The following information may be activating to those who have experienced trauma. Please, read with care.
In 1965, John Clark Donahue became the artistic director of the Children’s Theatre Company. Donahue had already served time in 1961 for a felony charge of sexually assaulting a student at Carl Sandburg Junior High School, and was one of several men investigated for child trafficking and pornography. Over the following two decades, as the theatre company rose to high acclaim, countless children attended classes and worked in performances at Children's Theatre. Also during this time, the theatre became home to at least 30 perpetrators, predators, and pedophiles who sexually assaulted hundreds of children.
The culture at Children's Theatre through the ’60s, 70’s, and 80’s purposefully blurred boundaries between adults and children. As a young performer or technician, being treated as an adult could be both exhilarating and overwhelming. The magic, wonder, and art that were created were gifts that for some came with many sacrifices. The expectation that children meet adult demands of all types came at the expense of relationships with the world outside of Children's Theatre, and this isolation left children even more vulnerable to abuse of many kinds. Young people who were not directly abused likely witnessed some form of it, even if they didn't understand it at the time.
There were several times over the decades that children and adults reported knowledge of abuse to both Children's Theatre officials and the authorities, yet nothing was done to increase protections for children. Donahue and the growing nest of predators continued to abuse children and were protected by silence, denial, and complicity.
In the late 70s to the mid-80s, Donahue and some of his closest staff members, some of whom were former sexual assault victims themselves, were involved in creating and distributing child pornography.
In 1981 the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension began an investigation into Donahue. Amidst swirling rumors, they reached out to many children who believed that speaking to the investigators would be betraying Donahue, the other predators, and the insular "special" world of the theatre, which felt like family and home to many. In spite of the pressure, some children did come forward, to tell the truth.
On April 18, 1984, Donahue was arrested, and although he admitted to sexually assaulting sixteen boys, he was only charged with six felony counts related to three boys. Donahue pled guilty to lesser charges and received reduced sentencing. He served 8 months of a 10-month sentence in the Hennepin County Workhouse.
A special Hennepin County grand jury investigation convened to look further into cases of child sexual assault by other adults at the theatre. During the investigation for the grand jury, the BCA was instrumental in uncovering the harms that were happening at Children's Theatre, however, some of the investigative tactics they used further traumatized victims. This included threatening children with "outing" them to their parents for being homosexual or using drugs. This caused isolation and alienation and sent the clear message that victims were in some way guilty. Twenty-six students were subpoenaed.
SILENCING AND COVERUP
Before the date of the grand jury in 1985, in order to silence them, some students were coerced and threatened by loyal staff, other students, and perpetrators, convincing them to lie. Others that did tell the truth were treated like traitors. Many of those students have reported that they were threatened with violence, being ostracized, or coerced to believe they were responsible for the harm caused to them. The result was that only five other Children's Theatre administrators and staff members were charged with sexually assaulting students or failing to report that abuse. One pled guilty and was sentenced to 1-year probation. Because of continued threats to witnesses, lack of evidence, the vague wording of the Mandated Reporting law, and willingness of adults to cover up what was happening, the rest were acquitted or the charges against them were dismissed.
Several staff members who were actively engaged in the abuse and/or trafficking of children continued to be employed at Children's Theatre. Eventually, they quietly ended contracts with perpetrators who had been exposed, they did nothing to notify other organizations in the Twin Cities or other states where these perpetrators fled. The public dust settled and Children's Theatre moved on without looking back. The Twin Cities theatre community continued to employ Donahue and other former company members who had actively harmed children or knew what was happening and were complicit in their silence. Some of them went on to have very successful careers, while those that were harmed continue to be deeply impacted by what happened to them as children.
PAST CIVIL SUITS
In 1987 three of Donahue's victims filed civil suits against him and Children's Theatre. The cases were settled out of court.
RECENT CIVIL CASES
In 2015, following the opening of the statute of limitations for civil cases with the MN Child Victims Act, seventeen plaintiffs filed civil suits against Children's Theatre and/or their perpetrators. In January 2019, Laura Stearns was the only one of these cases to go to trial. Several former staff members took to the stand and told the same stories that had kept the perpetrators safe all those years ago. The outcome was that Jason McLean, former company member, and teacher, was found liable for Stearns’ harm, Children's Theatre was only found negligent.
Following her trial, Children's Theatre filed a motion to recover nearly $300,000 in legal fees from Stearns, and this time the Twin Cities theatre community did not look away. A boycott was called, protests were staged and a group of teachers and staff members within the current Children's Theatre created the organization Standing with Children's Theatre Survivors. With the aid of added public outrage, pressure from within the theater itself, and the mountain of evidence that was collected during the investigation for trial, all of the lawsuits were settled by October 2019.
During the plaintiffs' mediation process, a list of collective reparation requests was made by some of the plaintiffs to the Children's Theatre Company. One of those requests was for them to contribute to a "survivor's" fund which would help the hundreds of additional alumni harmed during the Donahue era. After reaching an agreement, CTA Wellness was formed to administer those funds and advocate for the additional requests made by plaintiffs.
ESTABLISHING THE FUND
As this history has resurfaced, it may be causing former children associated with Children's Theatre to reexamine their own experiences and the impact on their lives. CTA Wellness was created to support the physical and emotional well-being of those impacted and to help them find local resources wherever they are.
CTA WELLNESS IS COMMITTED TO BEING A SUPPORTIVE AND SOFT PLACE TO LAND ON THE PATH TO TRUE WELL-BEING FOR OUR COMMUNITY
The trauma endured by the young actors, technicians, and students of the Children’s Theater Company has manifested itself in a myriad of ways for different people— among them: difficulty having healthy relationships, career derailment, educational barriers, drug addiction, and mental illness. Many alumni have been left wounded and struggling, some of whom do not yet understand what they witnessed or the depth of the abuse they suffered. They might even blame themselves for whatever consequences they are experiencing.
There is a community of fellow students who believe that the harm we experienced was not okay, even though for some of us Children's Theatre was a magical and formative part of our lives.
To try and speak to what has transpired in one collective voice is not only impossible, it is
potentially harmful. There is a separate website, created by other alumni, where you can share stories in private moderated forums. The Website also has a page for public stories and a media page to see how this has been covered in the news.
By clicking the link below, you will be taken to a separate website.
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CTA Wellness is an independent non-profit, not associated with Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, MN
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