A Minneapolis jury on Thursday found the Children’s Theatre Company negligent but not liable for damages in the first civil trial arising from the theater’s 1980s child sex abuse scandals.
The same jury returned a $3.68 million verdict against Jason McLean, a former teacher at the school who was never criminally charged in the probe that sent theater leader John Clark Donahue to jail. McLean is accused of raping Laura Stearns and at least four other students. The former CTC instructor reportedly fled to Mexico in 2017 after selling his Twin Cities properties, the Varsity Theater and the Loring Pasta Bar.
Stearns, who brought the suit, spoke to reporters Friday at an emotional news conference at her lawyers’ St. Paul office.
“Yesterday, CTC was found guilty of negligence,” said Stearns, flanked by two other former students and fellow survivors, Jeanette Simmonds and Karen Hagen. “It validates our experience. … We as children … were not protected.”
The trial and news conference are ways to air the truth, said Stearns’ attorney, Jeff Anderson, best known for suing the Catholic Church on behalf of victims of abuse by priests.
“If Laura hadn’t had the courage to find the voice and stand up for the truth, this story would never have been revealed,” said Anderson. “It’s time for the voices to be heard … the truth to be known.”
CTC issued a statement Friday saying that it, too, wants “justice done and the truth to be known in these matters.”
The jury found the theater negligent for “failure to exercise reasonable caution in the care of children,” Anderson said, adding that “anyone running a school would be expected to be vigilant in watching over their welfare.” But in its statement, the theater was careful to point out the blame placed on McLean. “The jury found that CTC was not negligent in supervising and retaining Jason McLean,” it said. “The jury also found CTC was not liable because CTC did not directly cause the assault of Laura Stearns by Jason McLean. As a result of this verdict, CTC owes no damages in this case. We accept the jury’s verdict and wish Ms. Stearns success in her efforts to collect the jury’s award from her abuser.”
Anderson said Friday that he has 15 other CTC-related cases ready to go to trial. All of the civil cases arise from the 1980s scandal and were made possible when Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Minnesota Child Victims Act in 2013, extending the statute of limitations on past sex crimes.
Whether all of the cases go to trial is an open question. This first trial establishes some facts, said Anderson, including that CTC “was found to be negligent.”
Stearns said the trial and the verdict have given her a sense of power. The energy that she used to suppress her truth can now be channeled into something more positive, she said.
She’s advocating for change in how victims of sexual abuse are treated. “The judicial system is broken in its handling of survivors of sex crimes,” Stearns said. “The most vulnerable parts of us are poked and prodded and scrutinized and judged. … We’re not the crime scene.”