Lawsuit gives new life to decades-old sex-abuse scandal at Children's Theatre

Children's Theatre
The Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
Jeff Jones | MPR News

Updated: 5:48 p.m. | Posted: 9:09 a.m.

The Children's Theatre Company has become the latest institution to face lawsuits under the Minnesota Child Victims Act.

Two people sued the Minneapolis theater company Tuesday in Hennepin County District Court. Both say they were sexually abused by adults at the theater several decades ago.

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The suit alleges that the theater company was negligent in how it hired and supervised employees in the late 1970s and early '80s. That negligence, the suit claims, made the abuse possible.

Cases of alleged and substantiated abuse at the theater made big news in the mid-1980s. The theater's artistic director, John Clark Donahue, was arrested in 1984 on charges of sexually abusing children. He resigned and subsequently pleaded guilty to sexually abusing three boys.

For a while, it wasn't clear the theater company could survive the scandal, but it went on to rebuild itself into a successful organization.

The abuse claims made in Tuesday's lawsuit date back to that era. One of the plaintiffs said he was sexually abused by Donahue. The other plaintiff said she was sexually abused by another adult at the theater.

In response, the Children's Theatre released a statement that says, "While this development is unwelcome in the sense that it returns to the forefront events from a difficult chapter in our history, we stand with any victim of abuse in his or her desire to see justice done." It goes on to say, however, that the allegations are misdirected and that the theater was not negligent.

The statement also pointed out that the theater had put measures in place over the past three decades to make children safer. Those measures include mandatory background checks for every employee and a rule against children being alone in a private space with an adult employee or volunteer.

At a news conference announcing the suit, attorney Jeff Anderson — who's representing the plaintiffs — also emphasized the differences between the Children's Theatre of the '80s and the Children's Theatre of today. He said he thinks the organization is much safer for children now.

The lawsuit is being brought under the Child Victims Act, which gives victims more time to sue for old incidents of abuse. The act opened a three-year window for filing claims that closes six months from now.

Most of the claims filed so far have stemmed from alleged cases of clergy sex abuse, but plaintiffs' attorneys now are turning to other big institutions besides the Catholic church — the Boy Scouts, for example, and now the Children's Theatre.