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Children's Theatre found negligent, not liable for teen's assault

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Laura Stearns, the plaintiff (second from right)
Laura Stearns, the plaintiff (second from right), speaks while flanked by her attorney Jeff Anderson (far right).
Marianne Combs | MPR News

A Hennepin County jury Thursday found that the Children's Theatre Company was negligent, but not liable for a sexual assault allegedly committed by one of its instructors against a teenage girl 35 years ago.

    Laura Stearns, 51, sued the theater saying it was negligent when it hired and retained Jason McLean, the man she says assaulted her when she attended the CTC school in 1983. McLean was never charged and has denied the allegations.

    After deliberating for less than a day, the jury ruled that theater was "generally negligent" in the time period before the alleged assault. However, jurors did not determine CTC was negligent in hiring McLean. And they decided that McLean, not the school, should pay a judgement of $3.68 million to Stearns.

    That's money Stearns doesn't think she'll ever see.

    "As we all know, McLean was allowed to sell his assets and flee the country," said Stearns a day after the verdict was delivered.        In a 2018 interview with Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine, McLean, who'd become a restaurateur, again denied the allegations and discussed selling his businesses and moving to Mexico.

    Officials with the theater do not defend McLean. In a statement, officials said they want "justice done" for any child victim of abuse.

    "The jury found that CTC was not negligent in supervising and retaining Jason McLean. The jury also found CTC was not liable because CTC did not directly cause the assault of Laura Stearns by Jason McLean," Children's Theatre Company said in a statement. "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."

    The alleged assault occurred in McLean's private residence, not on school grounds, and Children's Theatre could not be held responsible, theater attorney Theresa Bevilacqua said during the trial's closing arguments.

    Attorney Jeff Anderson, who is best known for representing clergy sex abuse survivors, represented Stearns. He said it was important for Stearns and other survivors who testified at the trial to come forward and talk about their experiences at the theater school.

    "Because the truth of what was done to Laura and so many other kids for so long, has never before been revealed until Laura and the other survivors had the courage to come forward," said Anderson.

    These are not the first allegations of sexual misconduct raised about staff at CTC. McLean and former artistic director John Clark Donahue have been named in other lawsuits.

    Donahue resigned from Children's Theatre Company 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.

    CTC maintains that it has always put the safety of the children its care at the top of its list of priorities.

    "We have a comprehensive set of practices designed to keep children safe," the CTC said in response to Thursday's verdicts. "Those practices have worked and they continue to be a centerpiece of our culture. This is an area in which we will never say 'Enough' but will instead strive to be better today than we were yesterday, and even better tomorrow."

    Stearns said it took her a long time to work up the courage to speak out. Ultimately, she said she was inspired by the women who came forward with sexual assault allegations against entertainer Bill Cosby.

"And I thought, if they can speak out about this powerful figure, I can speak out about my perpetrator and the institution that allowed him and other perpetrators to be successful in their abuse of me and my friends," said Stearns.