On a rainy Sunday in August, Children's Theatre Company (CTC) celebrated its 50th anniversary at Target Field. Broadway star Laura Osnes, who honed her skills at the nation's largest theater for kids, serenaded 7,000 attendees with "Over the Rainbow."

Online, however, a distinctly different reunion was taking place — one that turned the spotlight toward the company's darkest chapter.

In a private Facebook group, dozens of CTC alumni traded painful memories of the sex-abuse scandal that shuttered the theater's conservatory high school three decades ago.

"CTC was like the fantasy island for wayward boys in 'Pinocchio,' " wrote one. "But, just as Pinocchio discovered that the island was not a fantasy … so too did so many of us discover the dark underside."

From the outpouring of wrenching stories — 50,000 words in all, enough to fill a book — grew a collective anger, and a sense there had been a miscarriage of justice.

In 1984 Children's Theatre co-founder John Clark Donahue pleaded guilty to molesting three boys who were students at the theater and served 10 months in jail. Others implicated in the inquiry won acquittal, had charges dismissed or were never arrested.

Years of bottled-up emotions are fueling a new wave of civil lawsuits — eight plaintiffs so far — over allegations involving the theater, Donahue and two former staffers.

"Our goal is not to take down what is good now" but to lift the "toxic silence" around past abuse, said the plaintiffs' attorney, Jeff Anderson, known for his work on behalf of Catholic abuse victims. CTC, he noted, now has a set of practices to protect students.

Todd Hildebrandt, 53, was among the first to file suit Dec. 1, accusing Donahue of sexual battery. "I didn't grow up with a father and saw John Donahue as a father figure and protector," said Hildebrandt, a CTC student in the mid-1970s. "John was reaching minds in front of the curtain. Behind the curtain, he was shattering them."

Donahue has declined to comment on the suits and is letting the legal process take its course, said his attorney, Thomas M. Kelly.

The state's lead investigator three decades ago admits his team's efforts fell short.

"I know there was more abuse than we ever got to the bottom of," said Michael Campion, who went on to become superintendent of Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the state Commissioner of Public Safety. "People didn't come forward for any number of reasons."

Former students say they were afraid to betray their teachers. They were told that the adults would be raped in jail. Most of all, they feared for the collapse of the theater itself, and of the personal dreams that brought them to CTC.

"We were kids and we were blamed by everyone for messing everything up," said Twin Cities choreographer Rosy Simas. "Inside the theater, we were blamed for seducing the adults, then blowing the whistle. [BCA investigators] blamed us for not cooperating."

Now the kids are grownups, many with children of their own. Facebook gave them a place to reconnect and share their stories. A few offered apologies for their behavior during the 1980s scandal, when whistleblowers were attacked by students defending their cherished community.

The Facebook group "was a big revelation," said Rob Shapiro, 48, an ex-student who now lives in California. "We circled the wagons at the time, and we circled the wrong thing, which was the institution and the adults, instead of each other."

Guilt, confusion and shame

In interviews with more than a dozen former students, the same themes come up.

CTC was an artistic wonderland. The students were the chosen ones in a world of philistines. They were appreciated only by their new family, with whom they were free to explore their creativity.

"I was immersed in the magic of that place and the level of complete freedom," said Kurt Johnstad, who wound up becoming a Hollywood screenwriter ("300"). "It was a life-changing thing."

Nearly all of the alumni express fondness for how their imaginations flowered at CTC. Donahue's model — having kids run nearly every aspect of a show — was innovative.

"If John were an astronaut, he wouldn't just be telling you about space, he'd load you up on the ship and take you there," said Hildebrandt.

At the same time, ex-students say Donahue created a cult of personality and ruled through fear.

"You would be publicly humiliated for any slipup," said Melissa Beneke, a plaintiff in one of the suits. "And you were expected to worship John."

Dan Conrad, principal of CTC's school from 1982-85, said Donahue "had this enormous, God-like power over [students'] lives and dreams. I saw him do astounding work in classes. But he couldn't even be bothered to learn the individual names of female students. He called them Betty."

Johnstad likened Donahue to a cult leader in the film "Apocalypse Now."

"John would sit on the stairs, in the red lobby, with his disciples. Once a year he would shave his head and he looked like Col. Kurtz, the [Marlon] Brando character. He would quote Rilke and Garcia Lorca. There was this magnetism about him."

In court depositions Donahue made in 1985, he estimated he was sexually involved with 16 boys at CTC since the theater's founding in 1965.

"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," he said in a deposition. "And I made the mistake thinking that I could be helpful and useful in that regard — one of my blind spots."

'No boundaries '

Situations like the one at CTC create an atmosphere where abuse is more likely, said University of Minnesota professor emeritus Pauline Boss, a child-therapy expert.

When an educational institution is driven by personalities rather than a formal set of standards, Boss said, the power imbalance between adults and children can grow more acute. Outside perspectives are treated as unwelcome.

CTC subsequently adopted a set of practices that include background checks of staffers; a ban on adults socializing with children outside official activities, and a "rule of three" requiring that no staff member or volunteer be alone with a student in a private space.

"We continue to support the efforts of those who have been victims of sexual abuse to have the truth known and to see justice served," the theater said in a recent statement.

But in the 1970s and early '80s, as investigator Campion saw it, "The place had no boundaries — none."

Work rules around children were virtually nonexistent, alumni say. Rehearsals lasted into early morning. And the students relished being treated like adults. At parties, they drank, smoked and took drugs alongside their teachers.

The same questionable dynamic applied to sex, said ex-student Shapiro: "In a regular high school, you have all that crap about who's dating whom, and everything is a life-and-death drama. In this case, the drama was real and the tragedy, too, because the adults were actively [having sex with] teenage kids."

Former CTC principal Conrad said he was unaware of the abuse. There were three distinct programs at the school, he explained. He oversaw academics during the morning. Afternoons were devoted to classes in dance, theater and singing. Then students worked on shows at night.

"I don't want it to sound like an excuse," he said. "I was shocked when I first heard the news about the abuse, dismayed and disgusted. I'd taught for 30 years and these were hands down the brightest, most curious and imaginative students I'd ever had."

Kids who spoke out during the investigation found themselves shunned. Rana Haugen, 47, a child star who spent 10 Christmases at Donahue's home, said she became a persona non grata after testifying to the grand jury to corroborate the stories of students who alleged sexual abuse.

"Many teachers wouldn't talk to me," said Haugen, who left CTC before graduating and now lives in California.

Still, she forced herself to attend last summer's reunion.

"Any time I revisited that part of my life, I felt like I was that age again," she said. "I didn't want it to continue to have a hold over me."

Denial and lies

The 1980s cases were prosecuted by Tom Johnson, now an attorney in private practice. "We brought charges wherever we had evidence," but the investigation was tricky, he said.

"There was one instance in which there was a child who we thought had been abused, but both the child and parents vehemently denied it. They pulled up stakes and moved to Chicago. Eight to 10 years later, the BCA agent got a call from the Chicago police saying the boy had committed suicide. The trauma around this is devastating and long-lasting."

In the 1980s, CTC settled three civil suits with undisclosed payouts. The new suits were filed under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, a 2013 law that lifted the statute of limitations on long-ago sexual abuse until May 24, 2016.

The plaintiffs speak bluntly about their conflicted emotions three decades ago.

Jeanette Simmonds, now a University of Minnesota academic adviser, told investigators in 1984 that CTC sound technician Stephen Adamczak had sex with her the year before, when she was 14.

However, Simmonds says that she did not view it as abuse at the time. She told a grand jury about the alleged sexual encounter and said she had been plied with alcohol and drugs, but when the case came to trial she testified that she could not remember having sex with Adamczak. He was acquitted. He died in 2007.

Simmonds now says she lied on the witness stand.

"I was a kid, filled with guilt, confusion and shame," said Simmonds, an Iowa native whose mother moved with her to the Twin Cities to support her dream of becoming a ballerina. "I wanted to protect the theater that I loved. I wanted to keep my family, which is how we thought of ourselves. And I didn't want to be responsible for Stephen going to jail, where he would've been gang-raped."

That fear was echoed by fellow plaintiff Beneke, one of four women who have filed suits alleging sexual abuse by former CTC leading man Jason McLean, who owns the Varsity Theater and Loring Pasta Bar.

"We were told that Jason would be gang-raped in jail," said Beneke.

Beneke says she and McLean had "what I thought was a relationship" for three to four years starting in her early teens. In her lawsuit, she says McLean "coerced" her to deny the abuse to the grand jury.

McLean denied Beneke's allegations in a court document filed in response to her suit. He has filed similar responses in two other suits.

Beneke is now a yoga instructor in Anchorage, Alaska. It's not the life she imagined for herself when she was at CTC.

"I went to the school with big dreams of becoming a dancer and actress, and they took that away from me."

The lessons learned

Children's Theatre has moved on from the scandal, winning a Tony Award in 2003. It built a new rehearsal room that is open and airy, in keeping with current artistic director Peter Brosius' leadership style. And the way it trains children is regarded as a model.

"They are the gold standard," said Twin Cities director Peter Rothstein.

Moving on also is the goal of the alleged abuse victims. Some say they've been in therapy for decades, with episodes of addiction and self-abuse.

"A lot of times young victims don't understand that what went on was abuse or exploitation until later," said Cordelia Anderson, an expert on child sex-abuse issues who facilitated a gathering of CTC alumni in the Twin Cities organized by former student Kristen Froebel; discussions also have been held in New York and Los Angeles.

"Their instinct is to protect the institution or their families. They become so traumatized that they get caught up thinking it's their fault or that they were in love. Sometimes young people think they're head over heels for someone, when in fact they're in over their heads."

Laura Stearns Adams, the first to speak out when she filed suit Dec. 1, was a class president at CTC's school. In her suit, she alleges McLean sexually abused her when she was 15. Now working as wigmaster at the Guthrie Theater, she continues to feel a leadership responsibility to classmates.

"At this point in my life, I probably have fewer years ahead of me than behind me," said Adams, 48. "I have to walk in truth. I can't live in silence or the shadows anymore."

Haugen, the former child star who left CTC after testifying, now has students the same age she was then.

"When I became a teacher, I realized that there are young boys, 14-year-old boys, flirting with me," she said. "As the adult, you have to hold the space, hold the boundaries. Trauma gets passed on unless you have an intervention where you say: This is the place where it stops."

Senior Arts Editor Tim Campbell contributed to this report.