Dark chapter at Children's Theatre Company may resurface

For half a century, Third Avenue in Minneapolis has been a kind of adolescent Broadway -- the Children's Theatre Company introducing generations to the performing arts and garnering national recognition for its innovative productions and talented child actors.

But there's one story -- a cautionary tale -- that former students still talk of only in whispers, or private online chat groups. A story about the man considered both mentor and monster.

The final curtain call for John Clark Donahue took place 32 years ago, when the founder and artistic director of the Children's Theatre Company was arrested for sexually molesting 3 of his student actors -- boys between the ages of 12 and 14. 

Uncompromising and undeniably talented, Donahue had an almost cult-like following. Young performers sought his praise and desperately wanted to be part of his inner circle. But the starring roles, the attention and adoration, sometimes came at an unforgivable price. 

According to depositions uncovered by the Fox 9 Investigators, Donahue would admit to having sexual relationships with more than 16 students at the Children's Theatre Company. Many of the relationships were overlapping, with some lasting for years.

Back in 1983, the Donahue scandal played out on the front pages. Every perp walk made the evening news, and there was plenty of blame to go around. The board of directors had kept the criminal investigation a secret for 2 years. The board said detectives had told them to keep the investigation quiet, but many in the theatre company long suspected Donahue was having sex with children.

One theatre insider told the grand jury, that "John Clark Donahue was so powerful that the jobs, the professional careers and recommendations were at some risk at confronting him." And that, "large money, large family and company money...supports the theater, and that they would not allow this to happen. The allegations would be squelched to protect their reputations, not so much John's."

Donahue pled guilty to second-degree criminal sexual conduct -- he said to spare the boys from having to testify. At sentencing, Judge Charles Porter blamed the media, Children's Theatre, even the community at large, but said Donahue "shouldn't be made a scapegoat," and gave him a sentence that seems ludicrously lenient by today's standards -- just 10

The management of the company has completely changed since that time, but current managing director Tim Jennings says they've never forgotten the dark chapter, or become complacent.

“It's part of our being,” Jennings said. “We learned from that experience in a huge way. It changed our entire field. And I think our state. There's never been an incident since. We have a remarkable focus on making sure there's no child left alone with an adult in our organization.”

"When you look at Donahue, and the power he exercises and some of his colleagues -- there were warning signs and red flags all over,” aid St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson.

If anyone knows a red flag it's Jeff Anderson. Back in 1983, Anderson was just digging into cases against the Catholic Church. Last week, he filed the last of more than 400 claims against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. But the Minnesota Legislature's one-time extension of the statute of limitations on civil cases doesn't expire for 9 months, in May 2016.  Anderson believes the next reckoning could be at the doorstep of the Children's Theatre Company.

"I see the Children’s Theatre as one of the iconic institutions that has yet to be held accountable for their institutional failures,” Anderson said

When asked I he believes powerful interests stopped the community from learning the truth of what happened, Anderson said "No question.”

“When we look back, they were given a pass,” he said. “A pass by all of us and the legal system."

"Much of the abuse back then, didn't just happen at the Children's Theatre -- it happened at Donahue's home located right across this street from the theatre, where he still lives.  Now 77 years old, Donahue had nothing to say when we stopped by.

“No, I don't do interviews,” he said.

But Donahue’s former students are talking, at least in a private Facebook group set up for the 50th anniversary. A thread about Donahue has more than 535 posts. One former student says it's like, "I've stumbled into a forgotten room in my house." Another says, "I've been in therapy most of my life and never discussed it. I feel the adults who were present for the abuse have never taken responsibility."

Some now admit they were coached to lie -- to say there was "culture of fantasy" at the theatre, "which was the tale I was given to tell the grand jury to stop the progression of investigation. The lie blamed the victims entirely..."

And there are new allegations against Donahue and 2 other adults in the theatre company, who allegedly sexually assaulted students at Donahue’s home. But many former students are also conflicted about Donahue, describing him as a "genius" who was simply "in a very dark place."

"The paradox is some of the most loving and wonderful people among us can also be the most manipulative and dangerous,” Anderson said.

Even at this weekend's Children's Theatre reunion, there are former students who want to meet privately with John Clark Donahue at his home shrouded in secrets. It's a strange and confusing legacy he has left for the Children's Theatre, and even after 30 years there may yet be one final act to play out in a courtroom.

Back in the early 80s there was talk of a class-action lawsuit against Children's Theatre Company, but that never materialized. There were 3 individual lawsuits that were settled out of court. A spokesperson for Children's Theatre Company said they had no comment on this story, but says they have yet to be served with any kind of legal notice.