Video maker had sordid past, strong advocates
Calling himself fully rehabilitated, decries firing by conservatory
Peter E. Benjamin, the registered sex offender hired by renowned conductor Benjamin Zander to tape performances by a New England Conservatory youth orchestra, was a beloved figure among Boston’s cultural elite more than two decades ago, when he was routinely hired to produce photographs and videos for institutions such as the Boston Ballet, the Opera Company of Boston, the American Repertory Theater, and the Boston Red Sox.
But in the early 1990s when Benjamin was in his 50s, the picture changed. He was sentenced to five years in state prison after pleading guilty to charges of rape and sexual abuse. Among the allegations: that he secretly videotaped himself having sex with three male teens, one of whom was abused by Benjamin during a two-year period beginning in 1990, when the boy was 13.
Evidence seized from Benjamin’s home, then in Wayland, included videotapes of the three teens, along with “a box of photographs containing hundreds of photographs of numerous naked boys approximately age 8 to 15 . . . performing sexual acts upon one another,’’ according to prosecutors.
In the statement, prosecutors said at the time that Benjamin had “embarked on a well-rehearsed scheme to lure’’ the three male teens into sexual activity - with disastrous consequence.
“The defendant’s exploitation of these boys for his own sexual gratification caused such feelings of ‘anger, hurt and misery, that [the teens] could not even explain,’ ’’ the prosecutors said. Documents also said Benjamin had faced additional sex abuse charges dating to the 1970s.
This week, conservatory officials said they would no longer hire Benjamin. They then dismissed Zander, who has received world acclaim as a conductor, after learning he had hired Benjamin to videotape youth orchestra performances with full knowledge of his record as a sex offender.
Last night, in a phone interview with the Globe, the 68-year-old Benjamin, who now lives in Brighton, defended his work for the conservatory and criticized school officials for canceling his contract work, asserting that he has not reoffended since his release from prison and noting that he completed five years of supervised probation.
“I’ve done everything right,’’ he said. “I deserve a break here.’’
Benjamin also said he believes the conservatory overreacted because of the sexual abuse controversy that has engulfed Penn State University and its legendary football program. In November, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted on sex abuse charges and two other university officials were charged with failing to notify police of the abuse allegations.
Since leaving prison, Benjamin said, he has had just one brush with the law, an arrest because of an altercation with a trash collector.
In addition, Benjamin’s attorney, John Swomley, said in a statement that, after finishing his prison term, his client completed a four-year therapy program whose graduates have only a 5 percent recidivism rate.
“Mr. Benjamin has never reoffended and deserves credit for this,’’ the statement said.
On Thursday, conservatory officials told parents that the school would no longer engage Benjamin as a private contractor to videotape conservatory events. They said Benjamin had been informed that he was no longer welcome on the school’s Huntington Avenue campus or at any school events.
The school also announced that Zander, who is also a motivational speaker, was leaving the conservatory after nearly a half-century as a marquee instructor and 35 years as conductor of the school’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. Zander is also the founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and is the music director at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in Natick.
Yesterday, the 72-year-old Zander issued a statement, saying, “This termination comes as a terrible shock to me and I plan to communicate directly with my students and their families. . . . I would never knowingly do anything that would in any way put my students in harm’s way.’’
In 1993, after Benjamin pleaded guilty, more than a dozen testimonials written on his behalf were filed with the Middlesex Superior Court judge hearing the case. Several came from prominent Boston cultural figures who asserted that Benjamin was of good character and was capable of turning his life around.
The late Sarah Caldwell, artistic director of the Opera Company of Boston, said she had known Benjamin for 30 years, from the time he was a young man singing for the chorus of the Opera Company and, later, as official photographer for many of the company’s productions.
“I have known Peter as a kind, caring, and reliable person,’’ Caldwell said at the time. “He has been generous with this time and talents and has very often gone out of his way to help local artists develop their careers.’’
Doris Kearns Goodwin, the noted author and historian, said she had known Benjamin for six years and that he had edited a tape of her political commentaries that she presented to NBC television.
“Peter has thrown himself into everything he does with high spirits, intense commitment and vital energy,’’ Kearns Goodwin wrote. “This vitality and commitment to excellence has won him many friends and earned him great respect.’’
Efforts by the Globe to reach Kearns Goodwin for comment were unsuccessful.
Zander, for his part, said Benjamin “has gained the respect of many members of the Boston artistic community by his impeccable professional behavior.’’
Zander wrote his 1993 testimonial on Boston Philharmonic Orchestra stationery. Benjamin also submitted a “to whom it may concern’’ letter from another conservatory official, Robert Di Deomenica, a former performance dean, who lauded Benjamin for the job he did filming his opera “The Balcony,’’ which was performed by Caldwell’s opera company.
The testimonials do not mention the specific sexual abuse charges against Benjamin. However, they reveal that several of the writers had some knowledge about the accusations and urged the judge hearing the case to show mercy when imposing a sentence.
“If Peter is adjudged guilty of any of the charges being made against him, I hope you will take into consideration all he has achieved in his profession [and] the many positive contributions he has made as a human being.’’
Caldwell also said Benjamin had “donated over 200 hours of his time filming interviews’’ for the Massachusetts Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Youth, a ground-breaking government organization established by then-governor William F. Weld.
Kearns Goodwin, for her part, said, “I honestly believe that Peter has fully absorbed the seriousness of the charges against him and will do everything he can to ensure that he never again puts himself in a situation to violate the trust of another human being.’’
Norman Zalkind, an attorney who represented Benjamin at the time, said in the sentencing memorandum accompanying the testimonial that Benjamin was sexually abused as a child and traumatized by the stigma of growing up Jewish and gay in Wellesley, an affluent Boston suburb, during the 1950s.
Yesterday, Zalkind said that Benjamin has rehabilitated himself and that the conservatory’s decision to end his contracting work could have unfortunate consequences for other one-time offenders.
“What’s happened to him will make people less willing to take a chance on people who say they have rehabilitated themselves,’’ he said.