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School failed to screen offender

Conservatory hired convicted vendor without screening

As New England Conservatory officials wait to see if any students or alumni come forward with complaints about a school videographer they recently discovered is a convicted sex offender, they acknowledged yesterday that they did not follow their own policies to protect children.

Karen Schwartzman, a spokeswoman for the internationally acclaimed conservatory, said that in November 2010, the school began to screen for criminal backgrounds of all vendors, not just staff and volunteers, which they had previously done to comply with state law.

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The expanded reviews were conducted to satisfy a new state provision requiring such checks of vendors by institutions largely serving children, she said.

However, the school did not check Peter E. Benjamin, 68, a videographer who had been doing freelance work at the conservatory for at least a decade, a lapse that could have legal repercussions for the conservatory should a child have been harmed as a result.

“He was not checked,’’ Schwartzman said.

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The check would have revealed Benjamin’s five-year prison term in the 1990s after pleading guilty to charges of rape and sex abuse and his status as a Level 2 registered sex offender. His case included allegations of predatory behavior toward adolescent boys, and that he secretly videotaped himself having sex with three teenage boys.

On Thursday, the school sent e-mails to some 6,500 current and former students and their families, informing them they learned in mid-December that a videographer on campus was a convicted sex offender.

When asked yesterday if the school knows of any attempt by Benjamin, in person or electronically, to contact a student, Schwartzman declined to directly answer the question.

She said only that someone, who asked for anonymity, had contacted the school last December about Benjamin’s past, prompting officials immediately to terminate the videographer’s services and hire a Boston law firm to conduct an investigation.

Last week, the school also ended the employment of Benjamin Zander, 72, a marquee faculty member for more than 45 years and longtime conductor of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, one of numerous faculty members who used the videographer’s services, though the only one to admit knowing about his past crimes.

Last night, Zander issued a letter to his youth orchestra giving his view of why he was fired, and how much he wanted to stay in the job he loved. He said he knew Benjamin’s crimes were of a “sexual nature,’’ but that he did not know details.

After Benjamin’s incarceration, Zander said, he got to know the videographer better and became persuaded that “he was profoundly remorseful and determined to turn his life around.’’

Zander said he has a “trusting nature,’’ and has heard nothing to suggest his trust was abused or that Benjamin has done anything to harm children through his affiliation with the conservatory.

Zander also said his firing was influenced by other events, including conservatory president Tony Woodcock’s past disagreements with him that caused him to want the conductor out as of this coming summer.

In a telephone interview from his Brighton home Friday night, Benjamin condemned the conservatory for over-reaction and insisted he posed no harm to children. Since his prison term, he said, he had complied with a probationary requirement that he always have an adult with him when he does any work involving children, and he continued to meet this requirement even after his probation ended in 2003.

Benjamin, a former opera singer who has attributed many of his past problems to being gay in an intolerant era, said he’s “done nothing improper.’’

Benjamin insisted that he enjoyed taping events at the conservatory because of the beautiful music from the place, “not because I’m getting some peek at some kid,’’ he said.

Since Benjamin’s release in 1998, he had been struggling financially, even while he worked regularly as a freelancer in the conservatory. Benjamin filed for personal bankruptcy last year, said one of his lawyers.

A forensic psychologist who works with sex offenders, Thomas Powell of Shelburne, Vt., said that a man who had not reoffended in nearly 20 years and was Benjamin’s age would probably not pose a danger to children.

Powell said other factors can heighten a chance of reoffending, such as whether the individual is in situations that trigger sexual fantasies, such as filming minors.

He added that when a known sex offender is hired in a school setting, staff members have an obligation to inform parents as well as their supervisors.

Zander’s defenders, however, said they can not imagine the conductor would have backed Benjamin if he knew the exact nature of the videographer’s crimes, including luring several adolescent boys into his Wayland home in the early 1990s for sexual encounters.

Lynn Torgove, a longtime professional colleague of Zander’s, said that since the controversy erupted, some former conservatory students and staff have acknowledged knowing the videographer had served time for a sex crime, but thought it was a one-time encounter with someone close to adult age.

She said musicians are generally fairly “accepting’’ people with deep compassion for past mistakes, although most definitely draw the line at harmful behavior to children.

Meanwhile, outside the conservatory, parents yesterday said the controversy has been upsetting. One father from Sharon, Jia Li Gong said, said he believes Zander should have told parents about Benjamin’s past.

Many parents said that with such a disclosure, they would not have wanted Benjamin near their children. However, Gong said he might have considered it acceptable because offenders deserve “a second chance.’’ Still, he would want him taping only large concert-type events, not smaller classes, and he, as the parent, was always present during the taping.

Conservatory officials said they have scrambled to make sure all vendors are thoroughly screened and hope this one missed case has no repercussions.

“People ask: ‘Is this over?’ ’’ Schwartman said. “I say it’s not over until sufficient time has passed and we’re convinced that one of our students has not been harmed.’’

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.
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