BRUNSWICK — Support services are being provided to families affected by allegations that the founder of the Midcoast Youth Theater molested three young girls at his home in Topsham.
Henry Eichman, 56, who was also a teacher at St. John’s Catholic School, was charged Sept. 9 with unlawful sexual contact and sexual exploitation with a child under 12. He was released Sept. 14 from Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset on $5,000 cash bail.
Eichman, who founded MYT in 2003, and had been a part-time drama teacher at St. John’s since 2008, has been suspended from employment and barred from campus until the court proceedings play out, according to spokesman Dave Guthro of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
Volunteer MYT spokesman Greg Howard confirmed that at the time of his arrest, Eichman did not serve on the theater’s board, nor was he under contract to direct any upcoming shows.
He also said that while he did not know Eichman personally, those who did were shocked by the news.
Though the MYT community – which includes adults, parents and children who perform and volunteer in the theater’s productions – is emotionally distraught, the board worked quickly to figure out what its next steps would be, Howard said in a Sept. 16 interview.
The organization’s primary goal now, he said, is to support its members and ensure that the theater will survive.
“It would be a real shame … for an entire company to be brought down by the actions of one individual,” Howard said.
Leaders of the volunteer organization scheduled a meeting Sept. 15 at the Mid Coast Presbyterian Church in Topsham just six days after the allegations were made public. The church provides rehearsal space to the theater, and Howard said church leaders attended to express their support for the organization.
The meeting was closed to the public to protect the identities of the children involved in the organization.
However, extra chairs were needed to accommodate the nearly 70 people who attended the meeting, which lasted over two hours and included parents, performers and alumni of the theater.
“Every person in the room got to say what they were feeling, without interruption,” Howard said. Those in attendance passed around a bowl that designated their turn to speak; Howard summarized the responses as a mix of support and concern.
While the overwhelming take-away was a vote of confidence to continue the program, a few parents said they were undecided about whether they and their children would continue to participate.
After the board answered questions at the outset of the meeting – most of which had to do with the procedure surrounding Eichman’s prosecution – trained advocates from Sexual Assault Services of Midcoast Maine provided support and literature around how parents can speak to their children.
“There’s no set formula for how you have this conversation,” Howard said.
He urged parents to be careful of what they say on social media or to the press, to “insulate kids as much as possible.”
Howard emphasized that none of the alleged actions took place during official MYT events, and the organization has not been contacted by law enforcement.
He said the theater has protocols in place “in order to ensure that those situations don’t arise” when a child would be alone with a single adult.
Additionally, every teacher and director at the theater must pass a background check, which Eichman successfully did as recently as July 7. Howard was not sure if adults who perform in theater productions are obligated to undergo a background check, and said that may be something the theater will look into.
Because the alleged incidents took place at Eichman’s home, Howard said, “I think there’s a limit to what we can do as a volunteer organization about things that happen outside (the theater).”
But the theater “will explore with professionals everything we can do to make kids feel safe,” he added, saying that the nonprofit “wouldn’t hide behind a nuance” and would do all it could to make sure that the organization continues to thrive as a safe environment.
The program “is designed to let kids – and adults – enjoy the arts,” Howard said, describing theater as a way to let kids blossom and build confidence.
Howard pointed out that the often-therapeutic benefits that theater provides may be just what the MYT community needs at a time like this; now more than ever, “the show must go on,” he said.
“Often what you do (in the wake of trauma) is role play: you act,” Howard said. “Why would we stop doing what these kids love so much?”
MYT will hold auditions for its upcoming production of “Beauty and the Beast” this weekend, and Howard said the theater “has no indication there’s a drop-off” in participation.
The theater has since removed a section of the “history” page on its website that identified and pictured Eichman. Howard said even if the allegations prove to be false, “we just don’t see a situation where he’d ever be a contract director ever again.”
Similar to the meetings held by MYT, Guthro said in an email that St. John’s has planned two closed meetings this week for parents to meet with trained advocates from SASSMM.
Guthro also said “all parents and students … participate in yearly education, the ‘Think First Stay Safe‘ curriculum, which educates both parents and students on the different ways that sexual predators behave and how children can best protect themselves from being abused.” He did not say whether it was mandatory.
Eichman’s next court appearance is scheduled for Nov. 9 in West Bath Superior Court.