Survivors of the sexual abuse that occurred decades ago at Children’s Theatre are haunted by an idea:
It could happen again.
Not necessarily at the same place; Children’s Theatre has gone to lengths to put the safety of children above every other consideration in the years since its founder, John Clark Donahue, ended his career in disgrace. None of the current staff have any connection to the scandal that erupted in the 1980s, when Donahue was convicted of abusing three boys.
The survivors are less confident about the community.
Dozens of people — former students, family members, and others in the community — say that Donahue’s abuse of children in his care was an “open secret.” But few people actually attempted to do anything about it.
“The community and parents were not interested in hearing about this,” said Mary Hallman, who learned of the abuse soon after her daughter enrolled at CTC. She pulled her daughter from the school and took what she had found out to other parents. Their response, she says, was profoundly discouraging:
“It was as though, ‘Oh yes, we know,’ where they'd shrug, but nobody was willing to really take a look,” Hallman said. “Children's safety did not seem to be a concern to anyone, or the first concern. The first concern was their child being a star, or being in the theater.”
Todd Hildebrandt was a student at the Children’s Theatre Company from 1976 to 1978. He remembers one Christmas when he was at his aunt’s house and saw his cousin, who was visiting from California, where she worked in the entertainment industry.
“And she said to me, ‘Now, watch out for John Donahue.’ She’s in California and she’s coming to Minneapolis to warn me about John Donahue,” Hildebrandt said. “By then I was already being abused by John — in the back of my head I was like, ‘Well, too late.’”
It would be seven more years before Donahue was arrested for sexually abusing boys. He was convicted on three counts and sentenced to a year in a workhouse. He died last March. Other staff were suspected of abusing children, but only this year has it come to light just how extensive that abuse was — involving more than 20 employees and including one allegation of sex trafficking and child pornography.
In the years since Donahue’s arrest, Children’s Theatre has made dramatic changes. Managing Director Kim Motes said the abuse “goes against absolutely everything we at CTC stand for today, as the well-being and safety of children are our highest priorities."
While the theater may have changed, the community hasn’t, said one survivor.
“It took the whole damn village — not just Children's Theatre. And if something happens, the same structures are in place in the same way of, not wanting to stand out and make a claim, looking over your shoulder to see what the other people think when you see something wrong,” she said. “I don't think anything's changed with that. So I can see this happening again. I really can.”
In 2009 the McKnight Foundation awarded actor and director Bain Boehlke one of its highest accolades — the Distinguished Artist Award. Longtime Star Tribune theater critic Graydon Royce attended the banquet in Boehlke’s honor.
“At one point he thanked a bunch of people, and then he thanked John Clark Donahue, who was in the audience,” Royce recalled. “And he thanked him for being a mentor, thanked him for the years that they worked together. And as this went on, people began to applaud. And it was clear that they were applauding for Donahue. And people started to stand up. And it felt as if it was a political statement to stand up.”
Royce was asked to clarify that a crowd of people stood up to applaud a man for his artistic genius, knowing that he had sexually assaulted children.
“Well, yes, they did. And at that moment, the prevailing attitude was that he was a theatrical genius, I guess.”
So what will happen, ask the survivors, the next time a so-called genius emerges in our community and begins to act suspiciously? Will people speak up?
“We harm people by not doing something,” said Karen Hagen, one of the survivors. “It's not the people that they're calling the offenders that were the most offensive or harmful to me. It was the people that were just there. It's the people that did nothing for us.”
Trauma therapist Dawn McClelland, who works with survivors of organized child sexual abuse, said it's not just the victims who are groomed to be compliant — it's the entire community.
"We get indoctrinated into silence,” she said. “We get indoctrinated into submission. We get indoctrinated into approval in systems of power. We get indoctrinated to minimize. ‘It must really not have happened and must really not be that bad.’
“And I don't know what all those reasons are that we do that as communities. But I think we want to pretend things don't exist. I think we don't know what to do and we don't know what to choose. Sometimes I think we want to believe the best about things."
Survivor Jina Penn-Tracy sees a direct connection between the community’s silence and the increasingly bold abuse that occurred at the Children's Theatre. If more people had acted on their suspicions earlier, she said, Donahue would not have attracted other abusers to work for him and they wouldn’t have engaged in sex trafficking or child pornography. She said this is a case study of how a culture of silence can foster and protect a ring of pedophiles. She offered adults this advice:
"If you have a bad feeling about what's going on with a child, be willing to follow through on that feeling and be willing to be wrong.”
Penn-Tracy also recognizes that in today's hyper-reactive court of public opinion, the consequences for voicing mistaken accusations are greater than ever, for all parties involved.
"We're going to have to evolve as a society,” she said. “In the meantime, we're going to have to err on the side of protecting kids. And maybe some people will be falsely accused. But we need to be willing to look at it … be willing to be wrong."
Until then, Penn-Tracy and other survivors fear children will continue to be at serious risk of harm.
If you or someone you know is in need of help, there are resources available:
RAINN | https://www.rainn.org/ | 1-800-656-4673
1 in 6 | https://1in6.org/
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