Decades of Abuse at the Curtis Institute of Music, Another Failure of Our Children 

While feelings of enragement compelled me to write this particular blog, I simultaneously was overwhelmed with sadness at the realization sexual predators are able to torture and damage their victims for years—sometimes decades, all because of institutional enablement.  The Curtis Institute of Music is the latest example of how an organization’s reputation and endowment eclipsed the safety and well-being of its students.  

This week, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the Curtis Board accepted Cozen O’Conner’s months-long investigation into “the horrifying accounts of rape and repeated sexual abuse” from violinist Lara St. John while she was a student. Hold your commendation for the Board commissioning an investigation because they did so only after the Inquirer, itself took on an investigation into the young woman’s claims.  You can find the article here: https://www.inquirer.com/news/curtis-institute-report-sexual-abuse-lara-st-john-philadelphia-20200922.html

Now, the Curtis Institute of Music can be added to the nauseating list of Churches, Universities, Athletic Programs and frankly, entire industries which apparently find no moral dilemma or ethical responsibility to acknowledge, let alone report crimes against children.  That is until the media exposes their enablement, which in my opinion, is equally as grotesque as the perpetrator’s actions.  

According to the investigation, the school KNEW at least one teacher was sexually assaulting St. John as far back as 1986.  In fact, over the course of years, St. John repeatedly reported she was being abused.  This was not rumor, speculation or hearsay.  This was a victim reporting a crime.  And what did the school do?  Dean Robert Fitzpatrick and Director Gary Grafman took a page out of the Archdiocese’s cover-up playbook and simply moved St. John to another class.  Because switching physical classrooms is a sure-fire way to protect a teenage girl from being pursued and attacked by a pedophile.  Fitzpatrick’s response was a consistent reflection of his character, acknowledging that “in hindsight, his response was inadequate and he should have done more.” More?  He did nothing.  Let me put that differently.  He did EVERYTHING to ensure an abuser was free to continue sexually assaulting children.  

Here’s where things get really sinister.  Graffman admitted St. John disclosed her abuse to him and recalled she told him the abuse involved “inappropriate touching” but said it was a different era and had he known the conduct involved rape he would have responded differently.  We can use generational gaps to explain away a lot of naiveté. This is not one of them.  Let’s imagine for a moment in 1986 (not exactly the stone-age), Graffman had a daughter who reported a teacher was kissing her and touching her breasts and genitals.  Would he have simply asked the school to move her to another classroom?  Perhaps advise her to keep this all to herself and wish it away?  I’m going to go out on a limb and say no.  

Will there be remedial measures taken at the school in an attempt to prevent this from happening again?  Sure. Is it enough?  Does it take away the pain, the suffering and the psychological dismemberment of St. John?  No. Nothing ever will.  And I truly hope that weighs heavily on every single person who was aware this abuse was taking place.  The apathy towards these victims’ suffering is sickening.  The Curtis Institute of Music isn’t sorry this happened.  It is sorry it got caught.  

The abuser isn’t the only one who needs to be held accountable.  The institutions that protect and enable them must suffer real consequences.  But as we all know punishment is an after-thought.  A way of bringing justice to those who suffered a grave injustice.  What we need is an institutional culture shift that promotes prevention or children will continue to be abused.  Educating people on how to be human beings is a hard pill to swallow.  But thanks to USA Gymnastics, Penn State Football, the Catholic Church, the Curtis Institute of Music and countless others, decency can be bought.  That, my friends, is a societal crime.  Feeling outrage is easy, taking action requires more effort.  But that action could save a child.