The Children’s Theatre Company and survivors of sexual abuse there stood side by side Friday to announce that they have settled the lawsuits between them, vowing to work together to help those who were harmed and ensure that children will be safe.
The moment brought a close to a decadeslong ordeal and underscored the pain of those whose childhoods were taken away, their lives scarred by abuse. It also saw theater management publicly acknowledge the abuse committed by former employees, and offer an apology and commitment to continue working with survivors.
Theater executives also promised to add abuse survivors to the CTC board and donate $500,000 to seed a fund to help those scarred by the trauma. For their part, survivors called an end to a boycott of the theater.
“It’s really hard to be happy in this moment,” said Laura Stearns, one of the more outspoken victims. “There is so much pain in the alumni community and the survivor community. … This is not the finish line. This is a hurdle in a long process of navigating the repercussions of the harms done to us.”
Attorney Jeff Anderson, who represented the survivors in 16 lawsuits — seven of them previously resolved — said all the cases have now been settled. The financial terms are being kept confidential, he said.
“The story here is that there has been and remains a culture that did not hear, listen or know — or claim to know — that there was a grave and serious problem,” Anderson said.
Stearns, survivor Jina Penn-Tracy and CTC’s managing director, Kimberly Motes, took turns conveying messages of reparation and reconciliation.
Penn-Tracy contended that Children’s Theatre wouldn’t exist today if she and others who were abused hadn’t been “brutally silenced” or if Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension had done a better job of working with those who were traumatized. The theater wouldn’t exist if “20-plus perpetrators and over 100 victims had been known at the time,” she said.
“Today marks the point where the Children’s Theatre is being held accountable for what happened to me there,” Penn-Tracy said.
For some plaintiffs, the CTC building remains an emblem of their pain and they would like to take it apart brick by brick, Stearns said.
“It’s difficult for me some days to even drive by it,” she added. “But the fact is the building does exist and that there are people inside that building who are willing to work and willing to attempt to make things better.”
Stearns said she’ll take the chance and work with the theater but understands why others won’t. “We are all in different places in our process and everyone has a right to their anger and their hurt as well as their relief, if that’s how they feel,” she said.
“CTC has an opportunity to embrace their legacy of harm and turn it into a legacy of advocacy,” Stearns added. “I wish it had been sooner. It’s better late than never.”
After the 2013 Minnesota Child Victims Act extended the statute of limitations on abuse cases, the plaintiffs sued CTC and former staff members over the sexual abuse girls and boys endured while studying and performing at the south Minneapolis theater in the 1970s and 1980s.
The lawsuits also name former actor and teacher Jason McLean — who fled to Mexico in 2017 and resurfaced last month in California — and co-founder John Clark Donahue, who died earlier this year. A separate suit accusing McLean of sexual abuse didn’t name the theater as a defendant.
Donahue pleaded guilty in the 1980s to molesting three boys and admitted to abusing and raping others. McLean, who was never criminally charged, faces more than $6 million in civil judgments between two cases.
Stearns’ case was the only one to go to trial; besides a $3.68 million judgment against McLean, the jury found that the Children’s Theatre had been negligent but wasn’t liable for damages.
After the theater sought legal fees from Stearns, she started a public boycott of CTC and protests were held outside its shows. At least five teachers quit. Dozens of artists and teachers launched a website called “Standing with CTC Survivors.” And the broader Twin Cities theater community issued statements in support of survivors.
Motes and artistic director Peter Brosius later apologized and dropped the request for legal fees from Stearns.
“The past four years have been by far the most difficult years of my life,” Stearns said Friday. “I am a wounded human being. Some of the things that I’ve had to face during this legal process have cut me to the core. No survivor of sexual assault should have to endure the retraumatization of the courtroom.”
Those representing CTC repeatedly acknowledged the pain of survivors and vowed to make amends.
“No child should have been exposed to this horrific behavior, and we are truly sorry that so many of you carry the scars from those wounds,” Motes said. “Nothing we will do will ever undo the pain that has been endured by our former students.”
CTC will add survivors of sexual assault to its governing board and work to strengthen its policies meant to prevent abuse so that it can serve as an example for other organizations, Motes said.
The abuse continues to cast a shadow on the theater, she conceded.
“We seek to overcome it every day,” she said. “We will do that not by ignoring our past but instead by confronting it, listening and apologizing sincerely and without reservation, seeking to make amends and continuing the healing process in collaboration with the survivors.”