Listen: PKG: A Culture of Abuse FINAL (Combs)

MPR’s Marianne Combs reports on how the 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.

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

This is the first in a two-part report.

Click link below for other report:

part 2:


2020 MNSPJ Page One Award, Journalist of the Year [Special] category

2020 MNSPJ Page One Radio Award, first place in Radio - Investigative category

2020 RTDNA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / Investigative Reporting


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SPEAKER: The Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis is being forced to revisit a dark part of its history. It's working its way through a series of lawsuits that charge the institution with failing to protect its students from sexual abuse. CTC leaders say the institution is not legally responsible for the abuse.

Much of the previous media coverage has focused on two staff members-- longtime artistic director John Clark Donahue, who died in March; and company actor Jason McLean, who fled the country. But Marianne Combs reports the abuse was far more widespread. And a warning, this story may be difficult and disturbing to hear.

SPEAKER: The snow was falling, and it was almost dark on the last evening of the old year.

MARIANNE COMBS: 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.

SPEAKER: What are you doing? What are you doing here?

SPEAKER: It was like heaven.

SPEAKER: Magical and nightmarish.

SPEAKER: The most magical, beautiful sick place I've ever been.

SPEAKER: I think almost all of us will tell you that our experience at Children's Theatre was euphoric and horrific.

MARIANNE COMBS: In April 1984, the founder and artistic director of the Children's Theatre, John Clark Donahue, was arrested.

SPEAKER: For two years, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigated complaints that students at the Minneapolis Children's Theatre were being sexually abused. Today--

MARIANNE COMBS: Prosecutors initially charged Donahue with abusing three boys. He eventually admitted to abusing 16 boys over the course of his 20-year tenure. He was sentenced to a year in a workhouse and 15 years probation.

At the time of his arrest, other staff were also suspected of abuse. But investigators had little luck getting students to come forward. The BCA 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. Former CTC Student Laura Stearns.

LAURA STEARNS: 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. So 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.

MARIANNE COMBS: Earlier this year, a jury in a civil trial found McLean guilty of raping Stearns. Stearns was awarded $3.68 million. That's money she'll likely never see because McLean fled the country before the trial.

Those who did speak up about the abuse in the 1980s say they were ostracized by their fellow students and teachers. Many left the school. The Children's Theatre changed leadership and created new rules to safeguard the children.

Then the passage of the Minnesota Child Victims Act in 2013 temporarily suspended the civil statute of limitations for the sexual abuse of minors. During that three-year window, 17 former Children's Theatre Company students came forward to make claims. They and other survivors have shared their stories with MPR News.

SPEAKER: He's a big person. I'm a small person.

SPEAKER: Sitting in the audience and sitting next to John and having John put his hands underneath my clothing.

SPEAKER: All I knew is that I had to get out of that car.

SPEAKER: I was being pressed against the couch. I was panicking.

SPEAKER: He put his hands down my pants.

SPEAKER: I said no, and he didn't stop.

SPEAKER: There were things that I did not want to do and tried not to do.

SPEAKER: And I began kicking, and he began grabbing me.

SPEAKER: I had my legs closed. He pried my legs apart, and he raped me. That's what happened.

MARIANNE COMBS: In working on this story, I interviewed dozens of survivors. Those survivors identified 20 different men who they say abused them. They were actors, teachers, and crew members. Some sexual assaults were single occurrences. Others went on for years.

Survivors say statutory rape was common. 13-, 14-, and 15-year-old boys and girls were led to believe or were allowed to believe they were in meaningful relationships with men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Survivors say the abuse by adults created a culture where children started to abuse one another. Rana Haugen was just five years old when she first started acting at the Children's Theatre.

RANA HAUGEN: So from the time I was very little, we would run behind the curtains. And I would get chased by a boy. And he would push me down and get on top of me.

And I had no idea what was going on, but it was very aggressive and violent. And then was told, if you tell anybody, I'll kill you. So when you talk about that they were little boys, they were. But they were little boys who had been raped by an adult man.

MARIANNE COMBS: Numerous Children's Theatre alumni report being abused and/or raped by other students. Survivor Erin Nanasi.

ERIN NANASI: The abuse was so prevalent that that toxicity actually affected students and turned them into predators.

SPEAKER: I mean, you're not going to have a bunch of 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids walk into a school, and within a month, they're all rapists just because it's Tuesday. I mean, that doesn't make any sense.

MARIANNE COMBS: The abuse spanned generations. Some victims ended up working at the company as adults. Survivors identified three of them as their own abusers. More often than not, the men who abused got away with it. One staffer known for getting sudden leg cramps and asking young boys to massage his thighs later became a registered sex offender in the state of Florida.

A drama teacher that worked closely with the Children's Theatre fled to France when an arrest warrant was issued on child molestation and pornography charges. He eventually returned and faced trial. A few, including John Clark Donahue, have died. But some of the abusers named by survivors are currently working at respected arts organizations in the Twin Cities.

As a whole, survivors' stories reveal that John Clark Donahue fostered a highly sexualized and permissive culture that attracted other abusers and emboldened increasingly sexually 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 is the mother of survivor Rana Haugen.

INA HAUGEN: I was allowed to go to one meeting of the CTC board after the arrest. And it really felt like their biggest concern was not, How are the kids 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 for 2/3 of her life.

MARIANNE COMBS: Haugen says the calls parents did get were telling them not to talk to reporters. When she and another parent attempted to attend a second board meeting, she says, they were escorted out. Children's Theatre's current management does not deny the abuse happened. However, leaders say they do not believe the institution is legally responsible or liable for the abuse. CTC Managing Director Kim Motes.

KIM MOTES: There's a difference between being legally responsible and taking responsibility. While we do not believe that CTC is liable, we have not let this stand in the way of our taking responsibility. We have 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.

MARIANNE COMBS: 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 of the building. A jury found the Children's Theatre was generally negligent but did not find it financially liable. Some survivors say CTC's response is not enough. In forms that range from sidewalk protests and social media posts to court filings and interviews, they say the theater is responsible and has yet to be held fully accountable. Marianne Combs, MPR News.

SPEAKER: In the interest of transparency, Children's Theatre is a supporter of Minnesota Public Radio. Marianne's reporting continues tomorrow here on All Things Considered.

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