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Zander calls hiring choice ‘grave oversight’

Living/Arts: Classical Music: Boston Youth Philharmonic The Boston Youth Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander, right, embraces cello soloist Jonah Ellsworth following his performance at Jordan Hall in Boston, Friday, June 3, 2011. (Robert E. Klein for the Boston Globe) 13memorial

Robert E. Klein for The Boston Globe

Former New England Conservatory conductor Benjamin Zander, right, has apologized for knowingly hiring a registered sex offender to video record the school’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.

Benjamin Zander, the world renowned conductor recently fired by the New England Conservatory, apologized yesterday for knowingly hiring a registered sex offender as a videographer for performances by the school’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and other activities.

In a statement posted on his website, Zander said he supported convicted sex offender Peter E. Benjamin before his 1994 sentencing and retained him on a part-time basis to videotape school events after his release from prison, without looking into details of the charges against him.

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“This was a grave oversight,’’ Zander said.

The 72-year-old Zander also apologized for engaging the videographer without disclosing to school officials either his conviction or subsequent imprisonment.

“I accept that it was not for me to make the decision that it was safe to do so,’’ Zander said. “For all the upset and anguish my actions have thereby caused in the NEC community and beyond, I profoundly apologize.’’

The internationally acclaimed school has not received any complaints of abuse by Peter Benjamin, a school spokeswoman said yesterday.

Last week, Zander told the Globe that he had done nothing wrong by hiring the videographer to tape concerts and rehearsals by the conservatory’s youth orchestra and a class he taught through the conservatory at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, a Natick boarding school.

“It’s a tragedy, an absolute tragedy that I’ve been fired for an absolute nothing,’’ Zander said in a brief interview at that time.

Benjamim has “done nothing for 20 years,’’ Zander added. “He’s been blameless for 20 years.’’

Carol Goodman, a New York employment attorney retained by Zander, criticized conservatory officials last Thursday for cutting the school’s ties to Zander after he had spent more than four decades there as a marquee instructor.

Goodman explained yesterday that Zander had initially defended his hiring of the videographer immediately following his termination by the conservatory and “did not know of the gravity of the offenses against Peter Benjamin at that time.’’

But she also said school officials need not have fired Zander.

“I do not agree that dismissal was the right way or the only way to deal with the situation after 45 years of good will,’’ she said.

Zander, in a letter to youth orchestra students that was also posted on his website yesterday, also suggested that conservatory officials need not have let him go and appeared to attribute the decision at least in part to a previous dispute with conservatory president Tony Woodcock.

Moreover, in a third statement regarding Peter Benjamin, he asserted that most of the videographer’s work “involved college or graduate-level performances.’’

In addition to his role as conductor of the conservatory’s youth orchestra, Zander is founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and a motivational speaker. In 2008, he delivered the opening address at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.

Last week, the Globe disclosed that Zander was fired after school officials were notified that Peter Benjamin, 68, is a registered Level 2 sex offender, meaning that state officials have determined that he poses a moderate risk of reoffending.

School officials were notified in December and released Zander after an investigation by a Boston law firm to determine the breadth of the videographer’s work for the school and whether anyone knew of his status as a sex offender. They also notified the videographer that he would not be hired for additional work and barred him from the conservatory’s Huntington Avenue campus and from school events.

Zander was the only faculty member who knew of Benjamin’s criminal past.

But Karen Schwartzman, the spokeswoman for the school, said last week that school officials also were remiss for not doing a criminal background check on the videographer after 2010, when the conservatory’s policy was amended to include checks on vendors, as well as faculty and staff.

“It clearly was a lapse not to CORI check this individual,’’ Schwartzman said. CORI stands for the state’s Criminal Offender Registry Information data base.

Yesterday, Schwartzman said she would have no comment on Zander’s apology.

In 1994, Peter Benjamin was sentenced to five years in state prison after pleading guilty to charges of rape and sexual abuse. The charges were based in part on allegations that he secretly videotaped himself having sex with three male teenagers, one of whom was abused by Peter Benjamin during a two-year period beginning in 1990, when the boy was 13.

Before his sentencing, Zander and other high-profile Boston cultural figures wrote testimonials on the videographer’s behalf, arguing for leniency.

“Peter has gained the respect of many members of the Boston artistic community by his impeccable professional behavior, and I believe little good would be served by punishing him excessively,’’ Zander wrote.

Yesterday, Peter Benjamin expressed admiration for Zander and regret over his dismissal by the conservatory.

“I’m sorry he’s had to go through this,’’ Peter Benjamin said. “I feel worse for him than I do for myself.’’

Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @RezGlobe.
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