Healing From Abuse: Light Encourages Recovery

HealingFromAbuse1In 2015 as the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) in Minneapolis was hosting festive events to celebrate its 50th anniversary, a smaller, quieter happening began to ripple through the CTC alumni community. No fanfare, no hype, but to those involved, of greater celebratory significance. Thirty-one years had passed since the 1984 arrest of John Clark Donahue, the theater’s co-founder, and several other staff members on child sexual abuse charges. Donahue spent ten months in the Hennepin County workhouse; the other cases were dismissed or settled out-of-court.

In May 1991 the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a thoroughly-researched twopart feature by reporter Kay Miller that documented in unflinching candor details of the CTC sex abuses. She wrote, “At the time of [the] arrest…it seemed questionable whether the man [Donahue] or the institution could survive. Seven years later Children’s Theatre is not only alive, it is financially more secure than ever and has plans to increase its scope and artistic prominence.”

By 2015 that scope and prominence was solid. CTC had made adjustments, established new protocols and seemed to have buried all distasteful remnants of the abuse years. Everyone – the institution, alumni, teachers, administration – had seemingly moved on. The Twin Cities theater community, which many feared might suffer collateral damage, was stronger than ever. Fifty years and thriving was reason to celebrate.

But beneath the self-congratulatory galas lay unresolved issues from the abuse years. Students from that time had gone on to jobs, careers and livelihoods and were now themselves in positions of authority as middle-aged adults. Many carried burdensome secrets from those years – unspoken and unresolved. Some did not survive.

Publicity surrounding high-profile abuse cases – Catholic Church, Bill Cosby, Boy Scouts, to name a few – have contributed to increased cultural awareness. In May 2013 the Minnesota legislature enacted a bill known as the “Minnesota Child Victims Act…Actions for Damages Due to Sexual Abuse; Special Provisions” which amended Minnesota statutes allowing an extra window of time to file civil actions regarding child sexual abuse.


The 2016 Academy Award-winning film Spotlight highlighted a team of Boston Globe reporters whose tenacity and integrity broke the story emphasizing the systemic nature of sex abuse in the Catholic church. In accepting the award, a producer said, “This film gave a voice to survivors.”

That “voice” began speaking up in the CTC alumni community as they reunited around the 50th anniversary. Through social media and technology that did not exist in the 80s, the dark secrets of those years started to tumble out into the light. In private Facebook discussions survivors discovered they were not alone, that the abuse pattern was much bigger than they had been led to believe. Most importantly, they now had an acknowledged community of support, something blatantly missing 30 years ago. Healing could begin.

Kristen Froebel, an alumni who attended the school from 1979-1984, said she became immersed with following the stories that unfolded on the Facebook thread. As stories surfaced, it became clear that 30 years later people were still suffering from “the impact of the failure of adults to protect children,” says Ms. Froebel. “Facebook created a safe place with freedom to talk of the complexities; only good can come from conversation.” Ms. Froebel set up four conversation groups that brought small groups of CTC alumni together in the Twin Cities, New York and Los Angeles in what she calls CTC Alumni Circles. Cordelia Anderson, whose Sensibilities Prevention Services program works to prevent child sexual abuse and exploitation, facilitated the groups in Minneapolis. The other groups were peer led.

Most of us harbor a few secrets, but few are of the magnitude child abuse victims carry into their adult lives. The issue that surfaces repeatedly is the purposeful web of secrecy that surrounds abuse. Ms. Anderson is emphatic: “Abuse thrives in secrecy.” Victims at CTC had not only been coerced into silence; those who tried to speak up were denigrated, accused of betrayal and ostracized. At the same time, bystanders, witnesses, staff, administration, even some parents, chose to focus on protecting the theater and its artistic vision. Loyalties and allegiances were clearly misguided.

ArtTherapyIn the movie Spotlight, a victims’ attorney tells a reporter, “Mark my words… If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” The May 19, 1991 Star Tribune article was unambiguous: “Hennepin County Judge Charles Porter spent a week poring over the 1,000 page transcript of the grand-jury investigation of CTC. In a statement at Donahue’s sentencing…Porter concluded that ‘collectively this community knew what was going on at Children’s Theatre.’ In Porter’s view, the community refused to confront adult-adolescent sexuality at the theater because it was so enamored of the art Donahue produced.”

On December 1, 2015, two former actors and students of CTC – Laura Adams and another plaintiff known as John Doe 84 – filed a civil lawsuit in Hennepin County District court naming three defendants: The Children’s Theatre Company, CTC co-founder John Clark Donahue and former CTC actor and teacher, Jason Mc- Lean.

At a press conference after filing, Laura Adams appeared with her attorneys, Jeff Anderson and Molly Burke of Jeff Anderson Associates (www.andersonadvocates. com), a firm that has successfully litigated clergy sexual abuse cases across the United States. While Ms. Adams states she was abused by Mr. McLean, she says, “It’s important to talk about what the culture was at the time which made it possible for Jason to thrive. Jason wasn’t the only one abusing at the time. There were other people; this was a culture that was prevalent.”

In April of this year HBO premiered the movie Confirmation that details the 1991 embattled confirmation hearings around Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. A university law professor, Anita Hill, had testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee that Mr. Thomas had sexually harassed her. With the film’s release, Ms. Hill was interviewed by NBC Today and asked about comments that “maybe we’ll never know what really happened there.” She responded, “I think that sends a wrong message for people who are going through some of these same things today. This idea that we can never know the truth is just not accurate. We can know the truth if we have the right processes in place and what I think the film shows very clearly is that the wrong processes can lead us to confusion.”

National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg broke the Anita Hill story in 1991. Speaking with an NPR Politics podcast team in April she said: “I was pilloried during this. I had one of the great stories of any reporter’s life…and the cost was enormous in terms of negative publicity and people trashing me a lot and senators yelling at me.”

Just the same, public awareness did begin to shift. Sexual harassment claims nearly doubled in the following two years. Workplace rules, guidelines and grievance procedures were established. Still, a shocking number of harassment and abuse incidents go unreported and unprosecuted. True, it is a victim’s personal decision whether to prosecute; but if their reason for choosing to remain silent is based on fear of not being believed, then we as a culture are culpable.

The national Start By Believing campaign (startbybelieving.org) focuses on awareness and response to sexual assault. A survivor’s journey to healing and justice is long and arduous but, as the title suggests, the first thing a survivor as the right to expect is to be believed.

Kristen Froebel hopes that every body tells their story. “Mine is mine to tell, theirs is theirs,” she says, “The cultural story is one our whole community has to come to grips with.” Kristen’s hope is that CTC will take responsibility for the “Institutional Memory” of the years of abuse, perhaps by having a sculptor create a beautiful statue for the garden — a memorial with a plaque commemorating the children who were abused.

In her press conference, Laura Adams addressed the most commonly-asked question: Why come forward now? “It’s time to tell our stories. We have held – and I say “we”— there are a lot of us – we have held this secret far too long and holding this inside is damaging…society has shifted; I think these stories can be told with some integrity and grace….There were several people around me who I knew were abused and none of us were talking because we didn’t feel safe….We didn’t feel like we would be believed…nobody was encouraging us to come forward…. Now we’re all in our 40s and 50s…so what I want out of…telling my story is for people to see that…the kind of healing that can happen as a result of sharing these deep secrets is immeasurable….I’ve been in therapy for a long time which is why I have some strength….I want to be clear that you don’t have to do what I’m doing right now…you can maintain your privacy. But I want every single person, if they haven’t told somebody, to tell someone…. Don’t hold the secret any more; it doesn’t deserve to be held in the dark. It deserves to be in the light.”

The 13th century poet Rumi wrote:

How did the rose ever open its heart
and give to this world all of its beauty?
It felt the encouragement
     of light against its being,
otherwise we all remain
     too frightened.

Each of us is responsible for encouraging the light that allows a frightened heart to open. The world needs all the beauty it can get.

Last Updated on May 12, 2016