"So, T.J., you spilled your guts!"
T.J. O'Donnell stepped off the school elevator and into the bitter gibe a classmate had shouted down the Children's Theatre Company hallway.
It was Monday morning and O'Donnell's first day back at school from spring break - just five days after John Clark Donahue was arrested on charges of sexually abusing male students at the theater.
Unbeknownst to O'Donnell, KSTP-TV (Ch. 5) had displayed a copy of the criminal complaint against Donahue showing the initials of one victim: T.J.O. It was Donahue who had coined the nickname T.J. for Thomas James O'Donnell. The initials were distinctive - so much so that after the broadcast virtually everybody at school knew T.J. had told.
The silence surrounding O'Donnell at the theater school was immense and hostile. He was called a traitor. Most frightening to O'Donnell's parents, however, were the threatening phone calls at night.
Donahue's arrest on April 18, 1984, had hit the theater like a death in the family.
"Pinocchio," the final play of the 1983-84 season, was to open in three days. It was a large-scale production, and the adrenaline was already pumping as people scrambled to pull together last-minute technical elements, costumes, sets, lights and music. At that moment of chaos, Donahue was handcuffed and taken away.
"After the initial shock, everybody went into overdrive," recalled Alan Shorter, then music director. "It may sound terribly epic and noble, but it's true: Everybody rolled up their sleeves and said, `We're going to get this show up. And not only this show, but the theater must survive. It is bigger than any of us and more important than any of us.' "
So they worked harder than ever and shunned those who told.
"There was no support given to the kids who had given honest information," said parent Ina Haugen. "And even parents - there were parents who were angry: `This is ruining my child's school year. Why did they have to come and arrest him now and ruin my daughter's junior year in high school? John's such a genius. So what if he did that? So what?' People said things like that."
By the time staff, students and their families assembled at the theater Monday morning to be briefed, CTC had already hired counselors Jane McNaught and Joel Peskay.
"We would go into sessions with the therapist, and people would talk about how terrible these kids were to talk - that these kids obviously were not getting the parts they wanted in the plays," said John Humleker, then assistant to the executive director. "The therapists would let that go for a while and . . . finally would say something to the effect of, `Let's just play for a moment and say that these allegations are true.' And some of the people responded by saying, `Then they should have been dealt with in the family!' There was a lot of contention that, `These kids are very seductive, they're very advanced. We treat them like adults.' "
That early therapy should have provided students with a haven, but it didn't, said Dan Conrad, former director of CTC's conservatory school. Some students did not know what constituted abuse. And they feared telling therapists about their experiences, lest that information would be used against Donahue, said Conrad. McNaught and Peskay told students that they were mandated by law to report anything that sounded like abuse.
"I think they (the therapists) assumed that we had a lot of kids who were thrilled to be rescued from this horrible situation," said Conrad. Instead, students saw their beloved theater under attack by outsiders, he said.
Every kind of involvement with an older person became suspect. Many of the adult-child relationships at CTC supplied children with the closeness, skills and support that the kids didn't get elsewhere, said Conrad. "Just to call it abuse doesn't fit with what I saw and experienced."
Dixon Bond, a CTC board member at the time of Donahue's arrest and now one of its governors, said, "A lot of these kids really saw their futures being strongly affected by what was happening to the theater. They had seen that as a way to grow into the arts. Now they saw that going down the drain."
Ostracized, O'Donnell exits
When T.J. O'Donnell talked to BCA agent Campion he had one goal: to stop the abuse.
He did not foresee that Donahue would be jailed, the theater jeopardized and the school eventually closed. Most of all, O'Donnell did not grasp that he would lose his school, his friends, the theater and his life's great teacher.
Within days the ostracism at CTC became unbearable. O'Donnell remembered Wayne Jennings, the director of education, looking relieved when he asked to transfer to Central High School in St. Paul.
When O'Donnell left the Children's Theatre School for good, the last person he saw was Conrad. Not only had Conrad been tireless in striving to make the Conservatory School work, he was among the few at CTC who showed O'Donnell compassion after word of his testimony leaked out.
"Everybody was gone out of the office," O'Donnell remembered, "and Dan was at his desk with his hands cupped over his face - crying."
Donahue begins therapy
In the days following Donahue's arrest, therapist Bill Seals got a call from lawyer Peter Thompson: Would Seals be willing to treat Donahue?
Seals specialized in sexual-abuse therapy and housed his practice above Thompson's law office in south Minneapolis. Though Seals had treated hundreds of sex offenders, Donahue was his first high-profile case. On April 24, six days after his arrest, Donahue began treatment.
"Before we started therapy . . . he said, `I've got years of talking to do,' " Seals recalled. "He had never been able to confide in anyone about it - his homosexuality - or feelings of insecurity or anything else."
Donahue was tremendously fearful and depressed. He questioned whether he had anything left to live for, said Seals.
"Here's a man who was internationally renowned for his work in the theater, particularly with children," Seals said. ". . . Inside he's carrying around a terrible, deep, dark secret. And all of a sudden, in one fell swoop, everybody - in his mind - hated him and wanted to punish him very much. I think the thing that bothered him most was the revelation of the guilt and shame: Everybody would know."
His parents were in their eighties then. John was their only living child. As his fame in the theater had grown, so had their pride in him.
"The embarrassment to his family was real important. He knew he was going to lose his job and possibly his career. He knew that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million people would know - I mean we're talking New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN."
Donahue knew that other convicts sometimes terrorize people who have sexually abused children. That terrified him, too, said Seals.
Fearing that Donahue was suicidal, Seals referred him to a psychiatrist who admitted Donahue to Eitel Hospital's psychiatric ward where psychiatric evaluations were done that later would be used in his defense.
Strategy for CTC's survival
Every day at CTC was a crisis. Editorials called for CTC to close its doors. CTC officials were barraged with inquiries from the news media, angry questions from parents and funders and an ongoing criminal investigation.
For a brief period, Ina Haugen served as a parent representative to the board and attended one of its first post-arrest meetings. "The biggest shock to me was the board member whose question was, `Do we have to check on our insurance? Are we going to be liable here if kids sue us?' It wasn't, `How are these kids doing? What is the situation for these kids?' "
Haugen lived near Children's Theatre. Her home had become a place where her daughter's CTC friends could grab a bite to eat and find a sympathetic adult ear.
As one of the parents who pressed CTC officials for accountability, Haugen was soon labeled one of the "dissident" parents, she said. "It wasn't that we wanted to destroy the theater, but we wanted someone to care about these kids. We wanted some support for them," she recalled.
Haugen became so troubled by the disparity between what she heard and saw at the theater and what the theater put out for public consumption that she began keeping notes, she said. "Every parent got a call from the school saying, `Do not talk to reporters,' " Haugen recalled.
To Christine Wartenberg Tendle, an artist and parent of two CTC students, it appeared that "the board's only concern was to come out looking clean." It seemed to her that the board's first goal was protection of its members and its public image. Second was preservation of the institution, and a distant third was concern for the lives of people involved in the institution - including students and staff, Tendle said.
The task of holding the theater together was enormous. Ann Barkelew, who had joined CTC board just weeks before Donahue's arrest, became one of its most articulate defenders.
"After this had happened, everyone said, `Oh, well, we knew that there were things going on over there that weren't quite right.' Everyone in town knew it,' " said Barkelew. "I got to the point that I wanted to say, `Where is this person called Everyone?' because it simply wasn't true." At the time of Donahue's arrest, the theater was completing one of the most successful seasons in its 20-year history. Ticket revenues had grown 34 percent in three years. Attendance averaged 85 percent of capacity. And CTC had just secured a national television contract with Taft Broadcasting.
However, Barkelew and the theater's other allies had before them a muddled mess. Prosecuting attorney Robert Lynn described the Donahue-run theater as "a pretty sick place." Finances were in dismal shape because the board had allowed Donahue to accumulate a $345,000 deficit. Kids were hurt, angry and confused. And no one knew what Donahue would do - plead guilty or fight the charges.
All the big Twin Cities arts organizations immediately rallied around CTC, calling Sarah Lawless, then executive director, with offers of help. Donors offered unsolicited funds for CTC's legal defense.
The day after Donahue's arrest, CTC named Jon Cranney acting artistic director. Cranney was well-known within the Twin Cities theatrical community, having worked for 13 years in management and production at the Guthrie Theatre. While he had known Donahue since their days at the University of Minnesota, had acted at CTC and had helped produced six CTC tapes for a television company, he was far from a Donahue insider. He had joined CTC nine months before as a producing director. By June 26 actress Wendy Lehr would be appointed acting associate artistic director.
"Within 24 hours we had a plan put together as to how we would keep the theater from disappearing," Barkelew recalled.
At the core of that strategy was a public-relations campaign to convince the public that Children's Theatre was going to extremes to protect children and that it was too valuable a community asset to let die, said Dennis Mathisen, who became a major player in saving CTC. A lawyer by training, Mathisen was the partner of corporate takeover specialist Irwin Jacobs.
"Within about two weeks Sarah Lawless and the then-executive committee of the board knew that they had to have some oversight group that would have a degree of credibility within the community," said Barkelew.
No matter what board members had known beforehand of Donahue's transgressions, they now lacked the credibility needed to win the public support essential to CTC's survival, Bond said.
The solution was the creation of an interim executive board - composed of four prominent community members and five relatively new members from the existing CTC board. This board ran the theater and directed a major reorganization of it.
One of the most important elements of the public-relations strategy was the complete severing of Donahue from CTC. This was accomplished, even as Barkelew forcefully argued publicly that he must not be condemned before he was proven guilty. Immediately after his arrest the board met in emergency session and suspended him. Then it sought, and on May 11 received, his resignation.
Photographs of Donahue were removed from theater walls. A recently completed portrait of him was stored away. And Donahue's name disappeared from CTC's promotional literature.
"When people would want to talk about John Donahue, we'd say, `We're not here to talk about John Donahue. We're here to talk about Children's Theatre today. It's in the hands of the court,' " recalled Barkelew.
By separating Donahue from the theater, the implication was that he was the problem - the only problem.
As BCA agents tried to solidify their case, however, they ran into tremendous resistance from parents, students, the CTC board and staff. Mike Campion of the BCA said that lack of cooperation caused the Hennepin County attorney to convene a grand jury on the case in July 1984.
"Some (parents) were truly ignorant," said BCA agent Joel Kohout. "Some of them who had been around a long time had heard the rumors and figured they weren't true or something would have been done." While some parents were very helpful, others said they didn't care what Donahue had done with boys because they had daughters, she said.
Problems arose in trying to interview CTC staff members, some of whom were about to be charged, said Kohout. "There was this whole can of worms where someone would be real uncooperative and deny everything about Donahue, and you'd find out later, no wonder he denied everything because now it's alleged that (a student) was abused by this teacher."
Through the summer, Cranney, Barkelew and other interim board members visited dozens of CTC's major funders - including Dayton Hudson, St. Paul Companies, 3M, First Bank, Pillsbury, General Mills and the Atherton Bean Foundation - outlining plans for CTC's recovery.
"And in every case, they would ask questions like, `How is it possible that the board was so dumb that they didn't know all this was going on?' " Barkelew remembered.
Is it possible that actors and the staff did not know?
"That's a question we've all asked," said Joe Foss of the interim board. "The answer will never be known. . . ."
Privately the interim board conducted an internal investigation. If Donahue had sexually abused children, had other staff members as well?
"We interviewed every one of them," Mathisen recalled.
Within four days of Donahue's arrest, two of the CTC staff members under investigation were suspended and two took leaves of absence.
Satisfied that its housecleaning was done, the interim board turned to rebuilding the battered organization.
Donahue's friends deluded
Bill Seals was concerned. Never in therapy had Donahue denied doing things that hurt kids. Outside Seals' office, however, Donahue surrounded himself with friends who were immersed in denial - "sincere delusion," Seals called it.
"And I think some of them did him a disservice by saying he was innocent," Seals said.
The role of denial is a common one in dysfunctional systems, said Cordelia Anderson, of Illusion Theatre's sexual-abuse prevention programs. "In this culture we believe that if we just don't talk about painful things, they'll go away . . . which of course was the basis of the abuse in the first place - the secrecy and shame."
With Donahue's knowledge, Seals met for two hours with ten of Donahue's closest friends.
"If you people want to be his friends and be supportive of him, you have to accept the fact that he was a good man who did some real bad things," Seals remembered telling them. "And if you want him to get healthy, you have to believe that and not continue to deny, because he's not denying anything."
When Donahue's friends implied that it was the kids who had seduced Donahue, Seals said he challenged that as nonsense. Donahue was the adult. It was up to him to draw boundaries to protect, not exploit, the adolescents' budding sexuality, Seals said.
"Some of those people were using him for their jobs. Some of those people had him up on such a pedestal - and he allowed them to put him up there - that they simply could not accept the fact that he was a fallible human being."
Plays for artistic power
Meanwhile, a tremendous internal struggle was underway for artistic control of CTC. "It's almost like there were camps of people. There were those who were the true believers and those who immediately began working with Jon (Cranney)," Barkelew recalled.
Playwright Tom Olson, one of the few longtime staff members to say that what Donahue had done was wrong, and Alan Shorter soon formed an artistic triumvirate with Cranney.
The interim board understood that CTC's survival depended on massive changes in its operation. Yet, the board members did not want the artists to feel they were becoming part of a bureaucratic institution, said Barkelew. Altogether, six CTC people, including Donahue, would be arrested and charged with criminal sexual conduct or failure to report it. With each arrest, the artistic group and the staff members who had been in it since the beginning "drew closer together in protection of what was," Barkelew said.
Dozens of staffers and company members met privately, holding heated debates over who should be chosen as artistic director. "Bain (Boehlke, who was associate director under Donahue and had been at the theater for 19 years) was rather vocal about his wish to lead the company," said Shorter. "He was very much for staying with the traditions of the company."
Boehlke received a majority of straw votes. Only two people backed Cranney, Shorter among them. "You can talk art all you want," Shorter said. "But if the door closes and people don't come in, it's not going to exist at all."
Director makes difference
"I think the most critical period was when Sarah left," said Barkelew. While Lawless' early efforts to rally support were credited as being crucial to saving CTC, she was also among the officials who took the most blame for the ineffectual response to the BCA investigation. On June 26, she resigned to take a job with the Denver Center Theatre.
Lawless' departure created an opening for an interim administrator. John B. Davis Jr., who was a member of the interim board, accepted the job.
"A lot of people said it was a stroke of genius to get John Davis to do that because he walked on water," said Barkelew. As superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, Davis had shepherded the system through desegregation. He became president of Macalester College when its funding was on the minus side of minus and wooed back its chief benefactor. As an interim board member of CTC, Davis was familiar with its problems.
On a beautiful fall day, he stood before 121 CTC students assembled for the new school year and exhorted them to "become critics who can separate right from wrong." Said Davis: "Only as we as individuals pay personal attention to our actions, with commitment to the common good rather than to personal whim and fancy, will this tired old world become a better place."
That speech came nearly six months after the scandal broke, and was the closest anyone at CTC had come to publicly acknowledging that bad things had happened there.
"If we were ever going to make any progress, you had to admit that something had gone wrong," said Barkelew. "Some people were continuing to live with their heads in the sand."
In the year following Donahue's arrest, Davis learned that a male teacher was involved with an underage female student, confirmed it with the girl and fired the instructor, Davis said. After Davis learned that a male theater staff member was also involved with a student, he confronted the staff member, who, under pressure, resigned from CTC.
Cranney, company carry on
From a strictly strategic point of view, it was fortuitous for Children's Theatre that Donahue was arrested in the spring. CTC's season was almost over. Fund-raising for the year was virtually completed. And Donahue had all but finalized the 1984-85 season.
That fall, Cranney went ahead with Donahue's selections, with the exception of "The Little Prince." Almost everybody in Donahue's old acting company pulled together to produce the season.
Cranney set up his own multi-pronged strategy to get the theater beyond CTC's white walls and to dissolve the clannish insularity that characterized CTC. In 1985, he started a touring program - the first in a decade - sending CTC plays on the road to midwestern towns and two small-scale productions to the Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul.
Cranney also brought in well-known designers, playwrights, directors, lighting experts and other artists from the regional and national theater scene.
Families continued to attend CTC productions that first year, albeit in slightly lower numbers.
"Before this incident, I'm sure that only 10 percent - certainly less than 25 percent of the population - even knew there was such a thing as a Children's Theatre," said Cranney. After the scandal, however, Children's Theatre Company was a household name.
While some of Donahue's ensemble pieces had been flops, others were soaringly beautiful works. During the first season without Donahue, reviewers noted fewer high and low notes in the season.
Where, critics asked, had the old magic gone?
Donahue plea agreement
On Oct. 1, Donahue pled guilty to three counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was 46 and battered by 5 1/2 months of public vilification, which left him 30 pounds lighter, and drawn.
"I've spent my life devoting my energies to young people," Donahue told Judge Charles Porter. "And while I have made mistakes, I believe that I have in the main been concerned for their growth and development as young professionals and for positive development in general, their whole being. And I would like to think that this (plea) would be a much more graceful way to handle the situation as far as they're concerned."
Before Donahue's sentencing, Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson asked T.J. O'Donnell and the other victims, "What do you want to happen to John?"
"I immediately said, `I don't want him to go to jail!' And that's the stupidest thing I could have said," O'Donnell said. "He should have gone to jail for at least a year or two or three. But he should have been in jail. And I'm still angry at Tom Johnson.
"It would have been hard on me testifying, but I had given up everything. Everything! I had nothing left to lose."
Because of the plea agreement, O'Donnell didn't have to testify. Under the agreement Donahue was sentenced to serve a year in the Hennepin County Workhouse and complete therapy with Seals. His 15-year probation, which was to follow, barred Donahue from any unsupervised contact with children, and foreclosed him from involvement with Children's Theatre. Donahue pledged to do everything possible - through writing, research and public speaking - to help prevent child sex abuse. Beyond his court appearances, however, Donahue has never spoken publicly about what happened at CTC or about child abuse.
Porter's acceptance of the plea bargain was based on Seals' assessment that Donahue was amenable to treatment. Seals said that Donahue had addressed issues of sexual abuse in an open and forthright manner and that he accepted full responsibility for his actions and felt remorse toward his victims.
Donahue's guilty plea cleared the way for healing to begin on many fronts. Victims could move ahead with their lives, and it removed the possibility that Donahue could return to Children's Theatre soon - if ever.
"I think one of the reasons that the institution was able to survive was that Donahue was ultimately convicted," said Joe Foss. "That allowed us to then say, `Is there enough left on the bones of this carcass to rebuild it?' "
His time in the workhouse
For his protection Donahue was segregated in a special cell at the county workhouse. But inmates knew he was there. They clanged on the bars, screaming vile, threatening things down the echoing corridors.
After about a month, other inmates gradually sought Donahue out. Tentatively, they asked about the theater. And as he had always done, Donahue began teaching. He taught some inmates to paint and helped others who were illiterate write letters home.
In January of 1985 attorneys showed up at the workhouse to take depositions from Donahue for lawsuits filed against him and CTC. In the depositions Donahue said that during the three years preceding the BCA probe he had tried to curtail sexual relationships with minors. When he became sexually involved with T.J. O'Donnell, Donahue said in the deposition, "I fell off the wagon, as it were."
"Because you couldn't help yourself?" one lawyer asked.
"Well, may I be frank with you? . . . I take full responsibility, you understand. I was very aggressively approached by T.J., and I had been drinking at the time, and I responded, and I should not have, and I take responsibility for that, and that's why I pled guilty to it. . . .
"My ego was involved, too. I responded to his aggressive behavior, the fact that he sent me two love letters, and he was physically aggressive with me. I allowed myself to respond to that, and I never should have done that, because I was working on not doing that.
"I don't want to put the blame on him," Donahue told the lawyer. "I am merely sharing his actions."
O'Donnell is disillusioned
Not until T.J. O'Donnell read those words, did he understand the depths of Donahue's betrayal of him.
Donahue had been sexual with him on three occasions, O'Donnell said. "I just did it because I really loved him and I thought that's what I needed to do to take care of him. I remember walking him home, with him leaning on me because he couldn't stand up, almost dragging him to his house. But I really thought that he needed me, you know?
"And in his deposition, he said, `Mr. O'Donnell - what was the word he used? - was "aggressively pursuing" me.' What a coward! What a coward! That's like beating a child! How much guts does it take to do that and then deny it? I would have had so much more respect for him had he come out and said, `Yes, I did this.' But he didn't. He didn't.
"After reading his deposition, I then became disillusioned. And I remember crying in my psychiatrist's office, saying `I wish I didn't do it. I wish I didn't testify. I want it to be my fault.' "
For five years, O'Donnell saw therapist Susan Phipps-Yonas, all the while telling himself it was to please his parents, not because he needed help.
As intellectually and artistically gifted as O'Donnell is, he was both more mature and more naive than one might expect a 17-year-old to be, said Phipps-Yonas. He had idolized Donahue. When he grasped that he had been tricked into sexual compliance, his resulting rage came in exact proportion to the love and esteem he once felt for Donahue, Phipps-Yonas said.
Ultimately, O'Donnell sued Donahue and CTC's board, as did two other victims. Before his case went to court, CTC's insurers settled with him for an undisclosed amount of money.
It was difficult for O'Donnell to admit that he was a victim, he said. Hardest to resolve was whether what happened to him was abuse. When Donahue first abused him, O'Donnell was convinced that he could take care of himself.
"If that kind of thing happened to me today, I'd be able to defend myself. But I didn't have the tools to defend myself then. I'm not talking about physically, but mentally, being able to make those kinds of decisions.
"And that's where I think it's abuse and that's why I struggled with it for so long - was being powerless. . . .
"It's not just that abuse is illegal or it's some kind of religious taboo. There's a reason for it: As you grow, you learn how to defend yourself and you learn how to make choices." Tuesday: Once intertwined, the worlds of Donahue, CTC and O'Donnell diverge. And the man, the institution and the boy find separate ways to survive.