Innocence Lost: A culture of abuse

Former Children's Theatre students find their voice, recount what happened to them

Pictures and drawings of children lined up as in a yearbook
Some survivors are open about their stories and shared photos from the time they were in the theater. Others prefer to keep their names and images confidential.
Composite image & illustrations William Lager | MPR News | photos courtesy of the subjects
Part 1: 'A culture of abuse'
by MPR News
Part 2: 'It was a cult'
by MPR News

Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis is being forced to revisit a grim part of its past as it works to resolve lawsuits that charge it with failing to protect young people from sexual abuse.

Much of the media coverage until now has focused on two former staff members: founder and longtime Artistic Director John Clark Donahue, who died in March, and company actor Jason McLean, who apparently fled the country in 2017.

But the abuse went far beyond the behavior of two men, say multiple sources. In extensive interviews with survivors and reviews of court testimony, MPR News has identified at least 20 adults who allegedly used their employment at CTC to abuse the young people who studied theater at the CTC school or acted in its productions. Dozens of young people who lived through the abuse have described the decades since as a long journey of recovery.

The outside of The Children's Theatre Company
The Children's Theatre Company
William Lager | MPR News

Their stories begin with a common theme: that life at Children’s Theatre in the 1970s and 1980s was both a dream come true and a nightmare.

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“It was the most magical, beautiful, sick place I've ever been,” recalled one female survivor.

“I think almost all of us will tell you that our experience at the Children’s Theatre was euphoric and horrific,” said another.

“CTC is a completely different place today,” said Kimberly Motes, the theater’s managing director. In an interview last week, she cited “much stricter and rigorous child safety policies and practices. We have zero tolerance for child abuse today.”

Over the first two decades of Children’s Theatre’s history — from its founding in 1965 to the mid-1980s — the company developed a reputation for creating extraordinary, lush productions. Children worked alongside seasoned professionals both backstage and onstage, bringing to life such classic tales as “Cinderella,” “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” and “The Little Match Girl.” Today it is regarded as the largest and most influential children’s theater in the nation; its website describes it as “the national leader in the field of theatre for young audiences and their communities.”

“It was the most magical, beautiful, sick place I've ever been.”

But the theater’s reputation took a hit in April 1984, when Donahue — the theater’s founder and guiding creative genius — was arrested by agents with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Prosecutors initially charged Donahue with abusing three boys. Eventually he admitted abusing 16 boys over the course of his 20-year tenure. He was sentenced to a year in a workhouse and 15 years’ probation. The theater then changed leadership and instituted new rules to protect children.

At the time of Donahue’s arrest, other staff were also suspected of abuse, but investigators had little luck getting students to come forward. BCA agents investigated actor Jason McLean, but he was never criminally charged or convicted. Several women now say he persuaded them to keep quiet or lie to investigators.

A woman wearing a gray shirt.
Laura Stearns
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I didn't want people to know what had happened to me because I was so ashamed that I had been duped and harmed, and I felt like I was responsible,” said former CTC student Laura Stearns. “I protected myself, I protected my family, and in turn I ended up protecting Jason, too, by default. And I really wish that I hadn't."

Stearns was one of the first of 17 former students to file suit against CTC or its former staff in a wave of legal action made possible by the Minnesota Child Victims Act of 2013, which temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for cases of child sexual abuse. Earlier this year, a civil jury found McLean liable in Stearns’ rape and awarded her $3.68 million. That's money she will likely never see, because McLean fled the country before the trial.

Of the remaining 16 cases, seven have been settled in recent weeks. CTC officials say they are working to reach settlements quickly in the remaining cases. “I can’t even imagine how hard it has been for the survivors,” Motes said last week. “This is why we are so focused on settling these suits in a fair and just way.”

Illustration of unnamed children

‘It was a cult’

Not all of the students who experienced abuse kept quiet, but some of those who spoke up paid a price. They say they were ostracized by teachers and by their fellow students. Some left the school.

Now, decades after the abuses occurred, some of the survivors are willing or able to describe their experiences. From the dozens of survivors interviewed by MPR News came the names of 20 different alleged abusers. They were actors, teachers and crew members. Some of the sexual assaults they allegedly committed were single occurrences; others went on for years.

A woman wears a pink shirt and stands outside.
Erin Nanasi
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Erin Nanasi said she was 15 when she asked sound technician Stephen Adamczak for a ride home after a rehearsal. Instead, she said, he drove past her house, parked the car and assaulted her.

"All I knew was that I had to get out of that car," recalled Nanasi. "I began kicking, and he began grabbing me."

Nanasi is not the only survivor who says she was abused by Adamczak; Jeanette Simmonds says he lured her to his house with a friend before raping her when she was 14. Simmonds and Nanasi say Adamczak has other victims who have not been public with their story.

Hennepin County prosecutors charged Adamczak in 1984 with criminal sexual conduct, but a jury acquitted him. Survivors say they either kept quiet or didn’t tell the whole truth because they felt the need to protect the theater. Adamczak died in 2005.

Not all of the abuse involved physical force. Survivors say statutory rape was common. Thirteen-, 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls were led to believe — or were allowed to believe — they were engaged in meaningful relationships with men in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

“We were also told how safe we were at Children’s Theatre.”

To be clear, sexual abuse was by no means a universal experience among CTC kids. But for a segment of the population, it was so prevalent that it became a matter of common knowledge – and a defining characteristic of what multiple survivors describe with the same term.

“I think we can identify it as a cult,” said one female survivor, “and the children were the sacrifice.”

“I actually see it as an out-and-out cult,” said survivor Jeanette Simmonds, with Donahue as its “charismatic leader.”

“It wasn't ‘a different time’ — we were being manipulated and brainwashed, and it was a cult,” said a third female survivor.

A woman stands in front of a column.
Jeanette Simmonds
Evan Frost | MPR News

In dozens of interviews, survivors described a system of isolation and manipulation that preyed on the vulnerable and shamed them into silence. Some of these survivors are public with their stories; others have requested anonymity. They say that, from their first moments with the company, they were made to feel different.

“We were very special people and the outside world was the outside world, and they were like the enemy,” said a female survivor.

“We were also told how safe we were at Children’s Theatre,” said Erin Nanasi. “That Children’s Theater was the only place that would ever really understand us.”

A Children’s Theatre rule in the early years helped foster that sense of isolation. All children were required to stay until a rehearsal was over, even if their part in the show was finished.

“We were staying till midnight and our parents were saying, ‘Where are my children?’ And the Children’s Theatre was saying, the faculty were saying, ‘Well, if you want your kid to be a professional, this is what you’re going to have to do,’” said survivor Jeanette Simmonds. “They were put in an impossible situation.”

At the urging of their children, many parents went along with it, allowing kids to sleep over at the houses of friends and teachers who lived closer to the theater. The students increasingly spent less time with their families, and more time with theater staff, including at parties.

“It was very normal for kids to go to parties with adults and drink and do drugs,” one survivor recalled. “Doesn't matter what age you are.”

‘Well, if you want your kid to be a professional, this is what you’re going to have to do.’

Another survivor recalled being drunk and collapsing on the front lawn of Donahue’s house when he was only 9 years old. Survivors say certain staff members would take advantage of students after getting them drunk or high.

Meanwhile, in theater classes, physical touch between adults and children was encouraged.

“That's one of the things that's tricky about working in the arts, is that you do kind of break down barriers and you become very vulnerable with each other,” said Laura Stearns. “The problem is those boundaries were really removed between adults and children, and when you do that it just makes the child feel like whatever is happening is normal. So if you see a teacher touching a student in an inappropriate way, it doesn't register as wrong. It's like, ‘Oh that's how you do it here.’”

One survivor recounted a class where participants played strip poker in order to get more comfortable with nudity. Small children shared changing rooms with adults; boys and men showered together. One survivor said a man walked into the girls’ changing room and commented on her naked body.

Survivors said abusers tested boundaries to see what they could get away with. They said abusers were savvy at choosing children who were particularly vulnerable — a child who had no father at home, who had low self-esteem or who had already been abused before coming to CTC. Some of those who endured abuse grew up to become staff members at CTC – and turned into abusers themselves.

Illustration of unnamed children

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‘Who was I going to tell?’

Those who experienced it say the abuse was so widespread it felt pointless to try and report it.

“Who was I going to tell? Was I going to tell John Donahue? No, because he’s already doing it, right?” said survivor Annie Enneking. “Me saying something wouldn’t do anything to change the system.”

One survivor said he did try to report it, only to be abused by the CTC staffer he confided in. In 1978 a Children's Theatre board member reported her suspicions of abuse to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. She brought students along who said that Donahue was abusing other children, but the students declined to name the victims. The case was transferred to the family violence division of the Minneapolis Police Department. After a few weeks with no progress, investigators dropped the case.

When Donahue was finally arrested in 1984, loyalty among students was so strong that even his own victims defended him.

One female survivor said, “Ranks just kind of closed up, and people were ostracized who said anything.” Added another: “I felt responsible for the theater’s survival.”

“Me saying something wouldn’t do anything to change the system.”

Such misplaced loyalty to an abuser is familiar to mental health professionals like Cordelia Anderson. She has been working to prevent child sexual abuse and exploitation since the mid-1970s. For part of her career, Anderson worked at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, where she helped prepare child abuse victims to go through the court system.

When the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was investigating the Children’s Theatre in the early 1980s, investigators asked Anderson to come in and talk to some of the child victims. She says she saw all the signs of traumatic abuse — but the children were nowhere near ready to talk about it, let alone testify in a courtroom.

“One of the dynamics is kids were very protective of the theater. In many cases they were protective of the person who harmed them. Sometimes they were quite confused about what happened. All of those are very typical, and dynamics of child sexual abuse,” she said. “Kind of like an incest dynamic, in many ways, where you have either super respect or love or admiration for the individual who abused you. And usually those folks are very good at somehow making it seem like it's your fault."

In recent years Anderson has worked with several adults who are former CTC students. She said those victims of abuse are still dealing with the trauma every day. Only now — 35 years later — some of them are in a place to talk about it.

Illustration of unnamed children

No one asked, 'How's your child?'

As a whole, survivors’ stories reveal that John Clark Donahue fostered a highly sexualized and permissive culture that attracted other abusers and emboldened increasingly sexual and violent behavior by staff and students. They also portray an administration that was inept at protecting children, and instead focused its energy on saving its reputation.

Ina Haugen, mother of survivor Rana Haugen, said she tried to sound the alarm at the time.

“I was allowed to go to one meeting of the CTC board after (Donahue’s) arrest,” she said, “and it really felt like their biggest concern was not how the kids are doing but what's our liability, what kind of insurance do we have? And never did any of us get a call saying, ‘How's your child, how's your daughter?’ My daughter had been there two-thirds of her life.”

Haugen said parents did get calls – telling them not to talk to reporters. When she and another parent attempted to attend a second board meeting, she said, they were escorted out.

"There's a difference between being legally responsible and taking responsibility.”

Children's Theatre's current management says it does not deny the abuse happened. However, it does not believe the institution is legally responsible — or liable — for the abuse.

"There's a difference between being legally responsible and taking responsibility,” said Motes, CTC’s managing director. “While we do not believe that CTC is liable, we have not let this stand in the way of our taking responsibility. We've apologized privately and publicly to the survivors for what happened to them by former employees. We have made commitments to action steps to help survivors and the community find peace, and we have worked — and are continuing to work — to provide settlements to each survivor that will help them to find resolution and healing."

In the only suit that has gone to trial — Laura Stearns' case — CTC's lawyers stated that the company did the best it could with the information it had at the time, and that it shouldn't be held responsible for a teacher's actions outside the building. A jury found the Children's Theatre was generally negligent, but did not find it financially liable.

In forums that range from sidewalk protests and social media posts to court filings and interviews, survivors say the theater is responsible — and has yet to be held fully accountable.

Were you a student at the Children’s Theatre Company and have a story to share? Contact Marianne Combs to share your story.

Edited by Eric Ringham and Laura McCallum. Photos by Christine T. Nguyen and Evan Frost. Illustrations and production by William Lager.