Colleges cut ties with acclaimed organist amid sex allegations
Colleges in Massachusetts and Ohio have abruptly cut ties with a Boston-area concert organist of international acclaim amid allegations of sexual misconduct dating back decades.
James David Christie, widely regarded as one of the greatest organists of his generation, has resigned his post as distinguished artist-in-residence at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, the school said Thursday. He has also left Oberlin College and Conservatory, where he was a professor of organ and chair of the organ department. Christie has played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra since at least 1980, and he served as Wellesley College organist for years.
A group of former students wrote Holy Cross president Rev. Philip L. Boroughs earlier this month, charging that Christie “is an imminent danger to students on your campus.”
“Several of us were sexually abused by Prof. Christie while we were Holy Cross students,” the group wrote in its Aug. 3 letter. “Holy Cross has enabled Prof. Christie’s misconduct, and has a responsibility now to respond to our coming forward as quickly and decisively as possible.”
In a statement to the Globe on Thursday, Holy Cross said the college “was informed of allegations of serious misconduct and immediately placed Mr. Christie on administrative leave, in accordance with college policy. Mr. Christie had submitted a letter of resignation, and he will not be returning to the College.”
An Oberlin spokesperson referred the Globe to a general statement dated Thursday on the school’s website regarding recent allegations of sexual misconduct against unnamed faculty members. In a Thursday e-mail to Oberlin students, staff, and faculty obtained by the Globe, conservatory dean Andrea Kalyn said the school’s Title IX officer recently received reports that Christie had allegedly violated Oberlin’s sexual misconduct policy.
“Professor Christie was informed of these allegations and was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation,” wrote Kalyn. “He has resigned, and no longer teaches at Oberlin.”
A Wellesley spokeswoman said the college has “no record of any complaints” against Christie, adding that in 2016 he was classified as an independent contractor there.
Christie, 66, did not respond to multiple telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment.
Christie, who was named International Performer of the Year for 2017 by the American Guild of Organists’ New York City Chapter, has performed with many of the world’s great orchestras during his long career. He has appeared on numerous recordings and has strong ties to the Boston area, where his work with the BSO has been singled out by reviewers in recent years.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the BSO said the orchestra had been unaware of the allegations against Christie, who performed with the orchestra as a freelance musician and has no formal title with the BSO.
“The Boston Symphony Orchestra has never had complaints against Mr. Christie,” the statement read. “Mr. Christie is not on the schedule to perform with the BSO this upcoming season, and there are no plans to engage him for future performances with the orchestra.”
In multiple interviews with the Globe, former students at Holy Cross and Oberlin described a consistent pattern of sexual harassment by Christie. Some said the organist used his considerable artistic standing to manipulate and cajole students, dangling before them entrance to some of classical music’s most rarefied circles. Former students also described a sexually charged environment that included lewd comments, large amounts of alcohol, and unwanted touching over a period between 1994 and 2017.
Two of the former Holy Cross students who signed the letter also described long-term sexual relationships Christie initiated with them as undergraduates. The two men, who were younger than 21 at the time, said the relationships often involved heavy drinking and unprotected sex in a variety of public spaces, including green rooms, concert halls, Christie’s office at Holy Cross, and in and around the pipe organ at the school’s Saint Joseph Memorial Chapel.
The Globe confirmed key elements of the former students’ accounts through e-mails, Facebook messages, and interviews with friends and acquaintances who either witnessed the events firsthand or learned of them soon after they occurred.
The five signatories to the Holy Cross letter were all recipients of a prestigious organ scholarship at the school, a position that involves assistant duties and close study with Christie, who has served as distinguished artist-in-residence at the school for more than 30 years.
The former students said Christie frequently injected sexual topics into conversation and often physically groped them, rubbing their thighs, proffering massages, and grabbing their rear ends.
“I also heard descriptions of the size and shape of other men’s penises — other professors, concert organists, and students,” Jeff Wood, who graduated from Holy Cross in 2006 and went on to study with Christie at Oberlin, recalled in a written account of his experiences that he shared with the Globe and the Title IX office at Holy Cross.
Jake Street, who graduated from Holy Cross in 2010 and also went on to study with Christie at Oberlin, said Christie would often discuss his sexual conquests and the sexual anatomies and predilections of others.
Street recalled a 2010 trip to Toronto where he and Christie drank heavily, eventually arriving one evening at his mentor’s hotel room.
“At some point, my belt and zipper were undone, and my pants were down around my knees,” Street recalled in a written account of his experiences he shared with the Globe. He says he does not remember who removed his pants: “I remember him getting quiet in that moment, and I eventually fled.”
Jennifer McPherson, who graduated from Holy Cross in 2013 and previously dated Street, recalled that Street told her about the experience after the Toronto trip.
She added that Christie would often press her for information about her own sex life. “If I did not joke with him in return, he would then say I was prudish and should experiment more,” McPherson recalled in a written statement. “Sex was one of his favorite subjects. If I wanted to be a part of Jim’s ‘circle,’ I had to play along.”
Wesley Hall, who studied extensively with Christie at Oberlin despite what he called the organist’s repeated unwanted physical contact, put it succinctly: “He’s the best organ teacher in America, and he could destroy your dreams.”
Hall, who said he has spoken with the Title IX office at Oberlin, added: “He has asked me at least 10 times in lessons if I wanted to take my shirt off.”
Sean Redrow first met Christie when he was an aspiring organist in high school, practicing before a master class with Christie.
He was soon taking lessons with Christie, securing the coveted organ scholarship to Holy Cross starting in 1994.
The relationship quickly went beyond mere touching at the keyboard, as Christie lavished praise and affection on his young student, telling him he was a rare talent and giving him a glimpse of life as a musician of international renown: “money, power . . . the College job at the school I loved more than anyplace or anything ever. He said he’d give it to me when he retired,” recalled Redrow in a written statement. “I would have to be prepared to give up all of my connections to family and friends because being an artist of my caliber would require frequent travel and/or moving to different parts of the country and globe in order to live up to my gift.”
Redrow said the relationship soon turned sexual and involved heavy drinking. “We’d have some drinks, or wine, and then we would have sex,” said Redrow, adding that some of the episodes occurred at the home of Christie, who then lived in Newton.
In one episode, Redrow recalled he and Christie were helping tune the organ at the Holy Cross chapel.
“He took his penis out of his pants, started stroking it, and saying, ‘Come on,’ ” recalled Redrow, who said his professor was urging him to perform fellatio.
Brett Maguire, who graduated from Holy Cross in 2002 and went on to study with his mentor at Oberlin, said Christie told him about the episode with Redrow in the organ loft.
Maguire explained that the first gay sexual experience of his own life was with Christie, initiated by his teacher.
“Christie has amazing artistic privilege . . . at Holy Cross to hand select from the most talented young organ students, to groom them as he sees fit,” Maguire said in a statement. “He has abused this position, using his power of selection to surround himself with insecure young men — teenagers — to satisfy his sexual appetites.”