In 2019, Curtis Institute still showed ‘disbelief, lack of support, empathy’ to Lara St. John’s sexual-abuse claim
With the renowned violinist’s story widely public and validated, St. John leaves behind a world-famous but hidebound institution grappling with profound change.
Much of the recent investigation of sexual abuse at the Curtis Institute of Music puts a historical lens on the subject: what happened to well-known violinist Lara St. John in the mid-1980s as a 14-year-old Curtis student and how the school ignored her claims, as well as other reports of abuse from Curtis students over decades.
But the damning, detailed 54-page report by the law firm Cozen O’Connor also shows that the school’s reluctance to address St. John’s claims extended well into the present tenure of some board members as well as Roberto Díaz, who is both the school’s president and CEO.
Time and again, the elite music conservatory on Rittenhouse Square failed to respond to St. John in a meaningful way to her accounts of rape and repeated abuse by violin professor Jascha Brodsky — contentions the Cozen O’Connor report concluded are credible.
Curtis’s response “reflected a lack of compassion and a lack of understanding of the dynamics of sexual abuse of a minor in the institutional setting,” wrote lawyers Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie Gomez in the Sept. 22 report. For an abused child, “in some instances, validation and apology, coupled with a comprehensive commitment to learning from past lessons, may be the only remedy available to such an individual.”
“Even as late as 2019, Curtis did not appreciate that such an approach may have been the only meaningful recourse it could have offered to St. John.”
The Cozen report followed a July 2019 Inquirer investigation that disclosed St. John’s story of escalating sexual abuse, and how several Curtis administrators ignored her claim. Brodsky, a famed member of the Curtis String Quartet, died in 1997.
The episode has been a crucible for the school like no other in its history. Curtis’ old-guard board has long drawn the city’s most powerful philanthropists, business leaders, and lawyers. St. John brought to bear the full force of the #MeToo movement on a world-famous, but frequently hidebound, music conservatory. Now, with her story aired and validated, she leaves behind an institution grappling with profound change.
“What I find remarkable about Lara and this whole situation is that without lawyers, without the threat of legal action, she has been able to compel the institution to acknowledge systematic wrongdoing. It speaks to her grit and tenacity," said Stephen H. Judson, St. John’s husband and manager.
Curtis leaders, for the first time, apologized to St. John in a recent letter. “We believe your account of the rape and repeated sexual abuse you suffered at the hands of Jascha Brodsky, your major instrument teacher during the 1985-86 school year. And we believe that we failed you when you came to us for help in the fall of 1986,” wrote Díaz and board chair Deborah M. Fretz in a Sept. 22 letter.
The school has announced changes, including establishing a trauma fund to provide free counseling for any member of the Curtis community who may have experienced sexual abuse, a new reporting hotline, and other steps aimed at leveling the power imbalance between student and teacher.
Curtis has not moved to change its board or leadership. Asked about the range of possible actions, Fretz said: “I think it’s premature. We have to let the committee do its work.”
The same five-member special committee of the board to which Cozen has been reporting each month will “go through the report and make recommendations” to the full Curtis board, she said.
As for the school’s apology, St. John said: “They wouldn’t have been compelled to engage Cozen if it hadn’t been for me and The Inquirer making them do so. Only when the report was done did Roberto Díaz deign to reverse himself and issue an apology."
Díaz, who took over Curtis in 2006 after a decade as principal violist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, says he first heard of St. John’s allegations in the summer of 2013 when he received a letter from St. John detailing rape and abuse in her lessons.
The school’s leaders quickly assured her, through Judson, that they viewed the allegation “extremely seriously” and would take action.
A few months later, a special committee issued a report, by the law firm Morgan Lewis. It concluded that Curtis had no obligation to report St. John’s allegations to law enforcement and found no cause for concern for the safety of current students.
As for St. John’s claim, “We have followed the leads available in relation to the allegations before us, and do not believe that further investigation is warranted."
Curtis officials did not share the results with St. John, no one apologized to her, and the experience left her feeling that she had not been heard.
Asked this week why the 2014 findings were never communicated to St. John or Judson, Díaz said that he “wasn’t aware there was a loop that needed to be closed.”
Curtis “did not evaluate whether there might be appropriate remedies,” the recent investigation concluded. A fitting response could have included an apology, an offer for support or counseling, an acknowledgment of the school’s responsibility, or the opening of an investigation into any potential claims by other students against Brodsky or other faculty, the Cozen lawyers concluded.
Instead, St. John was left "with no alternative narrative other than institutional betrayal and that Curtis had again failed her,” wrote Smith and Gomez in the report.
As of last year, when St. John and Judson were seeking the outcome of that limited 2014 investigation into the violinist’s claims, Díaz sent an email to Judson saying that the Morgan Lewis inquiry “could not confirm Ms. St. John’s allegations.”
In their report, Smith and Gomez faulted the “brevity and sharp tone” of Díaz’s email, which, they wrote, belied his “prior and subsequent expressions of concern for St. John’s well-being.”
Instead, it “conveyed disbelief and lack of support, empathy, or apology,” echoing the school’s original, 1986 expression of disbelief in her claim, they wrote.
Díaz told Cozen lawyers that he did not have any memory of drafting the email sent to Judson saying Morgan Lewis could not confirm St. John’s allegations — an email that he later described to the Cozen lawyers as “tone deaf and unfortunate.”
In fact, there were reasons that the Morgan Lewis report reached no conclusions about her claims. The parameters of that 2013 inquiry were kept narrow, and St. John and other principal figures were never interviewed, as The Inquirer reported in its July 2019 investigation.
Curtis’ board chairman at the time was H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, then a co-owner of The Inquirer. Lenfest, who died in 2018, initially believed there was no need to investigate St. John’s allegation since it had happened long ago, among other reasons, the Cozen report states. But after discussion, the matter was handed off to the special committee, which initiated the Morgan Lewis inquiry.
The Morgan Lewis lawyer who conducted the investigation, John C. Dodds, told Cozen lawyers that he didn’t talk to St. John because her husband told him St. John was unwilling to be interviewed and Dodds wanted to respect her privacy. Judson says that he told Dodds that was the case “for the time being,” but that did not mean St. John was unwilling to cooperate, according to the Cozen report.
In May 2019, when Judson was still attempting to obtain from Curtis a copy of the 2014 report, he pointed out to Díaz, in an email, that St. John had never been interviewed for the investigation, nor had several other principal figures, raising doubts that it was “thorough or complete.”
“Ms. St. John is available to assist and provide information should Curtis wish to reopen and properly complete the investigation,” he wrote.
Díaz did not respond to the offer. The Inquirer published its investigation in July.
The Cozen report lists additional missteps by Curtis leaders in 2019. Among the school’s first responses was to ask alumni, parents, students, and others to not discuss the matter publicly. Alumni reacted angrily, noting that such directives to tamp down on discussion were part and parcel of what allowed sexual abuse to take hold in the first place.
Díaz also turned away an offer by Curtis’ dean to apologize to St. John. Robert Fitzpatrick was the first authority figure St. John went to with her allegation, in 1986. He was dismissive of her claim, said St. John and two other students she took to the meeting with her.
“At that time, I did what I thought was correct, but I now realize that my response was inadequate, especially in the eyes of the victim and according to current standards of institutional response,” Fitzpatrick wrote to Díaz in August 2019.
Díaz responded: “Lara requested that Curtis not contact her directly and we continue to respect that. If you feel the need to contact her personally, feel free to do so.”
Curtis never forwarded Fitzpatrick’s letter to St. John.
A fund offered in her name
Two weeks ago, in the apology letter to St. John, Díaz and Fretz offered to name a fund in the violinist’s name.
“In recognition of your extraordinary courage, Curtis intends to expand an existing funding program dedicated to supporting young alumni who may be experiencing obstacles of any kind in the pursuit of their musical careers,” they wrote.
Díaz said this week that the financial-assistance program could be funded through an annual campaign, or supported through new endowment money to be raised.
“If she were willing to have her name associated with this we would be happy to honor her in this way,” said Díaz.
St. John says she’s not sure how or whether she will respond.
“Although I have had many notes of congratulations and thanks from people who have suffered the same thing, it’s not really a victory,” she said. "This comes 35 years too late at an inestimable personal cost. And when I read that they want [young alumni] to be able to follow their dreams, it kind of hits home how much I’ve lost all these years — physically, emotionally and financially.
“And then they send me this cute little letter, like, ‘Oh, it’s going to make it all better.’ I don’t know about a response right now. Everything is still raw.”