Lawyer: Director died by suicide before telling his side

Artistic director Jeff Church at The Coterie Theater in Crown Center in 2002.

Artistic director Jeff Church at The Coterie Theater in Crown Center in 2002.

The Kansas City Star

The lawyer for the estate of Jeff Church, The Coterie theater producing artistic director accused of sexually abusing young men for years, says that they spoke the night before Church took his life and that Church was “feeling the pressure from what he called the social media ‘dogpile.’”

Attorney Larry LaVigne II said Church died by suicide before he told his side of the story, which asserts that Church’s accusers were “consenting adults.”

But that term “is a common technique we see to discredit survivors,” said Julie Donelon, president and CEO of MOCSA, Kansas City’s largest resource organization for survivors of sexual assault.

Church, 63, was found dead in his Kansas City home on Christmas Eve, just days after multiple allegations against him hit social media.

On Wednesday, the Coterie asked anyone with allegations of misconduct to come forward as it carries out an independent investigation.

LaVigne, who met the director nearly 10 years ago, said Church had talked about retiring from The Coterie for the last few years but planned to step down in 2023 and move with his mother out of state.

“Clearly I didn’t know his state of mind was as fragile as it was,” LaVigne told The Star on Thursday.

The accusations against Church have rocked the local theater community, where some say they knew about Church’s behavior for years, and others say the allegations do not square with the man they knew.

“I think that’s a very common response. And unfortunately, I think that’s why survivors aren’t believed,” said Donelon, speaking in general terms of sexual abuse cases.

“Because people know the good side, the side that perpetrators want to show to others and they don’t show the dark side, the side that is the abusive side. Or because they’re doing so much good in the community or they have such good relationships, they do nice things for others that we can’t reconcile that with the part they aren’t showing us.”

The Coterie had no further comment on Thursday beyond the statement it issued the day before about its investigation.

LaVigne was out of town on Dec. 20 when the Church contacted him after the first allegation was posted on social media. Church defended himself profusely. “I urged him to be patient,” LaVigne said.

Then, more allegations, one after another, spilled quickly on social media.

Church gave LaVigne explicit text conversations he had with one of his accusers about having sex. LaVigne said he sent a letter demanding that person delete his social media post.

“I take accusations of sexual abuse very seriously. We can forever debate whether making this type of accusation publicly, online, is the right way to handle the situation,” LaVigne said in a statement after Church died. “Sometimes, maybe it is. My job is best done when I can understand the accused and the (alleged) victim alike.”

Jeff Church in 1997.JPG
Jeff Church, artistic director of the Coterie theater, with actors in 1997. Beverly Bynum The Kansas City Star

‘Numerous young men’

The allegations that have surfaced since last week span 30-plus years of what one accuser described as grooming, abusing and assaulting young men.

One of the first to speak up was KKFI 90.1’s Mark Manning, who wrote in a Facebook post that Church assaulted him 31 years ago when he was 27.

Several people, including Manning, said they know of others. Actor KC Comeaux took to Facebook on Friday to accuse Church of grooming, abusing and assaulting “numerous young men over the course of 30+ years. Myself included.”

“If you, or someone you love has fallen victim to Jeff Church, I want you to know that you are not alone. I, and countless others are here to support you and help healing in any way we can,” he wrote.

Manning said most of the people speaking up were young theater artists “trying to find their way through their theatrical career and a person in a very great authority position of directing them and deciding who gets paid and who gets the job (was) interfering in people’s lives.”

People with power can abuse it “to maintain control over victims, especially to keep them silent about the abuse that they’ve endured,” said Donelon.

“I want to really thank the survivor who came forward and shared their story about their abuse. That takes a lot of courage and strength to be out there with that.

“And I am so grateful to the others who came forward as well to support that individual because it can be very isolating to be someone who comes out and talks about sexual assault that has happened to you and have to stand alone.”

One of the interesting aspects of this situation, Donelon said, “is that this person had power and control. They were somebody who was admired within the community, somebody who was very involved in the community. And we know that sexual assault happens in our community. So therefore we likely know and love people who are committing harm against other people in our community.

“So if we truly believe survivors, we have to believe it when they tell us who that person is and when it is someone who is well-respected and well-known in the community.”

Coterie directors.JPG
Jeff Church, Coterie producing artistic director, and Joette Pelster, executive director, in 2013. Losing his close friend Pelster, who died in November, stressed Church, his lawyer said. Roy Inman Special to The Star

‘Digital witch hunt’

LaVigne told The Star that he doesn’t want to be painted as a “heartless attorney.” He said he received countless hateful messages for representing the Church.

“I feel for anyone who has been a victim of abuse. I don’t want to seem like I’m not,” he said. “Like I said in my statement, I try to understand both sides.”

But LaVigne considers Church the victim of a “coordinated digital witch hunt.”

“It appears that most of the news coverage has attempted to create some sort of narrative that Jeff was an old man who preyed on young people at his children’s theater,” he told the Star. “These were all consenting adults. The allegations are very weak on their best day.”

The youngest of Church’s accusers on social media was 17 at the time of his alleged incident.

Donelon said it’s “absolutely no surprise” that the defense of the Church would be that relations were consensual.

“I think an important piece to this is looking at the power dynamics. So consent is given when two people have equal power,” she said. “It has to be freely given. There can’t be a difference in consequences for saying yes or saying no.

“So if you say no, you can’t have any adverse consequences as a result of that. And in this situation, if somebody had less power or were reliant on the person who abused them for jobs or continuing work, there was no consent. That’s not a consensual relationship when you hold power and control over someone.”

MOCSA’s mission is to improve the lives of people affected by sexual abuse and assault, and to prevent sexual violence. Its services are free and confidential. Donelon said survivors in this case “should practice self-care, determine what is best and what is right for them.

“At MOCSA we support survivors. They know best how they need to heal from the abuse that happened to them. For some, that is coming forward and saying they were also a victim. And for others, that may mean coming into counseling or working with an advocate to talk through what they’ve experienced.”

In this case, the survivors who have come forward are men and members of the LGBTQIA community, which “creates special challenges” for them, she said.

“We know that men and individuals in the LGBTQ community face additional barriers in coming forward,” she said. “That could mean that they are outed to the community, to their family, they may feel like there aren’t services that are available to them and what their experiences are as a man or somebody in the LGBTQIA community.

“We know that our identities impact the way we heal from trauma, which is why MOCSA has support groups that are specific for men and also the LGBTQIA community.”

MOCSA has a crisis line available to sexual assault survivors and anyone else who might need support: 816-531-0233 or 913-642-0233.

The Coterie asks that misconduct claims against staff or cast members be sent to coterieinvestigation@gmail.com.

There must be accountability

LaVigne said he “can only speculate as to why (Church) chose to end his own life.

“Most people cannot predict when such an event will happen, otherwise it would happen with less frequency. What I do know is that although Jeff knew how to craft a story on stage, he was a very honest and straightforward person in real life.”

Like others who have reacted to Church’s death, LaVigne spoke of his Coterie career. “I hope that Coterie will understand that recent accusations should not tarnish his incredible legacy during his 32-plus years serving that organization and the community,” he said. In 2005, Time magazine ranked The Coterie among the top five children’s theaters in the country.

Donelon said Church’s death does not provide accountability, which complicates the healing process for survivors.

“Unfortunately, while he may not be there anymore, unless you change the system in place that allowed it to happen or perpetuate, someone else will come along,” she said. “So we need to make sure there are systems in place, checks in place, to prevent that.”

The theater said it is reviewing its policies and procedures and remains “unequivocally and passionately committed to a safe and healthy, supportive working environment.”

“What I would like to focus on is what does our community need to do?” said Donelon. “And I think what we’ve seen in this situation is our community rallying around survivors and believing them.”

It’s not up to the survivors to make sure incidents like the alleged ones don’t happen again, she said.

“Now we need to take the next step and make sure that we make changes, that the people who are in power, and not just the abusers, not just those at the top who actually committed the abuses, but those who were in power who knew, who heard the whisper campaigns going on, that they take action to make sure that this does not happen in the future.

“And that they recognize what some of those behaviors are that are predatory, and stop them. And make sure that there are systems in place to address them.”

This story was originally published December 29, 2022 5:29 PM.

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Lisa Gutierrez writes about medical and health-related issues for The Kansas City Star. She is a Kansas native and veteran of five newsrooms. She was a caregiver for her husband, who had dementia, until he died in July 2019.

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