Mpls. Children's Theatre faces new suits alleging '70s sex abuse

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

Updated 4:36 p.m. | Posted: 3:51 p.m.

Two new lawsuits have been filed against the Children's Theatre Company and one of the theater's co-founders by former students who say they were sexually abused.

The newest lawsuits have been filed on behalf of plaintiffs who were ages 14 and 16, respectively, when they say theater co-founder and former artistic director John Clark Donahue abused them in the late 1970s.

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The lawsuits filed in Hennepin County District Court argue that the theater allowed Donahue to work closely with children in the programs despite the fact that its leadership should have known Donahue was a danger to children.

"This is not about sex," said attorney Jeff Anderson. "This is about the power that the kids didn't have back then to share this secret and to be able to do more than they did, and the power that the adults had back then to choose to do the right thing and did not."

There have now been seven lawsuits filed by former students or actors from the Children's Theatre Company, according to Jeff Anderson and Associates. Four suits name restaurateur Jason McLean, owner of the Varsity Theater and Loring Pasta Bar in Minneapolis, who was an actor and teacher in the program in the 1970s and 1980s.

Attempts to reach McLean's attorney for comment were unsuccessful.

Three suits now name Donahue as a defendant and six specifically name the Children's Theatre Company.

Donahue resigned from the theater in 1984 after he was arrested on charges of sexually abusing children. He later pleaded guilty to sexually abusing three boys and served a 10-month jail sentence.

The Children's Theatre Company responded to the suits with a statement: "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. These goals are shared by the Theatre and — we believe — by every member of our community who understands and supports our mission."

Thomas Kelly, an attorney representing Donahue, said on Tuesday that he hasn't yet had time to examine the lawsuits. But Kelly said he will be reviewing them with Donahue and other attorneys.

One of the victims who filed a lawsuit anonymously in December came forward on Tuesday to tell his story.

Todd Hildebrandt, 53, said he's speaking openly so that Donahue understands the damage he caused through the abuse.

"I feel that what people don't really understand is that for survivors of child abuse, there's a direct link between child abuse and adverse adult outcomes," Hildebrandt said. "That's what I've been going through, having to manage ... depression, anxiety about the situation.""

The lawsuits are being brought under the Child Victims Act, which opened up a three-year window for victims of past abuse to sue. The deadline for filing a suit under that act is May 25.