Survivors of sex abuse at the Children's Theatre Company have formed a new nonprofit to administer a fund seeded with money from the south Minneapolis theater, doling out grants starting this spring.
It comes more than a year after the theater reached final settlements in sexual abuse cases involving the then-child actors in the 1970s and 1980s. Children's Theatre Company (CTC) Managing Director Kimberly Motes issued a public apology in November 2019 and vowed to make changes, including establishing the survivors fund.
The coronavirus pandemic delayed the process, but in October, the theater and the new nonprofit, Children's Theatre Alumni Wellness, agreed the theater would pay $500,000 in installments instead of in a lump sum. Like many theaters, CTC has faced budget cuts in the pandemic.
Now, the new nonprofit will have mental health professionals review grant applications from survivors this spring.
"It feels like just a first step in a really long healing process for our community," said Jina Penn-Tracy, a survivor and one of four alumni leading the nonprofit. "We still have people in a lot of pain in our community from the trauma that they endured and we haven't been able to provide any care."
Laura Stearns, another survivor and leader of the new nonprofit, said they hope to raise millions of dollars over the years to support hundreds of survivors' mental health costs. (To donate, go to ctawellness.org.)
"I want survivors to feel heard," Stearns said. "We can't forget what happened."
CTC declined to make Motes available for an interview, but provided a written statement from her and Artistic Director Peter Brosius.
"While the pandemic has certainly impacted our progress, we remained committed to continuing this work with the survivors, as best we could, while navigating the devastating impact on our organization of the pandemic's shutdown of live performances," they wrote.
Starting in 2015, plaintiffs sued CTC and former staff members over sexual abuse that girls and boys endured while studying and performing at the theater in the 1970s and 1980s. The lawsuits came after the 2013 Minnesota Child Victims Act extended the statute of limitations.
The lawsuits also name former actor and teacher Jason McLean — who fled to Mexico in 2017 before resurfacing briefly in California — and co-founder John Clark Donahue, who died in 2019. A separate suit accusing McLean of sexual abuse didn't name the theater as a defendant. Stearns' case was the only one to go to trial; besides a $3.68 million judgment against McLean, the jury found CTC had been negligent but wasn't liable for damages.
Donahue pleaded guilty in the 1980s to molesting three boys and admitted later to abusing and raping others. McLean was never criminally charged, but faces more than $8 million in civil judgments.
After settlements with CTC, survivors requested a survivor fund, training and a public apology, which Motes did in the 2019 announcement of final settlements. All 16 lawsuits reached undisclosed financial terms.
Since then, the theater partnered with RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) to give 150 CTC employees and a few board members training in March 2020 on sexual misconduct prevention, recognizing signs of trauma and understanding appropriate responses to at-risk children. CTC also added an ad for RAINN's hotline (800-656-4673) in its show programs.
"Even if children are not being abused directly by company members or teachers at the theater, we know up to 20% of children are sexually assaulted in this country by the time they're 17 years old," Penn-Tracy said. "So between their audience members and the children that are in their plays and the children that come through their classes and programs, they are dealing with child victims all of the time."
But more needs to be done, survivors say.
In November 2019, Motes said survivors would be added to the board of directors, but that hasn't happened yet. Stearns said she was outraged to learn that Theresa Bevilacqua, an attorney who led CTC's defense, was added to its board, and records stored at the University of Minnesota were locked down, restricted from view for 75 years.
"When you're a trauma survivor, reclaiming your history … is extremely important," Penn-Tracy said. "What happened between the '60s, '70s and '80s at the theater shows us how a nest of pedophiles gained control of an institution."
After complaints from survivors, Bevilacqua stepped down from the board and CTC said it will open the records.
In their statement, Motes and Brosius said they "strived to embrace a survivor-centered and -led process" but made missteps and "acknowledged it, apologized, and immediately fixed it. We know there is deep pain not only from the survivors' childhoods but from the legal process." They added they'll keep working with survivors this year.
Survivors also want the theater to acknowledge the abuse on its website. Some hope to create a memorial like a new sexual violence survivors' memorial at Boom Island Park. Penn-Tracy said the nonprofit will also plan healing events for alumni and the community.
Penn-Tracy said CTC's saga exposes a gap for abuse at any organization — from the Catholic Church to the Boy Scouts: Who is responsible for healing trauma beyond financial reparations? "It comes at a huge price … to expect the victims and the survivors to take this on," she said.
Stearns is also trying to make theaters across Minnesota safer, part of a group of about 50 artists writing safety standards called Theater Artist Leader Coalition.
"You talk to women who work in this town and they will be able to tell you a list of guys … to stay away from," Stearns said. "We want to do something to prevent the need for those kinds of lists [with] transparency and accountability."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141