T.J. O'Donnell was one of the chosen ones.
From the time he joined the Children's Theatre School, O'Donnell was drawn into the intimate circle of artists, actors and boys who surrounded artistic director John Clark Donahue.
"John would always tell me that I was talented, attractive, that I had a future with the theater, that I could do whatever I wanted to. That I was more special than others," O'Donnell said in one of several interviews in the last year.
At 15, O'Donnell was an intellectually precocious youth with curly hair and an ironic, slightly off-center smile. He went to Children's Theatre in the fall of 1982 from eight years of Catholic schooling, without so much as having been kissed. He idolized Donahue. So when the 43-year-old director began fondling him as they watched a play from Donahue's locked office, O'Donnell said in depositions and interviews later, he felt trapped and scared.
Afterward, Donahue acted as if nothing had happened.
Aside from the rumor mill at CTC and hints from other boys that they also had been molested, O'Donnell had no way of knowing then that Donahue's pattern of sexual involvement with adolescent males stretched back more than 20 years. It took a long time for O'Donnell to challenge the propriety of Donahue's sexual involvement with him - to believe that he had been exploited, not loved.
But by the spring of 1984 O'Donnell knew as well as anyone at CTC that the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was investigating whether Donahue was sexually abusing students.
O'Donnell had no intention of talking.
Then came an incident involving a boy of 11 or 12 who was new to the theater school. One spring evening, O'Donnell was drinking with friends in Donahue's living room when the boy rushed in from the back of the house, crying and screaming, "You faggot! You faggot! " throwing things around the room, then rushing out, O'Donnell said.
At first, O'Donnell and his friends found the scene hilarious. But when Donahue entered the room grinning sheepishly and acting - again - as if nothing had happened, something turned inside of O'Donnell.
"What the hell were you doing? He's just a kid!" O'Donnell said he asked Donahue later.
"C'mon, T.J. this happens everywhere! It happens at Montgomery Wards, for Christ's sake!" he remembers Donahue chiding. Investigators would find these relationships anywhere they looked, Donahue told him. If theater people refused to talk, eventually the BCA would go away, Donahue said.
Suddenly, it did not feel so special to be one of Donahue's chosen ones. O'Donnell left Donahue's house, and from the red lobby of the Children's Theatre, he called BCA agent Michael Campion. Within an hour they met at the Fair Oaks Hotel, one block from the theater.
And O'Donnell told everything he knew.
One survives, other thrives
On April 18, 1984, Donahue was arrested at his internationally acclaimed Children's Theatre and was charged with six felony counts of sexually abusing three boys.
Within the next year Donahue pled guilty to reduced charges. He served 10 months of a one-year jail term in the Hennepin County Workhouse. The BCA probe and a special Hennepin County grand jury investigation of CTC resulted in five other CTC administrators and staff members being charged with sexually abusing students or failing to report that abuse. They were acquitted or the charges against them were dismissed. Three of Donahue's victims later sued him and CTC. And the theater settled their cases out of court for undisclosed amounts of money.
At the time of his arrest, Donahue and CTC were so inextricably connected that it seemed questionable whether the man or the institution could survive. Seven years later Children's Theatre is not only alive, it is financially more secure than ever and has plans to increase its scope and artistic prominence. On CTC's main stage, portions of Donahue's artistic signature remain. As an institution, however, CTC has changed in so many ways as to appear a different organization.
Donahue also has survived - personally and artistically. Most of his significant theater jobs since his arrest have come from friends, people he mentored and longtime associates. Now he is poised to assume his highest-profile position since his CTC days: With former CTC teacher Jason McLean, Donahue is starting a new theater - the Loring Bohemian Playhouse. It will be housed next to the Loring Cafe and Bar, which McLean, Donahue and the old Children's Theatre crowd have turned into one of Minneapolis' most avant-garde nightspots.
The legacies of Donahue and Children's Theatre permeate the Twin Cities theater scene, with Donahue's proteges and CTC alumni involved in numerous plays, dances, films, scripts and other collaborative projects.
Given that influence, it is a good time to reflect on the events of seven years ago, to see how the man and the institution survived. And it is time to discuss the lessons those events suggest for the future.
While Donahue declined to be interviewed, he discussed his life and the CTC in two depositions taken for lawsuits filed against him and the theater. This series of articles was developed from those and other depositions, more than 100 interviews, BCA files, police records, newspaper articles, a book on the case and court documents.
Denial heightened tragedy
If a play were written about John Clark Donahue and Children's Theatre, it would be a tragedy: In Donahue's greatness lay the seeds of his own destruction. And the people who surrounded him failed to challenge the most destructive manifestations of that behavior.
Denial would be at the heart of the play - denial before Donahue's arrest that his relationships with children were abusive and denial since that people knew enough to have protected children.
The play would continue with the hurtful effects of the tragedy played out in the lives of dozens of people: children, parents, board members, artists, staff members and CTC supporters. Victims like O'Donnell would spend years sorting out what happened and trying to put their lives back together.
Donahue failed the institution by abusing children and putting the theater in jeopardy, said Dixon Bond, a CTC board member at the time of Donahue's arrest and now one of its governors. But the institution also failed Donahue, in Bond's view, by neglecting to install a system of checks and balances because officials did not view such constraints as necessary.
When Donahue's crimes were publicly revealed, he was reviled and rejected. The man had not changed, only the public perception of him. People who once eagerly sought to associate with Donahue abandoned him. Many of them have not spoken to him in seven years.
Hennepin County Judge Charles Porter spent a week poring over the 1,000-page transcript of the grand-jury investigation of CTC. In a statement at Donahue's sentencing, Nov. 8, 1984, Porter concluded that "collectively this community knew what was going on at Children's Theatre." In Porter's view, the community refused to confront adult-adolescent sexuality at the theater because it was so enamored of the art Donahue produced.
What happened at CTC and why it happened remains one of the most painful and divisive issues within the local arts community. Many of Donahue's closest associates refuse to publicly discuss those times. The full story of the roles they played in the case may never be fully told.
"I think it was a case that really pushed people's ethics," said Cordelia Anderson, director of Illusion Theater's sexual-abuse prevention programs. "In the theater community, you had divided loyalties and people hesitant to talk about it at all. By talking about the abuse, by talking about the realities of abuse, did that mean that you wanted to destroy Children's Theatre?
"I think people didn't really want to believe that it happened. If they did believe it happened, they wanted to very much minimize what that was. . . . Instead of talking about the abuse, people would say, `But John Clark Donahue is a brilliant director; he built a brilliant theater; he has contributed so much to the community.' Yes, those things are true. But they do not have anything to do with the fact that he abused children," Anderson said.
In the years since, there has been a need - subtly expressed - to deny that Donahue ever existed. Porter and others believe that that denial has made it easier for people to avoid considering their own failure to protect children.
For years that was easy to do. Donahue was locked away for 10 months in the Hennepin County Workhouse. Much of the next two years he spent in Tucson at the Arizona Theater Company. After his return to Minneapolis he maintained a low profile. The man who was the subject of hundreds of flattering features before 1984 has, since his arrest, declined interviews about CTC - as he did repeatedly for this story.
"John had done a good job of taking himself out of circulation, out of the public eye," said Bond. "What he did was arrive back in town quietly. He worked with some of his friends to develop some income. He didn't heavily broadcast the fact that he was back. So people could, in effect, say to themselves: `He's still gone.' "
Trouble before CTC
From the time he was a young adult, Donahue recognized the dangers of his attraction to young male students, according to a document submitted to Judge Porter before Donahue's sentencing. After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1960, Donahue took a teaching job in Buhl, Minn., a small town on the Iron Range. While there, Donahue said in that document, he became strongly attracted to a 17-year old boy, with whom he spent a great deal of time. Though Donahue denied any overt sexual activity between them, he said in the document that he felt nervous about his feelings for the boy and was anxious to avoid any hint of scandal.
By 1961, Donahue, then 23, was back in the Twin Cities, teaching at Sandburg Junior High School in Robbinsdale. Just a few months into his new job, Donahue was charged with felony sodomy for having sex with a 17-year-old boy that he had met through another man in his boarding house. Donahue pled guilty to reduced charges of indecent exposure and received a one-year, suspended jail sentence.
Years later Donahue minimized the incident, telling probation officer Anice Flesh that he'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time when pornographic films were being shown.
In that era such scandals were handled differently, said Robert Lynn, who prosecuted the Donahue case: Offenders quietly resigned and left for teaching jobs elsewhere.
Donahue was forced to resign his teaching job and he retreated from the world - a pattern he repeated in 1984 - cloistering himself in his parents' south Minneapolis home for the better part of a year. Then he moved to Canoba Beach, Calif., to work for his uncle at the Pickwick Book Store. Six months later he returned home to be with his father, who was ill.
Despite his criminal record, by 1962 Donahue was working for a fledgling children's theater - the Moppet Players. Beth Linnerson had started it in the Cedar-Riverside area as a social outreach program for poor kids.
Linnerson knew of his arrest when she hired him, Donahue said later in a deposition. After all, it was in the newspaper, Donahue said. Linnerson now says that her memory of those events has faded. But in 1984 she told a Los Angeles Times reporter that she knew of Donahue's history and believed she'd be able to keep an eye on him around children. Local director and playwright Martha Boesing was then co-director of the troupe.
"I'm the one who hired John and I probably shouldn't have," Boesing said. "He was just coming off a similar situation and no one would hire him. . . . And we said, `Sure. We'll hire you. Just keep your hands off the kids.' "
"'Of course,' he said. 'I'm all done with that. I'll never do that again.'"
On the sidewalk Donahue painted dragon's footprints to draw neighborhood kids into the theater. His title was technical director, but Donahue's tasks were myriad: He designed sets, shoveled coal into the furnace, mopped, swept, sold orange drink, acted in plays and taught children to draw, paint and act.
Over the next five years the Moppets grew and evolved into the Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company, first as a division of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, then as a separate entity. By then, Donahue had assumed control of the theater.
When Linnerson left the Moppets in 1964 she felt "morally responsible" to inform the theater's board about Donahue's conviction, according to the 1984 Los Angeles Times article. "I gave them a vague warning which none of them understood," Linnerson told the Times reporter without elaborating.
"The experience of Linnerson's inability to take the precautionary step of informing board members of Donahue's background foreshadowed nearly two decades of individual and community complicity in covering up Donahue's proclivity toward sexual involvement with young people," wrote local lawyer Martin Costello in his book, "Hating the Sin, Loving the Sinner: The Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company Adolescent Sexual Abuse Prosecutions," which is to be published this year. Costello, who helped successfully defend two CTC officials, based his conclusions on police and BCA reports, trial proceedings, grand-jury testimony, interviews and CTC documents. Costello has a Ph.D. in American studies and has done research on sentencing.
"This coverup took three forms: failure to warn theater administrators of Donahue's prior sexual abuse conviction, refusal to act on circumstantial evidence of his continuing sexual involvement with CTC student actors and neglect to notify the parents of CTC students of the pending sexual abuse investigations," Costello wrote.
Boesing said she tried to persuade the Institute of Arts board that Linnerson's love of children made her the right person to run the theater. But the board chose Donahue instead. In retrospect, Donahue's artistic style more closely fit that of the institute, Boesing said.
"Beth would not have put that theater on the national scene. It would have been a slightly home-grown, funky, wonderful, warm theater," said Boesing. "But I don't know that it would have became an internationally known, small Guthrie - a Guthrie for children."
His control was complete
When the theater got good - and it got good very rapidly - it attracted not only poor kids from the neighborhood, but children and their wealthy parents from Wayzata, said Boesing. Those earliest patrons and board members became zealots for Donahue, said former board president A.L. (Bill) Powell.
The magic took their breath away. By the time CTC moved into its new white-brick building adjoining the Institute of Arts, Donahue was bringing storybooks to life on stage, establishing an unparalleled tradition of creating new plays from children's literature. In nearly 20 years at CTC, Donahue authored dozens of plays and directed well over 100. Tens of thousands of children and adults have seen those plays.
"At the time he started that effort, no one anywhere in this country ever conceived that you could do legitimate, solid, artful theater for children," said Stephen Ayers, who worked at CTC from 1967 until 1978.
It took a community of talented artists to create the magic. Yet, Donahue probably always will receive the credit and the blame for everything that happened there, said former CTC playwright Thomas Olson.
There was a near-total identification of Donahue with CTC, reflecting not only his extraordinary artistic vision, but also his uncontested power.
"John didn't have a check-point at the theater. . . . He was allowed to just do," said Topsy Simonson, one of CTC's early patrons and a longtime board member. "And I think we were intimidated as a board to some extent by this creativity. We marveled at it and we didn't honestly know how to harness it. So sometimes it got away with itself. Budgets went way over."
Not so much as a display went up in the lobby without Donahue's approval. If he decreed that a dozen penguins appear in a show the day before it opened, seamstresses worked through the night to sew costumes. Staff members polished his shoes, made his doctors' appointments, sobered him up when necessary and chaffeured him to appointments. Donahue didn't like to drive.
"In a way, this entire institution - hundreds of people - existed for him," said Jay Bush, CTC's former chief financial officer. "It seems like kind of an odd thing to say that there was this huge institution that was sort of at his beck and call."
Over the years, there were many occurrences that should have provoked the intervention of board members, staff, parents and actors, said Judge Porter. At rehearsals Donahue was often verbally abusive to kids and adult actors. He drank during rehearsals, sometimes to the point of blacking out. He belittled female students, calling them Betty or Sally rather than learning their names. Boys of seemingly marginal talent from Donahue's intimate cadre landed major roles. At parties in his home, minors routinely helped themselves to liquor. And rumors that Donahue slept with adolescent students were so pervasive as to have become a subplot in the town's mythology.
"Let's not forget, too, in terms of the adults, Donahue came into this thing with a record of losing a job as a teacher for molesting a student," Porter said. "I mean, the guy doesn't come into this job as a virgin. And that's known to the administrative people. If it wasn't, why the hell wasn't it?"
Simonson believes that the failure to confront Donahue stemmed, in part, from unconscious denial.
"You saw a wonderful, creative, magic kingdom. . . . You didn't want to see the monsters - only on the stage," she said. "And I think so often personalities, people who have gentle, wonderful personalties, you're taken in by them. And how many of us have two faces?"
Over the years two images of John Clark Donahue emerged, wrote Costello: "The public image was that of a gifted artistic director of rising national stature. The private one was of a man with a sexual attraction to adolescent males at his theatre. High CTC administrators had heard these rumors over the years and at one point even confronted Donahue, but he denied any sexual involvement with CTC students."
Secrecy was essential
In one deposition Donahue estimated that in the 19 years between 1965 and 1984 he was sexually involved with 16 underage boys at CTC. The relationships were overlapping and varied from a single episode to a sexual relationship begun when the boy was 13 and continuing intermittently for a decade. Another boy was 11 when Donahue made him the star of a show and initiated a liaison that the boy said included over 50 sexual encounters over three years, and that Donahue contended was perhaps five or six times.
"There was a part of me that always felt, `Oh, none of this will ever come to light while I'm still alive. It will be long after everybody's dead,' " said Kim Hines, a local playwright, actress and teacher, who as a child considered CTC a second home and has returned occasionally as an adult to teach or act.
"The sexual abuse, you know, it was very covert," she said in an interview. "John has always been a touchy-feely type. He'd throw his arm around a kid or call someone honey. He was just that way and he didn't think too much of it. Except we always seemed to know - some of us who'd been around a long time - we always knew when he was favoring certain people.
"Because the stuff was unsaid and because it was so subtle, we all bought into that and didn't say anything. Also, in a court of law, what are you going to say? They want hard evidence. They want proof."
Hines said that board members tried to gather such proof in 1978, when she was back at CTC working on "A Circle is the Sun." A private investigator visited Hines' apartment to question her, telling her that board members had hired him, hoping to finally substantiate or disprove the rumors. Hines said she later found it galling that board members denied any knowledge of Donahue's sexual involvement with kids.
"I suppose over a period of time, one or another board member in discreet whispers in the hallway or whatever would ask me if I thought John was ever doing anything inappropriate with children," said Ayers, who at the time was CTC's executive producer. Each time, Ayers said, he questioned Donahue about the allegations. Each time, Donahue denied them.
Later in a deposition, Donahue would deny that before 1982 anyone had asked him about his sexual interaction with juvenile males: "It's fair to say that I had no discussions or confrontations with any staff member on that subject or board member."
Denial and secrecy became essential components of Donahue's public life, as he privately struggled with sexual issues.
"I think for me the question of human sexuality is an ongoing consideration, one that is complex, remains somewhat elusive," Donahue said in a 1985 deposition taken in a lawsuit against him and CTC. Asked if he ever felt pain or guilt from his sexual choices, Donahue responded, "I have wrestled with that angel, yes. I grew up Catholic."
Donahue said he sought counseling in the late 1970s from psychologist Gerhard Neubeck at the University of Minnesota. Although the therapy lasted several months, Donahue said he did not tell CTC officials about the counseling or the emotional distress he was experiencing. While homosexuality was hardly rare in the theater community, Donahue explained in the deposition, "I think, however, it is not generally embraced, if that's the right word, in the educational world."
Boys warned newcomers
By 1981 the educational world at CTC expanded from its part-time school, intern and community school programs to include a full-time conservatory school.
As a CTC student and actor, Steve Huke was part of Donahue's inner circle and after Donahue's arrest rallied to his defense. Huke now works with adolescent sexual-abuse victims in Salt Lake City. He has come to view the environment at CTC under Donahue as the classic set-up for child abuse and agreed to talk about it in hopes of helping others prevent child abuse.
"He would work on the kids for months - these were initial contacts - then he made gentle advances that he could later say were misinterpreted," Huke said.
During the time Huke was at CTC the boys developed an early-warning system in which they cautioned newcomers to look out for Donahue's sexual advances. Boys were warned once. After that, they were on their own.
"Even though it was common knowledge among many students at the theater that John seduced young boys, I don't think it occurred to any of us that we could change that situation," Huke said.
"Personally, I believed that any boy who became involved with John was making a choice to do so and there was no need for me to rock the boat as long as he left me alone.
"Part of that was out of loyalty to the man whom I admired tremendously. But I also believe that many adults at the theater also overlooked his `relationships' with boys. After all, if it was so widely known among the students, I assume that the senior actors in the company must also have been aware of what was going on. Thus, my acceptance of the situation was reinforced by what I perceived as inaction on the part of the adults at the theater. Whether this was the case or not, I cannot believe that they did not at least hear the rumors and jokes that arose from our discomfort at the situation. Just as an aside, I recall that one of the jokes was, `How do you separate the men from the boys at Children's Theatre? Answer: With a crowbar.' That was the atmosphere.
"Now that I have some understanding of the dynamics involved in sexually abusive situations, I no longer believe that any of my peers chose to have sex with John. They were manipulated and taken advantage of by a powerful, charismatic and sensitive man."
Not only were normal boundaries between adults and kids nonexistent, but adolescents at the theater were a breed unto themselves.
"They were like `displaced' people - vulnerables who in the big discussions in our community meetings would say, `It's so much better for us here because the outside world doesn't understand us,' " recalled O'Donnell. "John would say, `They're making machines out of you. You need to think on your own. And you can do it here. And all of you will be great artists.'
"It was a place everybody could fit in, no matter what you were like. If you were gay or not," O'Donnell said. "Nobody cared who you slept with or how many people you slept with. Or what sexual orientation you were. It didn't matter. As long as you were part of the family, you were OK."
Kids paid for prestige
Ample evidence of sexual relationships between adults and students at CTC was provided in trials of the other defendants in the CTC cases, said lawyer and author Costello.
"What the police and prosecutors failed to recognize was that the CTC students did not consider themselves to have been exploited by this process, but rather to have taken advantage of the opportunities CTC offered to them to enhance and further their stage careers," Costello wrote. Student actors thought of themselves not as victims, but as willing participants in consensual relationships, Costello said.
In an interview, Costello said, "Adults around Donahue clearly knew that adult-adolescent relationships were taking place. They observed them and some of them participated in those. But they did not see that as sexual abuse."
One former Donahue protege, now 21 and living in another state, said he regards the sexual relationship he had at 15 with Donahue as a natural extension of the teacher-student relationship: "It wasn't passion. It wasn't like two lovers, but it was almost like exploring. And he was real gentle and didn't do anything more than fondling," the young man said. "It actually made me feel pretty special and that I was OK for having these feelings - the feelings of being gay."
Because the theater was a place where it was preferable to be gay, the young man said, he never suffered a traumatic "coming out" process that his contemporaries so typically confronted elsewhere.
That appears to correspond to Donahue's own view: "One of the things that I am very sensitive to is the difficulties that emerging adolescents with homosexual tendencies inside (face), even considering the idea as a possibility," Donahue said in a 1985 deposition. "And I made the mistake thinking that I could be helpful and useful in that regard - one of my blind spots."
Like Judge Porter, Kim Hines said she believes that there were concentric circles of people around Donahue who were in complicity. She has felt considerable Angst and shame wondering what she might have done to stop the abuse.
"And let me tell you something, because this has not come out: A lot of parents knew what was going on there," said Hines. She remembers parents pulling her aside, pleading with her to keep an eye on their children; friends had told them that their sons had been abused at CTC.
If they feared for their children, Hines would ask, why didn't they keep them out of CTC? " `This is a real prestigious theater company and it's known all over the world, and I want my child to be part of it,' " she remembers parents responding.
Hines also recalled several adult actors and actresses steering some of the more naive kids away from Donahue, saying: "I don't think you want to go over to John's," or, "I don't think you want to hang out at John's."
Within the theater community "everybody knew what was going on," said Martha Boesing. "They knew that John was sleeping with young boys. It was that explicit - that he was sexually involved with young boys who came through that theater. And that John wasn't the only one that was doing that . . ."
None sought to blow whistle
To comprehend what took place under Donahue at CTC, it is crucial to understand the creative riches the theater offered young artists, said Dan Conrad, who was so drawn to Donahue's ideas that he took a 50 percent cut in pay from his teaching job in Hopkins to become director of CTC's new conservatory school.
Donahue's genius lay in making complex ideas understood - perhaps not through the spoken word, but through music, light, rhythm and movement. His plays became emotional journeys.
"Did you ever see the play `Cookie Jar?' " Conrad asked. "That exemplifies the specialness that nobody else could bring to that theater."
At the time "Cookie Jar" was written, Donahue had made CTC home to many talented, inner-city black kids, who challenged him to present more realistic portrayals of blacks on stage. So Donahue assembled a group of black students at his home to write a play. But first he fed them.
Over the giant butcher-block table in his kitchen Donahue spread deli meats, cheese and juices. Then he pointed the kids toward books spread out all over his living room. "Let me show you some images I'm working with," he said, as interested in their opinions as he would be in an adult's.
"We said, `Oh you've got to have a running-the-dozens scene. It's when you get on somebody's case.' " Hines recalled. "And we started doing it for him and he said, `Wooooo. Let's run this again.' " As the kids improvised, Donahue scribbled notes. The more enthralled he became, the more the students were drawn into the collaboration.
The resulting multiracial play had at its heart the clash of values: the real and the spiritual against the superficial. Conrad was close to tears when he recalled the reaction of his aged uncle - a staid old Lutheran minister - when "Cookie Jar" ended with a triumphant celebration.
"The cast pours out into the audience, bringing cookies - real ones, home-made, not Twinkies - and invites the people up on stage. It was like a communion service: to drink lemonade and eat cookies." Conrad's uncle rose, tears in his eyes. He was the first in the audience to reach the stage.
"All the kids were hugging him. That doesn't happen in theater anymore. And he's crying. And they're crying. And something has broken down that has gone up beyond theater and it's gotten into sort of a more beautiful vision of what people can be," said Conrad.
Donahue had built this elaborate, internationally renowned institution. It supported a network of artists. Its board was well-connected. The plays were tremendous. And because the theater was run on kid-power, it was a bargain to boot. But it was a house of cards and the terror was that it would all come tumbling down, said Boesing.
"Nobody wanted to be the one who blew the whistle on John," she said. "I think it's essentially a cop-out on the part of everybody who was involved, including people like me, who knew and didn't say anything publicly. It's the same thing as the S&L scandal or Watergate or Iran-contra, the same phenomenon of watching these horrible things go on and not saying anything. . . .
"When the balloon finally breaks, you turn to a scapegoat," said Boesing. "And John was the obvious scapegoat in this situation, since he was the major perpetrator of the crime."
CTC officials tipped him off
"I had the strangest visit this morning," CTC executive director Sarah Lawless told then-board President Bill Powell over the phone.
The Oct. 18, 1982, visit was from BCA agent Paul Gerber. In the course of another investigation, a young male prostitute tipped agents off that he'd had sex with Donahue during a CTC summer program. Lawless told Powell that Gerber asked for access to students' names, cast members' names and their files. Lawless turned him down.
It appeared that the BCA was investigating Donahue. "We needed two or three people who had enough history with the theater and ones that we could trust, ones that wouldn't run off into their own direction and do unstable kinds of things like talk to the press," said Powell. He and Lawless convened a small group of key board members and CTC staffers.
Brought into that tight inner circle were board vice president Win Rockwell, chief financial officer Jay Bush, longtime board member Stanley Gregory and Al Cunningham, a lawyer from Rockwell's firm who had expertise in lawsuits involving child molestation. Powell said the group felt shocked and uncertain about what to do next.
In one of the most controversial actions theater officials were to take, they summoned Donahue that night to Powell's office downtown. Powell said he wanted to see Donahue's expression when Lawless confronted him.
"Is there anything behind these allegations?" Powell asked.
"Absolutely not!" Donahue said, looking them straight in the eye. Six times in half an hour, Donahue denied the allegations.
"He was mystified," Powell recalled. "He announced that this was absolute bullshit. There was no base for it. And we really pressed him on it. `Bill, don't worry. Would I do that to you? Would I do that to the Children's Theatre?' "
Donahue dismissed the allegations as the product of homophobia, reminding board members that it was commonly known that he was gay. In a perverse way, Donahue's homosexuality protected him, Lawless said. He could rely upon the protective instincts of longtime supporters who understood the societal bigotry that homosexuals confront.
Underlying their desire to believe Donahue, however, was fear that should word of the investigation leak out, it would destroy the entire CTC operation - a risk Powell made clear to Donahue that night.
"We said, well, there's an incredible threat to the whole function of the theater, the school, to the students, the parents, to everybody involved here, and that the community had accepted the Children's Theatre as one of its prize performing-arts functions and there was a lot hinging on this, and if it ever came out, the theater would be dead, and if it was true, it would be a disastrous thing affecting a lot of people in the community," Powell recalled later in a deposition.
Virtually every aspect of the way this small group chose to deal with the investigation came under fire: Informing the chief suspect that he was the subject of a BCA probe. Failing to inform parents that their children might be at risk. Balking at supplying information to the BCA. Failing to inform other board members, who might have favored other approaches and who were themselves put in legal jeopardy.
Powell said their attorney strongly advised against informing parents, warning that doing so might impede the BCA investigation. Further, the small group believed that the more people who were involved, the greater the risk of information leaking out. If word of the investigation reached the media, Donahue would surely face a trial by publicity, Powell said.
That night, board members suggested to Donahue that he take a sabbatical. But Donahue dismissed that notion, and the board did not press it.
As a cautionary measure, Jay Bush and Sarah Lawless were asked to spend more time walking around the theater, observing and talking with others. Privately, they quizzed Donahue's theater friends, said Powell. "People who we trusted and we felt they trusted us, gave us no clue."
Ultimately, the board allowed Donahue to function in the same unrestricted way as always. And in the year that followed, Donahue molested two boys, one of whom was O'Donnell.
"I think we made an incredible assumption - and I'm not sure if we ever talked about it - but I think that the assumption that we made was that John's instincts for self-preservation were such that given that he knew the BCA was watching him, after that kind of announcement, that the Children's Theatre was going to be the squeakiest-clean place you could ever imagine," Bush recalled. "Everybody sort of tip-toed through this period of knowing that you were in a fishbowl, with the BCA looking in."
Lawless, Powell and other board members said in interviews since then that they felt incredibly betrayed by Donahue. Their confrontation had given Donahue unqualified notice that if ever his behavior with students should be above reproach, that was the time.
"There's this school of thought that suggests that it was sort of suicidal on his part: that John wanted to bring all this on himself," said Bush. "I don't know that I subscribe to that. I think I just look at it as an incredible blind side on his part, which is hard to imagine in someone who is perceptive about other people's blind sides - that he could have had such a glaring one himself."
One student's experience
Five months later, after months of befriending O'Donnell, Donahue sexually abused him on an evening early in March of 1983.
In those days, theater students were routinely given tickets for the opening night of new plays. But O'Donnell, then 15, had missed the first performance of "Tom Sawyer" and was thrilled when Donahue invited him to view it from his glassed-in, mezzanine office overlooking the stage.
When he arrived at Donahue's office, Gary Costello was there drinking wine with Donahue. Costello was a CTC actor and teacher who lived with Donahue. Donahue locked the door behind O'Donnell and poured him a drink with gin in it. In interviews and a deposition, O'Donnell described the sexual episode that followed:
"The play began and John started moving his chair, positioning his chair closer to me. He then began to start rubbing my leg. I wasn't sure exactly what was going on," recalled O'Donnell. Then Donahue rubbed O'Donnell's penis through his sweat pants.
"I got scared. I got up and I went to the bathroom and dumped out my drink."
Throughout the two-hour play, Donahue continued to fondle O'Donnell, placing the boy's hand on Donahue's genitals and putting his finger in the boy's rectum, according to O'Donnell's deposition.
"I was very frightened because I knew it was wrong. But at the time, Gary could obviously see, he was right next to me. . . . He just kept watching the show and sipping his wine." After the play, Donahue asked O'Donnell to walk him home. "He acted as if nothing happened. I followed him home. I was worried about him because he was stumbling and he kept falling on me."
O'Donnell remembers Donahue locking the door of his Victorian house behind them and slipping the key into his pocket. As O'Donnell phoned his father for a ride home, Donahue disappeared briefly, reappearing in the sun room in a robe and briefs.
According to O'Donnell, Donahue then began kissing him, pulled down his sweat pants and "was masturbating himself with my hand. He ejaculated. . . .
"All of a sudden the front door opened. I looked and John was gone. I pulled up my pants and grabbed my bag." The woman who lived upstairs had let herself into the house. O'Donnell ran from the house, feeling sickened and ashamed. In front of Children's Theatre his father would be waiting.
In depositions, Donahue would claim that Costello couldn't have seen anything earlier in his office: It had been too dark. O'Donnell said this was the first time that Donahue sexually molested him. He said he came to associate Donahue's advances with times that Donahue had been drinking heavily and avoided him at those times. Nevertheless, in the next year there were two other incidents in which Donahue molested him, O'Donnell said. In depositions, however, Donahue admitted to only two.
T.J. finally talks
Violent sexual images began appearing in the journal that O'Donnell had kept since junior high. He illustrated the writings with pencil sketches of bodies that were never whole.
He could not reconcile the pain he was experiencing with the profound feelings he had for Donahue. So he began drinking and using drugs. And he pushed the sexual episodes with Donahue to the back of his mind.
Most of the time O'Donnell spent with Donahue he treasured. Sometimes in the afternoons, O'Donnell would pose as Donahue sketched him. He could listen for hours as Donahue, a consummate storyteller, expounded on myth and the theater, art and life.
"John would let me do whatever I wanted to do. I drank with John. I smoked there - that's where I picked up this lousy habit," O'Donnell smiled, flicking ashes onto a saucer. "I could get high and not worry about anything. If I didn't want to take this class and I wanted to read this book, I could do that. I was amazing. . . . There were months that I didn't go to school at all. I'd just hang out in the park and read fairy tales."
Tentatively at first, O'Donnell hinted to a few friends that he'd been molested - testing the waters to see if someone would help. But nothing happened. Finally, O'Donnell told a female friend more explicitly that he had been molested. And she told the BCA. After 1 1/2 years spinning its wheels, the BCA's investigation was finally heating up. On April 4, 1984, O'Donnell gave his statement. Two days later three other victims met investigators at what is now the Bridge, a facility for runaway youth, to give their testimony. Their stories - of locked doors, booze, seduction, youthful ambivalence and adults who looked the other way - were strikingly similar.
After so many years of silence, someone talked openly about the abuse. And the people who chose to protect the children turned out to be the children themselves.
On the 10 o'clock news
Through the afternoon of April 18, Ann Barkelew, a new member of the CTC board, had been getting messages from Bill Powell about a special meeting. But Barkelew's day was packed and she hadn't had a chance to get back to him.
That evening, at the College of St. Thomas' press night, Barkelew sat next to a KSTP reporter, who whispered that she had to dash to an 8:15 p.m. news conference. As Dayton Hudson Corp.'s vice president for public relations, Barkelew had held her share of news conferences. Who on earth would hold one at that hour?
Children's Theatre, the reporter replied. That afternoon John Clark Donahue had been arrested for sexual abuse of children.
"You've got to be kidding!" Barkelew said. "I'm on the board of Children's Theatre. I went to a phone and called Sarah Lawless and got her answering machine. And I kept leaving messages. I said, `Sarah, what have you gotten me into?' "
On the 10 p.m. news that night, film footage was broadcast of Donahue being led away. The brim of his hat was pulled over downcast eyes. And he appeared to shrink into the collar of his trenchcoat.
For many viewers, that dark image of a cloaked figure scurrying down a hallway neatly fit the stereotype of a child molester. "Central casting could not have done a better job. . . . He looked evil," said Barkelew, who would become a central figure in CTC's recovery.
During the following months that film footage was pulled out of the can for nearly every story on Children's Theatre. Barkelew cringed every time she saw it. And she told herself that the first time WCCO-TV aired a piece on the theater without it, she'd know the theater had entered a new era.
Monday: As Children's Theatre struggles to survive and Donahue is sent to jail, CTC students face the loss of their leader. Kay Miller, 41, has been a staff writer with the newspaper since 1978. She is an Iowa native, and has a master's degree in journalism from American University in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared frequently in Sunday magazine during the past few years.
This series was supervised and edited by Linda Picone, deputy managing editor/features. Editors were Marilyn Hoegemeyer, assistant features editor, and Sharon Hodge and Maurice Hobbs, copy editors. Esther Malabel designed the cover pages. Artist Mike Reed created the illustrations.