I’m going to give historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and others who wrote letters requesting leniency for Peter Benjamin the benefit of the doubt here and call their actions boneheaded.
It’s hard to imagine any of these luminaries agreeing to put their good names behind Benjamin if they’d known the specifics of the crimes he was convicted of in 1993: Prosecutors said Benjamin abused - and secretly videotaped - three teens, including one who was 13 when it began. At his home, police found a box containing hundreds of photographs of naked boys ages 8 to 15 performing sex acts. It’s sickening stuff.
Goodwin and the others who put their considerable social capital on the line that year appear to have done so blindly: “While I have no detailed knowledge of the people or the issues before the court, I honestly believe that Peter has fully absorbed the seriousness of the charges against him,’’ wrote Goodwin, who didn’t respond to an interview request.
It’s amazing that she and others would vouch for Benjamin in such a state of ignorance. Maybe they couldn’t imagine that somebody they liked and respected was capable of monstrous acts. That’s a very common sort of blindness, and it’s how so many abusers get away with it for so long. Even since the clergy sex abuse scandal exploded, a lot of people remain clueless about how insidious, heinous, and common a crime child sexual abuse is. (See Penn State’s disaster.)
Which brings us to Ben Zander. The renowned conductor, for whom Benjamin had worked as a videographer, also wrote a letter asking leniency for him in 1993, arguing that Benjamin had “suffered deeply and, I believe, sufficiently, for whatever transpired.’’
Suffered sufficiently, maestro? Madness. Fortunately a judge agreed, sending Benjamin to prison for five years. When he got out, Zander gave his friend a break, hiring him to tape performances by his Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and his class at a Natick prep school.
That is, Zander gave him work videotaping children. And here, we pass from boneheadedness to breathtaking irresponsibility. In a letter to his students this week, Zander said he knew Benjamin had been jailed for “a serious incident of a sexual nature,’’ but that he “was not aware of any of the details surrounding the charges.’’ But it beggars belief that Zander was unaware his friend had been jailed for molesting minors.
In requesting leniency for Benjamin, Zander and the others put their reputations on the line. By hiring him to film children after his release, Zander bet not only his own reputation, but the safety of those children. Parents had no idea of the risk Zander had taken. If they had, how many would have decided it was OK for their child to be in the same room as, let alone be videotaped by, somebody who had molested minors and filmed it?
The Conservatory was right to let the conductor go. “When you run a school, you can’t put kids at risk,’’ says conservatory spokeswoman Karen Schwartzman. “This means that you can’t have a faculty member who exercises extreme bad judgment.’’
Sex offenders who have served their time and sought help deserve second chances. Not just because it’s right, but because research shows that abusers who have trouble rejoining the community are at higher risk of reoffending.
But it is beyond obvious that those second chances should never, ever include regular contact with children. So far, Zander and the Conservatory (which screwed up by failing to do a state-mandated background check on Benjamin in 2010) have been very lucky: No victims have come forward to say Benjamin abused them.
That is a blessing, but it does nothing to justify Zander’s reckless faith in Benjamin. Zander should be grateful if the only thing lost here is his job.