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Sex abuse lawsuit alleges predatory culture at Children's Theater Company

Laura Adams was one of two plaintiffs in the suit against the Children's Theater Company; the other did not reveal his identity.

Laura Adams was one of two plaintiffs in the suit against the Children's Theater Company; the other did not reveal his identity.

The Children's Theater Company is one of the most heralded organizations of its kind in the country. Time Magazine called the local outfit the "best in the nation," and its reputation as a successful operation is widely known, dating back decades. 

After yesterday, the company will be known just as much, if not more, for the horrible stories that played out behind the curtain. They, too, lasted for decades, but some are only just now coming to light. 

Two plaintiffs filed a civil lawsuit against the CTC early this morning, claiming they and others were repeat victims of sexual abuse during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. The suit pointed to two abusers, both of whom have been away from the theater for decades. One is its founder, John Donahue, who was convicted of multiple cases of abuse in the '80s and forced out of his job. 

The other alleged perpetrator was a surprise revelation, and puts a successful Twin Cities businessman under a harsh spotlight. Jason McLean, owner of the Loring Pasta Bar and the Varsity Theater, stands accused of abusing at least three teenage women during the 1980s, when he worked at the theater as an actor, coach, and mentor to young talent. Laura Adams, one of those young women, came forward Tuesday to make her accusations against McLean public, and said she hoped her statements would help encourage other victims to tell their stories. 

"I'm so grateful for this opportunity, and really hope that others will find strength in that," said Adams, who appeared alongside her attorney, Jeff Anderson.

Anderson has made his reputation as one of the premier plaintiffs' attorneys in Minnesota, and nationally, for successful lawsuits against the Catholic Church. The case against the Children's Theater Company sets out a similar argument, alleging that the organization allowed a pattern of repeated behavior to occur, despite knowing the risks inherent in adults supervising children. 

Attorney Jeff Anderson has previously sued the Catholic Church for allowing patterns of sex abuse to occur unpunished.

Attorney Jeff Anderson has previously sued the Catholic Church for allowing patterns of sex abuse to occur unpunished.

In fact, in Donahue's case, the suit says the board of directors should have been particularly aware of potential danger: Donahue had only formed the company, in the mid-1960s, when he was forced from a teaching job after pleading guilty to indecent conduct with a minor. With this case, the suit alleges that he took advantage of more than a dozen male victims. However only one, an anonymous John Doe plaintiff, is currently involved in the suit against the company.

That plaintiff alleges that Donahue first started abusing him in 1977, 16 years after he pleaded guilty to his first offense. At least some of Donahue's later crimes eventually came to the attention of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). He was arrested in 1984, and was sentenced to 10 months in a workhouse for three counts of criminal sexual misconduct. 

McLean, meanwhile, has never been criminally charged for a sex offense. He finished his tenure at the theater in 1986, the same year he opened the Loring Pasta Bar and Varsity Theater, both of which grew to be cultural fixtures in the Dinkytown neighborhood on the University of Minnesota campus. An attorney for McLean told the Star Tribune that the businessman would "defend against this lawsuit with all his might," and would clear his name. 

Anderson made clear in his announcement Tuesday that the suit was a reference to a culture that existed previously at the theater company, and not the people who currently worked there. In a statement released after the suit's filing, the theater made the same point. Though the abuse of any child is "abhorrent," the Children's Theater Company said it would defend itself against the charges in Anderson's complaint. 

"Based on what we know today, we do not believe that the Theatre was negligent in its conduct," said the statement. "We will advocate for ourselves and our point of view as this case proceeds, yet we will do so being ever mindful that people in pain are at the heart of this matter."

The theater's statement went on to add that it had changed numerous practices since the time McLean and Donahue worked there, including stringent background checks and a "rule of three," meant to prevent an adult staffer or volunteer and a minor student from being in any isolated, one-on-one situation.

The suit seeks upwards of $50,000 in damages for both current plaintiffs, who are said to have endured a loss of self-esteem, humiliation, and emotional damages as a result of their alleged abuse. 

Watch the full press conference announcing the lawsuit below.