Deadline for sex abuse suits nears

Under the Child Victims Act, four complainants have alleged abuse by a local entrepreneur.

Hannah Weikel

A thinning window of time remains for survivors of childhood sexual abuse in Minnesota to file suit, in some cases after decades of silence.
 
 
With a May 25 deadline approaching, experts say they expect a rush of claims under the Child Victims Act, which for the last three years has lifted the statute of limitations for child sex abuse civil lawsuits.
 
 
Under the Act, nine individuals are suing the Children’s Theatre Company and some of its former employees for alleged sexual assault of minors during the ’60s through the ’80s. 
 
 
Four of those claims name Dinkytown entrepreneur Jason McLean, owner of the Loring Pasta Bar and Varsity Theater.
 
 
Other victims have accused the theater’s co-founder and then- art director John Clark Donahue and late sound and lights technician Stephen Adamczak of sexual abuse.
 
 
The suits also claim personal injury charges against the company for negligence.
 
 
Last week, the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault honored state officials who helped shape the legislation that allowed the Children’s Theatre Company complainants to publicly allege the sexual abuse of at least 26 minors over several decades.
 
 
Previously, child sexual abuse victims had six years after turning 18 to file a civil lawsuit. In May 2013, the Child Victims Act opened a three-year window for adults who had never filed charges during that age range.
 
 
“I was almost struck in the face [by] the existing injustice of the statute of limitations forcing young people to come forward before they had the emotional maturity to understand what happened to them,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon. 
 
 
Attorney Jeff Anderson, who specializes in child sexual abuse cases, said his law office receives hundreds of calls each day. He is representing all nine complainants who have filed civil suits against the theater company or their alleged abusers.
 
 
Anderson said since 2013, survivors unable to come forward as young adults have taken legal action and drawn attention to institutions, like the Children’s Theatre Company, that he said chose to protect the wrong people in past instances of abuse.
 
 
In January, University of Minnesota academic adviser Jeanette Simmonds filed suit against the company, naming Adamczak as the former employee who abused her when she was 14 years old.
 
 
“I have carried the shame for the Children’s Theatre for 33 years,” she said, “And by placing the responsibility where it belonged, I didn’t have to carry that anymore.”
 
 
Anderson said he expects the pool of suits will grow to 20 or more complainants before the Child Victims Act’s May deadline — adding that he continues to meet with victims on a daily basis.
 
 
Prestige, belonging and abuse
 
 
Abuse at the Children’s Theatre Company in the ’70s and ’80s ran deeper than the nine who’ve filed lawsuits, according to court records and complainants. Those sources claim dozens of other children fell victim to a culture that normalized casual, and sometimes sexual, relationships between adults and students. 
 
 
But victim-survivors don’t describe that era as being fraught with secrecy or scandal.
 
 
Instead, some former CTC students who said they felt like misfits everywhere else, found themselves immersed in a thespian world where they had the chance to learn gymnastics and pantomime and stage combat. By adolescence, many had performed on a world class stage and helped craft shows alongside seasoned professionals who treated them as equals.
 
 
But some said the elite program’s model, in which adults and children worked together as colleagues, put minors at risk. Sometimes students weren’t picked up from rehearsal until 1 a.m., or they were assigned to help adult actors get into costume in backstage dressing rooms.
 
 
“As a kid, you hear things, and you know things, but you’re … in the light of the theater, and you have stars in your eyes,” said Todd Hildebrandt, who filed a lawsuit against Donahue in December. “If you’re too close to the problem, you become blind.”
 
 
Hildebrandt said it was difficult for victims to reconcile the theater program’s brilliance with cases of traumatic sexual interactions with respected adults.
 
 
“We were honored, we were special and we were envied,” said another complainant, Erin Nanasi, in a statement. “What no one ever understood was we were programmed not to think of it as abuse.”
 
 
Jeanette Simmonds — who in her lawsuit claims that sound technician and designer Adamczak abused her when she was a 10th-grade dance student — recounted that her best friend openly wanted to date the 32-year-old.
 
 
“That was just part of the norm,” Simmonds said. “That’s how crazy this was. It seemed normal to me that my best friend wanted to have sex with him.”
 
 
Simmonds described the culture of mentorship and kinship as one where adults encouraged students to be expressive and push their limits artistically. However, she said, that environment also normalized criminal sexual behavior.
 
 
“There’s no way staff and actors in that company at school had not heard strong rumors, overheard conversations, seen questionable physical behavior,” she said. “It was not secret.”
 
 
All but one of the civil complaints allege that during that era, the company negligently or recklessly believed their employees were fit to work with children and took
responsibility for minors without ensuring their safety.
 
 
Hildebrandt said that while he was a CTC student, the company failed to put sufficient policies in place to protect its students.
 
 
“You had no mechanism to go somewhere if you had a complaint about an adult,” he said. “There was no advocate within the organization if we had a problem.”
 
 
Simmonds’ early graduation was followed by silence, she said — even though in 1984  Donahue was convicted of three counts of criminal sexual conduct and Simmonds testified in Adamczak’s 1985 criminal trial. 
 
 
Similarly, Hildebrandt said when he dropped out of CTC’s program and walked away from a network of artists with whom he had become enmeshed, no one checked in on him.
 
 
For decades, Hildebrandt said, he didn’t talk about what had happened during his time there.
 
 
The adulthood health impact of childhood abuse
 
 
Later in life, as a salesman, Hildebrandt found himself feeling like he was on stage again. 
 
 
He said his business suit was a costume, his pitch a script and the final sale sounded like audience applause — vestiges of his theater training from 
decades earlier.
 
 
“For me, it’s been a real transformation. I knew what happened to me, but I didn’t really see it as child abuse until I learned more about myself,” he said.
 
 
Hildebrandt said filing suit allowed him to finally confront symptoms of his childhood abuse that had plagued him into adulthood: depression, anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks and repressed memories. He said he has noticed a similar thread of health repercussions among other male survivors.
 
 
Studies show victims of childhood sexual assault tend to employ or be affected by post-traumatic stress, depression, guilt, isolation, loneliness, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. One report suggests the incidence of psychiatric disorders is about one in two for women and men who disclose a history of child sex abuse.
 
 
Hildebrandt and Simmonds said they know of other victims who committed suicide because of the toll of their abuse.
 
 
“I have had a risk factor that I was walking around with for my whole life,” Hildebrandt said.
 
 
He said he hopes his litigation will shed light not only on what happened at the theater company during his enrollment but also resulting health impacts of childhood sexual abuse.
 
 
“There is a clear link between child abuse and adverse adult health. My life is a manifestation of this link,” he said. “For me, this is what the case was all about — the lingering lifelong effects of sexual abuse — not just the abuse act itself.” 
 
 
Five-week countdown
 
 
Though survivors have until May 25 to file a lawsuit under the Child Victims Act, moving forward anyone abused under the age of 18 will not face a time limit for seeking damages.
 
 
Secretary of State Steve Simon and Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said they had hoped in 2013 to altogether eliminate the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases.
 
 
But compromises needed to pass the legislation, they said, struck that language from the bill.
 
 
Criminal cases are still limited by a statute of limitations because physical evidence becomes harder to work with as time passes and can create difficulties for a prosecutor, attorney Jeff Anderson said. 
 
 
Simmonds said beyond providing victims with a legal voice, the Child Victims Act has also forced the Children’s Theatre Company to acknowledge its past conduct.
 
 
“They never made a statement saying, ‘We know this happened. It’s horrible. We’re so sorry it happened. We’ll do anything to support the kids,’” she said. “It took the litigation.”
 
 
In December, after the first such lawsuits were filed, the theater released a statement of support for the victims.
 
 
“At every step, we will always remember that someone in pain, someone who was a member of our community, is at the heart of these matters,” the statement said. “This is an area where we will never say ‘enough’ but will instead strive to be better today than we were yesterday and even better tomorrow.”
 
 
Anderson urged survivors to contact him as soon as possible in order to serve lawsuit papers by next month’s deadline.
 
 
Even though it’s been months since Simmonds filed her own suit, she said she has a long journey ahead of her.
 
 
“I am willing to go through a 10-year process of trials and appeals — whatever it would take — because there can be no more harm done to me,” she said. “It takes so much less energy to do this than to live in shame.”