Children's Theatre Company held its first public forum on Monday since 17 plaintiffs filed lawsuits against the Minneapolis theater and former actor Jason McLean over sexual abuse during the 1970s and 1980s.
About 45 people attended the two-hour evening forum held at the theater, sharing how they want to see the theater move forward after a painful past and recent legal action that's spurred public boycotts and protests.
The event was facilitated by a representative from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), a national organization that operates a sexual assault hotline. However, several theater leaders also attended and spoke, reiterating similar messages from public statements, apologizing to the sexual assault survivors and listing off a number of steps the theater is taking — including the public forum — to help the community heal.
The Children's Theatre allowed a Star Tribune reporter to attend the nonprofit's forum on the condition that no one who participated be identified or quoted, citing confidentiality concerns.
People who were there shared ideas for how the theater can move forward, such as starting a student council, adding a survivor to the board of directors and hosting another forum at a neutral site because it's too traumatic for some survivors to be at the theater. Others suggested that the theater could improve how it communicates to the public.
Laura Stearns, whose case was the first — and so far, the only — of the cases to go to trial, didn't attend because she said it was too painful to go to the building. Another forum at a neutral site is a "great next step," she said.
"That building is really triggering for a lot of people," she said. "Their attempt to listen is admirable, and I hope they actually hear people."
She added that much more needs to be done. "This is going to take years."
Besides the forum, the theater announced in August it will enhance its "adult youth engagement policy" on how to intervene and report suspected abuse, provide annual training to all staff and volunteers, start a community council and host a three-part speakers series on the prevention of child abuse, survivor support and ways the arts can help in healing trauma.
Once the lawsuits are resolved, the theater says it will also establish a survivor's fund that "supports and honors survivors."
Just this month, the theater announced it had settled a seventh lawsuit in the suits filed since 2015 against the theater and McLean — brought under the Minnesota Child Victims Act. The terms of the settlements are confidential.
In Stearns' case, the jury found earlier this year that the theater had been negligent but wasn't liable for damages. It returned a $3.68 million verdict against McLean, Stearns' former teacher whom she accused of rape in the 1980s.
A dispute over the theater seeking legal fees in Stearns' case spurred a public boycott and has prompted weekly protests of the theater. Theater leaders later apologized and dropped the request for the legal fees from Stearns.
McLean, a former teacher who was never criminally charged, hasn't retained an attorney and didn't appear in court; he reportedly fled to Mexico in 2017 after selling his Twin Cities properties, the Varsity Theater and the Loring Pasta Bar.
Playwright John Clark Donahue, who co-founded the company and died earlier this year, pleaded guilty in the 1980s to molesting three boys and admitted to abusing and raping several boys.
Theater leaders have said in statements that they are working toward settlements of the remaining cases.