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Coterie Theatre report says its former artistic director sexually assaulted multiple adults

Head and shoulders of Jeff Church
Canon, Scott
/
The Coterie Theatre
Jeff Church, the former producing artistic director of The Coterie Theatre, died of suicide in December after public allegations that he had sexually assaulted multiple men.

The report, commissioned by the theater, said there were no allegations of attacks on children.

An investigation commissioned by The Coterie Theatre concluded its longtime producing artistic director “engaged in nonconsensual sexual acts against adults” over three decades — usually at parties at his home.

The report said Jeff Church, who died in December as allegations became public that he used his influence in the Kansas City theater community to prey on sexual victims, used the Coterie’s Instagram account for “inappropriate private conversations with a consenting adult” that a minor also saw on the social media app.

The children’s theater didn’t release the entirety of the report it paid for — it cited confidentiality for witnesses — but said none of the sexual attacks documented by the outside human resources firm happened at the theater or at events it sponsored.

“The investigation did not corroborate any claims of sexual assault against children,” the Coterie said in releasing some findings from the report.

It also said the investigation “found no evidence that past or current Coterie Board members knew of allegations of sexual misconduct.”

Several witnesses who spoke with the outside firm’s investigator said they never saw Church engaging in “inappropriate behavior.”

“We have a tremendous amount of empathy for the victims of these heinous actions,” Theresa Stoker, current Coterie board president, said in a statement. “We are deeply troubled by the allegations against Jeff Church. We are determined to foster an environment where creatives can do their best work to entertain and delight our young audiences. We believe we have the right leadership in place to achieve that.”

Multiple accusations of sexual harassment first surfaced on social media in mid-December and then published later that month by the Kansas City Pitch.

Dashawn Young, a Florida-based actor who used to live in Kansas City detailed an assault by Church in a video posted to Facebook.

That post unleashed allegations from other people who accused Church of using social events to coerce sexual encounters. That included KKFI 90.1 radio host Mark Manning, who said Church assaulted him in 1991 when Manning was 27. Two other actors accused Church of assault or other unwanted advances in accounts published by the Pitch.

Church’s suicide followed the announcement a month earlier that longtime executive director Joette Pelster was retiring. She died shortly after that announcement in November. The day before he died, the Coterie’s board of directors said it had accepted Church’s resignation and that the board was committed to investigating the sexual assault allegations against him.

Since then, the Coterie’s board named Jonathon Thomas the theater’s managing director and Heidi Van as interim producing artistic director.

"We take these allegations very seriously and strive every day to demonstrate a respectful, supportive environment,” Thomas said in a statement.

He said the theater, long housed at Crown Center, has taken measures to make it easier for anyone involved with the Coterie to speak up about their treatment.

Thomas said in an interview on Wednesday the theater had hints over the decades that Church was forcing himself on people. But Thomas said the victims didn't feel comfortable reporting the abuse.

"As we’ve heard from multiple victims’ stories, there were rumors,” the managing director said. “People that were involved in these incidents or in these situations did not feel the necessary advocacy to come forward."

Thomas said the company has worked hard to make victims feel comfortable discussing what happened to them.

“We are evaluating constantly … how we deal with employee interaction and teammate interaction to make sure that things are more collegial and that in the industry the Coterie is a gold standard as far as representation for their staff and for their artists,” he said.

The theater’s backers have remained resolute, Thomas said.

“We have not lost one funder, one foundational funder, throughout this process,” he said. “I think our spirit of transparency and wanting to move through the healing process as part of this has shown funders that we are here to stay and here to continue to make the impact that our mission continues to make.”

Thomas said in the theater’s statement that she believes the theater is taking the fallout from Church’s long stint at the organization seriously.

“We have the opportunity to lead change in our industry by lifting up every person at The Coterie at every level of our organization,” he said in the statement. “It’s the good that will continue to emerge from a very tragic situation.”

This story has been updated to clarify who Coterie officials say were rumored as victims of Church.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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