Leaders of Children’s Theatre Company issued a public apology Friday to a victim of child sex abuse from whom they were seeking to recover court costs.

“Last week we failed in our commitment to be empathetic and respectful in our handling of our legal obligation,” artistic director Peter Brosius said in a 4½-minute video alongside the Minneapolis theater’s managing director, Kimberly Motes.

“We let a court filing go forward without thinking about how it would feel from your perspective,” Brosius said. “That was our mistake and we want to set it right, starting with this clear and unambiguous promise: Under no circumstances will we seek to recover any costs from you.”

The legal action in the case of Laura Stearns prompted a boycott this week of Children’s Theatre’s shows and classes, and a protest is planned Saturday at the theater, putting the organization under increasing public pressure. The nonprofit also suspended casting for its shows after actors questioned if they could continue to work there.

“It should be a huge lesson to a lot of organizations for a long time,” said Patrick Milan, who leads crisis management at public relations firm Tunheim. “They should have been apologizing all along.”

Stearns is one of 17 plaintiffs who have filed suit against Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) and its instructors since 2015, saying there was widespread sexual abuse at the Minneapolis theater in the 1970s and 1980s. Her case was the first to go to trial. A jury returned a $3.68 million verdict against Jason McLean, a former teacher who Stearns accused of raping ­her in the 1980s. But while the jury found that CTC had been negligent, it wasn’t liable for damages.

At a hearing last week, CTC’s attorneys argued that, because they were the prevailing party in the trial, they should be reimbursed for $283,000 of their court costs.

McLean apparently has fled to Mexico, and Stearns says she is unlikely to recover any money from him. She took to Facebook to urge a boycott.

CTC then responded on Facebook on May 25 in a post that has since been deleted, saying: “We support [Stearns’] desire to have the truth be known and justice done.” But, they added, her legal efforts “impose obligations on the CTC.” The explanation of the legal proceedings drew hundreds of angry comments.

A spokeswoman said none of the CTC leaders was available Friday for an interview or to answer questions about how the boycott has impacted operations, ticket sales or donations. But in the prepared video response, Motes apologized “for the distress we have caused over the last week, for creating anger and division and for forcing people to choose sides when we all agree that victims need our support and empathy and that keeping children safe is paramount.”

The CTC leaders pledged to donate proceeds from a performance of “Matilda” to support survivors and to work to resolve the outstanding cases of abuse brought under the Minnesota Child Victims Act.

“We will continue to work with the survivors who have filed lawsuits and will work toward settlements that will give them the help and healing they need,” Brosius said.

Milan works with local nonprofits and corporations in the wake of controversies. Before the CTC apology, he called the legal action “possibly the worse move they can make.”

“What they would recover in legal fees can’t possibly pay for the path back to restore trust and dignity,” he said. “This is an iconic moment in their timeline, and it’s one they’ll always wish they could erase.”

Lawyers’ advice often conflicts with public relations advice, he said, and the theater should have put more weight in the court of public opinion.

“What happened is horrific; you have to support the victims in every possible way,” he said, adding that the theater’s apology “did it right; it’s heartfelt and real.”

Across Minnesota, nonprofits and arts organizations are becoming increasingly reliant on donors and community support, especially as corporate foundations revamp grant programs, so they can be easily rocked by controversy or backlash.

In 2017, a controversy over a sculpture triggered protests and the Walker Art Center’s executive director resigned. The organization’s annual report showed a rise in revenue, but a decline in contributions in the next fiscal year.

Children’s Theatre, which receives most of its revenue for its $13.5 million budget from tickets, grants and contributions, has been dogged by controversy since the 1980s sex abuse scandal.

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.

Stearns’ attorney, Jeff Anderson, said more than 100 victims were abused by 20 offenders at the theater.

“If that story had fully come out then [in the 1980s], the theater wouldn’t have survived,” Stearns said before CTC’s video apology was released. “It’s an ugly history.”

She declined to comment on the video Friday.

As people arrived for a performance back in April, Erin Nanasi and her husband stood silently outside the Minneapolis theater, holding signs including one that read: “The Children’s Theatre is built on the trauma of children.”

Nanasi, who reported being the victim of an attempted rape in an instructor’s car in 1981, will protest again on Saturday, unmoved by the apology.

“They waited a week. It just seems like they’re trying to minimize the negative PR,” she said, adding that she thinks board members or whoever signed off on the court motion should resign. “There needs to be a shake-up.”

After urging the boycott of Children’s Theatre, Stearns said she heard of people canceling subscriptions or turning down acting jobs.

“I’m sending them a message back that I will not be silenced and they don’t get away with attacking a victim financially,” she said. “This really ignited people because they recognize how inappropriate it was.”

Actor, writer and director Sha Cage, who is directing the Bob Marley musical “Three Little Birds” in January at the theater, said that “a lot of artists are on pause with CTC. They want to find out what’s happening and if the institution is going to walk with integrity.”

Cage, who first worked at the theater a year ago, said she understands the impulse to call for a boycott.

“If you’re a victim and are hurting and also want to see change, how do you create a platform where you’re not standing alone?” she said. “It’s created a huge fire, and now the community is dealing with that fire.”

Community meetings are taking place or planned for artists in the Twin Cities. And the questions that are being raised are big ones: “Is it just about litigation now, are people questioning the leadership there, or do people want CTC to go away?” asked Cage.

 

kelly.smith@startribune.com 612-673-4141 rohan.preston@startribune.com 612-673-4390

Correction: Clarification: This story has been updated to include more recent financial information from the Walker Art Center.