EL CAJON, Calif. — The president of El Cajon-based Christian Youth Theater announced Friday that the San Diego branch of the nationwide organization has shut down indefinitely amid allegations of sexual abuse by former employees.

At a news conference Friday, Janie Russell Cox, whose parents founded the theater in 1981 and grew it into one of the nation's largest youth theater organizations, said she and her staff "are heartbroken and devastated about the experiences of former students of our program that were recently shared via social media."

Allegations of sex abuse, racism and homophobia within Christian Youth Theater, a nonprofit educational organization, have been made over the past 10 days, particularly on Facebook, where alums and former employees have opened up about their alleged experiences, often using the hashtag #CYTKnew.

That was the same message that about two dozen of the theater's former students and performers, as well as their supporters and an attorney, expressed Friday afternoon outside the theater's headquarters in El Cajon, Calif., where the organization's sign was taken off its building earlier in the day.

Jessica Pride, the attorney, claimed the organization's founder and longtime president had "acute and specific knowledge of the abuse that was happening." Pride claimed that "instead of helping the children that he was tasked to protect," founder Paul Russell instead "asked their families (and) them ... to forgive their predators and allow them to repent. And allow them to still continue to teach these children."

Standing in front of theater props stacked high around her inside the theater's headquarters Friday, Russell Cox said that since the allegations came to light, "we have been internally investigating all of these situations in depth." She said all allegations of sexual abuse that were brought to her attention took place before her time as president, which began in 2017.

Russell Cox's parents, Paul and Sheryl Russell, founded Christian Youth Theater in 1981 and ran it for decades. Paul Russell did not immediately return a voicemail seeking comment Friday.

Russell Cox's announcement that the San Diego branch of the theater company was shutting down "until further notice" is not expected to affect the organization's other branches across the country.

According to Russell Cox, "there are no current cases against CYT SD involving law enforcement," though she also said the organization's leaders "have directly reached out to our local authorities" and that she and her staff are "actively cooperating with ... the San Diego Sex Crimes Unit, El Cajon Police Department and the San Diego Police Department."

San Diego and El Cajon police officials did not immediately respond Friday to phone calls and emails seeking to confirm potential investigations.

Pride, the attorney for the alleged victims, claimed Friday outside of the theater's headquarters that "there is an active police investigation going on into the multiple perpetrators that are out there."

Pride said she could not comment on the specifics of the case or cases, but said her four clients ranged in age from 12 to 16 years old when they were allegedly abused. She said there was opportunity — and a legal mandate — for Paul Russell and Christian Youth Theater leadership to report the abuse "in 2003, in 2006, in 2008."

"Had he done that ... those children and the children that got hurt after would never have been hurt," Pride said. "But it's at their hands, and they let it happen under their watch."

The deluge of Facebook posts regarding alleged abuse at the theater, accusations that such abuse was covered up by leadership, and accusations of racism, homophobia and bullying within the organization, began July 14.

Shortly after the initial post, a woman posted an allegation of being assaulted when she was 13, abuse that, she said, lasted for the next few years. Another man later posted that he was "a survivor of childhood sexual assault." He named his alleged abuser, describing the man as a theater director, and claimed the same man "also molested many of my closest guy friends."

Dozens of other posts followed over the next week, with some alums alleging they were sexually abused or groomed, and others recounting racism, bullying and homophobia.

Courtney Conway, a queer woman who spoke to reporters Friday and agreed to share her experiences publicly, shared on Facebook a letter she wrote to the theater's leaders earlier this year.

"I am writing this letter to express to you just how traumatic it was to witness conversation after conversation between mentors, staff, students, and parents in CYT berating and terrorizing the LGBTQ+ community, making it very clear that anyone who is a part of or supports it had no place in CYT," Conway wrote in part.

Landen Baldwin, a former student and performer with the organization, resigned from his employment with the group July 14 as a teaching artist and improvisational theater coordinator. It was his public resignation on Facebook that sparked the deluge of posts.

Baldwin said Friday in a phone interview that he made his resignation public so there would be no confusion or gossip about why he left. In the Facebook post, he wrote in part that he "cannot in good conscience devote my time and expertise to a company that trends toward values opposite my own, and even now remains silent on those issues that could lend support to students and alumni that have felt alienated and even unsafe within their ranks."

Officially, Christian Youth Theater's mission, according to tax documents filed as part of its nonprofit status, is to "develop character and creativity in kids of all ages through quality theater arts training that brings families and communities together while reflecting the Creator." The group previously described its mission in part as one to "foster Judeo-Christian values in theater arts."

Baldwin said the theater's unofficial motto — one they put on clothing items and sold on their official online store — was "Awkwardly Closer Than Family."

So it was hurtful to Baldwin and his actual family when, earlier this year, the theater's leadership ignored concerns over the hiring of an instructor who had left a teaching job with the Sweetwater Union High School District.

The Voice of San Diego published a series of stories in 2018 in which it reported, citing an internal district investigation, that district officials found that a longtime Chula Vista choir teacher sexually harassed and groped at least three female students repeatedly between 2015 and 2017. The district found his conduct to be "severe and pervasive."

Earlier this year, Christian Youth Theater agreed to hire the choir teacher to teach an online class during the COVID-19 pandemic, though he ultimately did not end up teaching the class.

Baldwin said he raised internal objections over the hire. So did his mother, whose daughter was part of the theater at the time. And so did Odie and Tonia Miller, whose daughter was part of the North County branch of the theater.

In emails to Melissa Baldwin and the Millers that those families shared with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Russell Cox wrote there was nothing in the choir instructor's background check that would prohibit the theater from hiring him.

The Voice of San Diego reported in June 2018 that as part of a resignation deal with the choir teacher, Sweetwater district officials agreed not to discuss or disclose the investigation or complaints with potential employers.

Despite that investigation and records from it being made public, Russell Cox wrote in an email to Tonia Miller on April 7 that "we do want to be open to hiring him in the future if the timing and circumstances align."

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(c)2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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