Children’s Theatre Company issued a statement Wednesday saying it has settled lawsuits filed by six individuals who were sexually abused by the former artistic director and two former employees in the 1970s.
Nine other cases remain unresolved; another lawsuit resulted in a verdict finding that the company had been negligent but was not liable for damages. And another lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by former Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) teacher Jason McLean did not name the company as a defendant.
The CTC board’s statement, addressed to “Community Members,” said it was grateful to resolve the half-dozen lawsuits and looks forward to resolutions in the remaining cases “that provide healing and justice.” The board emphasized that the theater company has “no place for abuse of any kind.”
Molly Burke, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the settlements “real progress” and said the parties are working to resolve the remaining lawsuits.
Terms of the settlements are “private and confidential” and the company will not comment on the lawsuits beyond the board’s statement, said CTC spokeswoman Melissa Ferlaak.
“Like so many of you, we choose to work at and serve CTC because of our love of theatre and to help foster that same connection in the children of our community — to spark joy through art and performance. Any kind of abuse of children is abhorrent and goes against our core values,” the board wrote. “To all of our artists, teaching artists, and staff at CTC: We reaffirm to you our commitment to address these historic wrongs, and are working on a significant list of action items both for now and the future. While some of our planned actions cannot be taken until legal proceedings conclude, others can and will begin immediately.”
Those actions include training and education that acknowledges past sexual abuse by employees and changes that CTC has made to prevent it in the future. That includes training for staff and volunteers on how to intervene and report known or suspected abuse.
Child actors and their parents will be informed of past abuse and given additional resources explaining how they can also report known or suspected abuse, the board said.
The theater is planning an open forum for Sept. 16 from 5 to 7 p.m. to discuss ways the CTC can promote “community healing and begin the critical work of rebuilding.” Those interested in participating should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, the company is planning a three-part speakers series this season that will focus on the prevention of child abuse, survivor support, and ways the arts can help in healing trauma.
“To those survivors who have shared their stories with us: We are so profoundly sorry. Your courage in sharing your abuse has challenged us to think more creatively about the strategies by which we can support and honor you.
“You have inspired other survivors of sexual abuse to share their experiences with all of us. Your voices have brought this issue to the fore, and our community has been enlightened and forever changed as a result,” the board wrote.
Statute of limitations
The Minnesota Child Victims Act suspended the statute of limitations on lawsuits filed between May 2013 and May 2016. Seventeen plaintiffs have filed lawsuits since 2015 alleging that sexual abuse took place at the theater. Sixteen of them named CTC as a defendant, and the remaining one named McLean.
Laura Stearns’ case was the first and only case against CTC thus far that went to trial. While the jury found the CTC was not liable for damages, it returned a $3.68 million verdict against McLean, whom Stearns accused of raping her in the 1980s. McLean apparently fled to Mexico, however, and Stearns has said she’s unlikely to recover any money from him.
CTC attorneys then argued that, as the prevailing party in the trial, the theater should be reimbursed for $283,000 of its costs. At the end of May, CTC leaders issued a public apology to Stearns and later filed a notice dropping their request to recover the court costs.
Stearns said Wednesday the settlements have no bearing on her case. She said she’s happy for those of her friends who reached settlements, but she added that CTC and its lawyers are “doubling down on bullying the next person that’s up for trial.”
She said all of the settlements involved male plaintiffs. The settlements, she said, underscore “how it’s acceptable for girls to be raped, but if a boy is raped, that’s unacceptable.”
“I’m not removing any calls for boycott. I think the pressure needs to stay on until every single case is settled,” Stearns said.
Burke and Ferlaak declined to comment on Stearns’ statements.
The Children’s Theatre is a nonprofit that receives most of the revenue for its $13.5 million budget from tickets, grants and contributions. The organization has been dogged by controversy for decades because of the sex abuse scandal. Stearns’ attorney, Jeff Anderson, has said that more than 100 victims were abused by 20 offenders at the theater.
Playwright John Clark Donahue, who co-founded the company and died this year, pleaded guilty in the 1980s to molesting three boys and admitted to abusing and raping several boys.
Star Tribune staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this report. Dan Browning • 612-673-4493