Listen: PKG: CTC cult (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 describe a system of isolation and manipulation that preyed on the vulnerable and shamed them into silence. Combs aloso interviews a mental health professional about the signs of traumatic abuse.

This is the second in a two-part report.

Click link below for other report:

part 1:


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 working to settle lawsuits with former students. The suits charge the institution failed to protect its students from sexual abuse in the 1970s and early '80s. Survivors say that founding director John Clark Donahue was one of at least 20 abusers employed by the Children's Theatre.

So why has it taken so long for the truth to come out? Marianne Combs has this report. And a warning, this story may be difficult and disturbing to hear.

MARIANNE COMBS: Talk to former students of the Children's Theatre, those who attended during the tenure of the late John Clark Donahue, and you'll hear a certain word come up again and again.

SPEAKER: I think we can identify it as a kind of cult, and the children were the sacrifice.

SPEAKER: I mean, I actually see it as a out-and-out cult. He was a charismatic leader.

SPEAKER: Surviving Children's Theatre was not just about surviving the abuse. It was about surviving the cult. We were being manipulated and brainwashed. And it was a cult.

MARIANNE COMBS: 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 requested anonymity. They say from their first moments with the company, they were made to feel different.

SPEAKER: We were very special people. And the outside world was the outside world. And they were like the enemy.

SPEAKER: We were also told how safe we were at Children's Theatre, that Children's Theatre was the only place that would ever really understand us.

SPEAKER: We were taught, and the word is "groomed," to expect to be special. But you can't let anybody outside. We were insiders.

SPEAKER: We were just taught the outside world is the outside world. You disregard it. The only real world is inside these walls of Children's Theatre.

MARIANNE COMBS: One of the rules of working at the Children's Theatre in the early years was that all children had to stay until a rehearsal was over even if their part in the show was finished. Survivor Jeanette Simmonds.

JEANETTE SIMMONDS: 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. They were put in an impossible situation.

MARIANNE COMBS: 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.

SPEAKER: It was very normal for kids to go to parties with adults and drink and do drugs, doesn't matter what age you are.

JEANETTE SIMMONDS: One of the students had a beer. And I was like, you can have beer? And they were like, yeah, just go get one. So I was like, cool. And I'm 13.

SPEAKER: There was alcohol. There was pot. There was lots of alcohol. There's cocaine going around at the time.

SPEAKER: I mostly sold drugs to the adults. But I didn't do as many drugs because I was a little too young, wasn't really my scene quite yet. Mostly just acid, pot, speed, Percocet.

MARIANNE COMBS: One survivor recalls being drunk and collapsing on the front lawn of John Clark Donahue's house, when he was only nine 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. Survivor Laura Stearns.

LAURA STEARNS: 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. 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's 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.

MARIANNE COMBS: One survivor recounted a class where they 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 says a man walked into the girls' changing room and commented on her naked body.

Survivors say abusers tested boundaries to see what they could get away with. They say 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 they came to the theater.

Romantic encounters between adults and children were normalized on stage. At the age of 15, Stearns was cast as the love interest of actor Jason McLean, who was close to 30. According to Stearns, that was before he raped her.

McLean has never been criminally charged. But earlier this year, in a civil trial, a jury found McLean guilty of raping Stearns. Survivor Annie Enneking says the abuse was so widespread, it felt pointless to try and report it.

ANNIE ENNEKING: Who was I going to tell? Was I going to tell John Donahue? No, because he's already doing it. Me saying something wouldn't do anything to change the system.

MARIANNE COMBS: One survivor says 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. The case was transferred to the Minneapolis Police's Family Violence Division.

After a few weeks with no progress, investigators dropped the case. Many students, because they had been told repeatedly that they were on equal footing with the adults, felt complicit in their own abuse. When John Clark Donahue was finally arrested in 1984, loyalty among students was so strong that even his own victims defended him.

SPEAKER: We had to protect the theater. The theater was precious.

SPEAKER: I felt responsible for the theater's survival.

SPEAKER: Ranks just kind of closed up, and people were ostracized who said anything.

SPEAKER: I was one of the kids, one of the people in that building who rallied around John and was like, I can't believe those boys are doing that and they-- you know what I mean? I was not an informed little human being. And I am deeply sorry for that.

MARIANNE COMBS: Such misplaced loyalty to an abuser is familiar to mental health professionals like Cordelia Anderson. She's 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 a place where they could talk about it, let alone testify in a courtroom.

CORDELIA ANDERSON: 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 in dynamics of child sexual abuse, kind of like an incest dynamic in many ways, where you have either super respect or love and admiration for the individual who abused you. And usually, those folks are very good at somehow making it seem like it's your fault.

MARIANNE COMBS: In recent years, Anderson has worked with several adults who are former CTC students. She says those victims of abuse are still dealing with the trauma every single day. Only now, she says, 35 years later, some of them are in a place to talk about it. Marianne Combs, MPR News.

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