When a group of former students reached settlements with Children’s Theatre for the sexual abuse they endured decades ago, they received undisclosed sums of money.
But justice? That’s more elusive.
As students at Children’s Theatre, some of the plaintiffs were assaulted a single time; others, repeatedly, over a period of years. Either way, they describe effects that lasted for decades: periods of depression, thoughts of suicide, attempted suicide, eating disorders, nervous breakdowns, night terrors.
Some say their experience at Children’s Theatre has affected their ability to function in society or live a normal life. A male survivor described himself “as an adult, having a conversation with another adult in a professional setting and constantly being on the alert to see if this person is actually trying to hit on me, or wants to have sex with me, or anything like that — always being on the guard for it.”
As a female survivor put it: “I sometimes sit back and wonder who I might have been if I had just gone to a regular school — wasn’t taken advantage of from age 11 to 17.”
Given the pervasive nature of the trauma and its aftereffects, what justice could the settlements offer?
I sat down recently with some of the former plaintiffs around a dining room table in the home of Laura Stearns, the only survivor whose lawsuit actually went to trial. They can’t discuss the financial details of their settlements, but some said the money isn’t all that important.
More important, they said, is that the settlements acknowledged their pain and suffering.
"This legal process has given me validity of the damage that has been done to me,” said a male survivor. “And in a way, a lot is just resurfacing and I still have a lot to work through.”
Around that dinner table and in other interviews with survivors, I’ve heard many different descriptions of what justice might look like. At least one survivor would like the theater shut down. Others want the whole truth of the more than 20 years of abuse to be told, including the names of all the abusers who were employed by the Children’s Theatre Company.
“We have perpetrators that are still in the Twin Cities theater community working,” said survivor Jina Penn-Tracy.
“Working and respected,” added Stearns.
“And it’s not OK,” said Penn-Tracy.
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For survivor Jeanette Simmonds, justice would be not just an apology from Children’s Theatre Company, but an admission of responsibility in her abuse.
“I don’t know about other people around this table,” she said, “but for me, I would have settled for a dollar if they would have said, ‘We did this. We were wrong. We made it possible. We knew that there were sexual predators in our midst before you walked into the Children’s Theatre and we didn’t protect you from that.’”
Simmonds said she wants to live in a world in which the welfare of children is more important than the reputation of an institution.
Another survivor, who asked to remain anonymous, said he would like to see the office of former Artistic Director John Clark Donahue turned into a place for healing. The office, which looks out over the stage, has been boarded up and empty for years.
“And it was a place where many of us were abused repeatedly,” he said. “I would like to see that space turned into a positive place, for us to remember what happened and a place that hopefully we can take back the power and feel safe in. I think (that) would be very powerful.”
The plaintiffs say an important accomplishment of the legal process was creating a survivors’ fund to pay for therapy and other costs for former students who were abused but didn’t, or couldn’t, take part in the legal process. But they say the $500,000 that Children’s Theatre contributed to the fund won’t be nearly enough to serve all the survivors.
Stearns recalled that plaintiffs were surprised that the former students who came forward numbered as few as 17. “Because we all know it could have been well over a hundred,” she said. “Easily, if not more. So that felt sad, that that’s how deeply damaged people are … that so many people are not able to find voice around this.”
Stearns and the others say they plan to raise more money for the survivors’ fund. But their concerns prompt the question: What justice can there be for those former students who didn’t come forward during the three-year window of opportunity created by the Minnesota Child Victims Act?
Former state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, who has worked on behalf of victims of child sexual abuse since the late 1980s, would like to see the statute of limitations permanently lifted in child sex abuse cases.
“Because if there are more victims at the Children’s Theatre Company who haven’t been able to come forward yet because they just haven’t been ready, they will be barred from any remedy now that the window has closed,” she explained. “And that shouldn't be.”
Junge said the Minnesota Child Victims Act was an important step in the right direction, because it recognized that survivors of child sexual abuse might not come forward for decades. But ultimately, she said, the act was a compromise.
Regardless of how long it might take, she said, for a survivor to come forward at all shows enormous courage.
“Because in the courts they’re just revictimized so often, and retraumatized, and it’s so painful and hurtful,” she said. “This is not a friendly system — that’s why survivors don’t come forward.”
Many survivors of the Children’s Theatre abuses say the legal process around the prosecution of sexual assault needs to change. Survivor Stearns said such change is long overdue.
“This is not a new conversation to have,” she said. “Sexual assault survivors going into a courtroom — this isn’t a new thing. This has been around for a long time and they should be better at it by now.”
Stearns and others talked about the trauma of being cross-examined by lawyers about their sexual abuse. Stearns was horrified to learn that the man she accused of raping her could have been in the room with her, if he had chosen to, during her deposition.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. For such a widespread problem, Stearns said, the legal process should be more humane.
Former plaintiff Jina Penn-Tracy said the most humanity the survivors found was in each other.
“We love each other,” she said. “That was not a given, going into this. And we found messy, difficult, but really deep caring for each other. And that’s a triumph, also.”
The survivors I spoke with said that while the legal process is over, in many ways the real work has only just begun.
Were you a student at the Children’s Theatre Company and have a story to share? Contact Marianne Combs to share your story.
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