they will be, she said.
In the classical music world, the Cleveland Orchestra has set the standard for response to allegations of sexual misconduct. When the Washington Post published a 2018 report about Cleveland concertmaster William Preucil and others, the orchestra set up a special board committee and commissioned New York Law firm Debvoise & Plimpton to investigate.
The firm ended up conducting more than 70 interviews, and the findings were made public by the orchestra, which published the report on its website. (The school’s investigators found that both Preucil and principal trombonist Massimo La Rosa had engaged in sexual misconduct and sexually harassing behavior with multiple female students and colleagues, and both were suspended from the orchestra.)
Curtis appears to have decided to take a similar course.
“I think that going to the leading firm on the defense side for these issues is sensible,” said Marci A. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA, the University of Pennsylvania think tank on child abuse and neglect issues.
But Hamilton, regarded as a leading expert in the field, said Curtis needs to do more: “The problem here is, what the public needs is full transparency."
Full transparency would mean Curtis’ disclosing publicly when officials knew about abuse, how many victims there were, and the names of alleged abusers, she said. “We see the archdioceses in the U.S. finally starting to release lists of what they call accused priests. This is the sort of thing every organization has to do now.
“Frankly, I would be very concerned if my child were attending the Curtis Institute right now,” she said.
St. John on Thursday said that the fact that there would be an investigation had her feeling hopeful.
“Once this stuff really gets out there in public, they can start making things better and safer and hopefully be in the vanguard for other schools,” she said. “This is a great test, to be the first to say, ‘OK, we’re going to change this.’ Personally, I’m glad it’s these two women, because they do have a good reputation and they are obviously very well-versed in these issues.”
Smith spent nearly two decades with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, where she investigated sex crimes, child abuse, and homicide. She has much experience working on behalf of institutions facing allegations of sexual abuse, including the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Gomez was an assistant district attorney in the District Attorney’s Office for 14 years, where she prosecuted cases involving crimes against children, and has provided counsel to schools and other institutions serving children.
Anyone who comes forward with information about abuse past or present can ask for anonymity — including that his or her name not be shared with Curtis, said Smith.
Curtis did respond once before to St. John’s allegations against Brodsky, engaging Morgan Lewis to investigate. The school did not share the 2014 report publicly, although a copy obtained by The Inquirer showed that few were interviewed for it, including St. John. It was not the kind of sweeping look into sexual abuse over an entire institution that some schools outside the classical music realm have undertaken in the wake of allegations.
Curtis’ initial reaction after the Inquirer report was to issue a directive telling students, faculty, alumni and others not to talk about the news report publicly, online, or on social media. The message enraged alumni and #MeToo advocates, who point to such secrecy as the kind of institutional reaction that has allowed sexual abuse to flourish.
“I’m disappointed but not surprised at their instruction to hush this up,” wrote alumna Gloria Justen on social media.
Curtis then set up the hotline in August for reporting abuse. The purpose was “to ensure that any community member wishing to make a report of misconduct can do so in a safe space, without fear of reprisal,” Díaz wrote in a message to Curtis students, alumni, and others. “As president and CEO of Curtis, I have a responsibility to ensure a healthy school culture in which our community members feel safe, supported, and heard when they voice concerns.”
When the hotline was set up, Díaz announced it with an email saying the school would "take every report made to the hotline seriously. The reports will be reviewed and investigated and, if the circumstances warrant, we will bring in an outside investigator to conduct an investigation.”
Some women who have called the hotline have criticized the experience. All requested anonymity.
One alumna said the experience was “fine” and “totally respectful.” But a second alumna said that when she phoned, she got someone who “sounded like we woke them up.”
“It’s not very welcoming," she said. "It’s not a great solution. If you are underage or a foreign student, no way. It was definitely not any kind of therapist. It’s not sensitive.”
A third alumna said it took her a while to decide to call the hotline. For one thing, the assault happened long ago, and for another, “we all feel some sense of obligation to the education we received from a kind of institution like that, and for me to reach out and say it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be was hard to admit,” she said.
When she phoned, she became concerned as the call went on.
“I requested anonymity from the get-go,” she said, “and yet multiple times during the inquiry, the interview, they asked me questions that would have easily divulged my anonymity: ‘What is your email address, what is your telephone number, what years were you in school, what year did you graduate?’ So, they will obviously know who I am if they do even a little bit of digging. It was almost as if they were attempting to discover where these complaints were coming from rather than addressing the problem.”
There was “very little compassion in the process. It was very rote and incredibly impersonal,” she said.
In fact, operators at the hotline, Lighthouse Services, are not professionally trained in speaking with victims of sexual abuse, says Lighthouse president Andy Bronstein. Rather, they are trained to draw information out of callers that can be of use to its clients, he said.
“We do train our operators in sensitivity,” he said. “We are a whistle-blower hotline provider, not a crisis provider, and there is a difference, and there is a level of neutrality that we actually teach our staff to maintain. A sex-assault victim needs a certain type of consultation, but again, it is not a crisis hotline per se.”
Lighthouse promotes itself as an independent third-party hotline provider that ensures anonymity. The company fields complaints on a wide variety of issues, including shareholder concerns, embezzlement, discrimination, substance abuse, wrongful termination, and harassment.
“We help protect your assets, board of directors, management, and employees,” the firm states on its website.
Bronstein said he found it hard to believe that any Lighthouse operator was rude. “That’s just not the way we conduct our business,” he said, adding that he listened to recordings of all of the phone calls and “under no circumstance was an operator rude.”
Experts said victims reporting trauma require special care.
“This is a heartless system that is not trauma-informed,” said Hamilton.
A service where the operators do not receive trauma-informed care training sends a message to callers, said Michael Dolce, a lawyer who leads the sexual abuse team at Cohen Milstein in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “It’s going to tell anybody who calls whether they are survivors or have material information that it’s not worth the phone call,” he said.
"It’s always important that that initial conversation with someone who has been a victim of assault be handled in a sensitive, delicate, appropriate way,” said Scott Schneider, a partner at the Husch Blackwell law firm in Austin, Texas. “You don’t need a fancy certificate, but you do need to be mindful that with people who have experienced sexual assault and the trauma associated with that, there are things that you say to make them happy they decided to come forward, or to make them regret it and further traumatize them.”
The hotline system will continue to be used, officials say. But Smith added: “Is this the best operation? That is something that will be considered going forward.”
St. John said she has had little contact with Curtis since The Inquirer’s July story.
In late summer, an intermediary put St. John and Díaz in touch via email. In late October, Díaz said he would be traveling, but would be happy to meet with her when back in town.
She fired back with a letter taking issue with the way he and the board handled her initial 2013 letter to the school detailing her abuse at Curtis and the report in The Inquirer.
Among the failings she enumerated are that since The Inquirer’s article, “no one from your office or board has articulated any regret for how I was victimized,” and that no investigation had been launched at that time.
“You and the board have failed both this venerable institution and the Curtis community,” she wrote in a letter she shared on social media.
Asked about that characterization, Díaz said: “I think she’s entitled to her opinion.”
St. John said in the letter she would be willing to meet with him if he and the Curtis board publicly acknowledged what she called “Curtis’ failure to protect me as a minor from a pedophile”; if Curtis hired a law firm to do an independent investigation into her allegations; if the findings from the investigation were made public; and if the school engaged an outside group like Rape and Incest National Network to operate its reporting hotline.
Díaz’ response: “I think she is a valuable member of our community. I would like to see us in a place where she feels as welcome as any other alum. I am hopeful that at some point in time she will feel that the school will have done what is right.”
Last week, St. John took an additional step. She called the Curtis hotline herself.
The woman on the other end of the line asked her to relay her complaint. St. John told her when the abuse happened, where, and the name of the abuser. St. John said it sounded like the questions were being read from a script, until she mentioned that she had been 14 when the rape occurred.
The woman was silent for a moment, and then said, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry, thanks so much for talking about this.”