John Donovan’s Great Divide

Excerpts: John Donovan’s Great Divide

  • James Donovan and his two girls, both in their Halloween costumes, were in their driveway, just heading out for a night of trick or treating, when the Hamilton police drove up to their home, Black Rock Farm, a 23-room country estate stretching over 22 acres of pasture land and woods. They served Donovan, a Boston investment banker, with a restraining order: He was not to go near his father’s home, just five minutes away, or his father’s Cambridge office, and he was to appear before a hearing in four days. Donovan’s wife, pregnant with their third child, stood by and wept.
  • John Donovan, a well-known former technology and business professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an author and serial entrepreneur, and his five grown children, all accomplished in their own right, tell very different stories about what went wrong in their family. They all tell their varying stories in court documents, correspondence between their lawyers, and angry statements. No family member would be interviewed for this story.
  • According to John Donovan, his children are trying to force him out of the house where he has lived his entire adult life and to appropriate a fortune estimated at $100 million in property and cash by threatening to tell awful lies about him.
  • Donovan also has a talent for making enemies. Over the years he has fallen out with many of his former associates in business and academia, Madnick included, and they say he promises more than he delivers. Donovan’s companies tend to start fast and end badly. His battles are vitriolic and personal; many of them end up in the courts.
  • At the heart of the dispute is a daughter’s assertion, which is vigorously denied by Donovan, that as a child she was sexually molested by her father for years.
  • In an affidavit in support of a lawsuit filed against Donovan last year, the daughter said: “My father, Donovan Sr., abused me sexually when I was a child. The sexual abuse by my father has caused me tremendous pain, psychological trauma, and anguish, which continues to this day.”
  • The children say they were appalled when their sister first raised the issue of sexual abuse, in the fall of 2002. “Based on her statements, my perception, and other information available to me, I believe my sister,” James Donovan said in an affidavit. “From this point, as soon as I knew what our father had done . . . and understood how much suffering our father had inflicted on his own child, I knew that I would never have a relationship with my father.”
  • With the exception of John Jr., the youngest, the other Donovan children have joined in the legal action against their father. Even John Jr. has said he wants nothing more to do with his father. In a letter to one of his sisters, he called his father a liar. “What we have learned about dad is monstrous, and we should have nothing to do with him,” he wrote, according to correspondence between lawyers.
  • “The victim never stole any money,” Sterling said. In addition, Sterling said that the sexual abuse was disclosed to several doctors years ago and that Donovan’s “24-year-old report” was prepared by his own psychologist in an effort to discredit his wife during the divorce.
  • The daughter and three of her siblings have retained Jeffrey Newman, one of the lead plaintiff attorneys in the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal, to represent them against their father.
  • Another $18.5 million was transferred from the family to the children in November 2002, court documents show. In addition, a preliminary settlement between father and children called for Donovan to pay $6 million to his children in exchange for a life estate and options to buy back some of the properties.
  • The crisis in the Donovan family grows out of the first of his three marriages. He and his wife, Marilyn, had five children, but split in an acrimonious divorce after 17 years of marriage. “He was a cheat, a thief, in my opinion, a dishonest man, and in no way was a husband,” Marilyn Donovan said in a deposition at the time of the divorce. She also declined to be interviewed for this story.
  • According to documents filed in Suffolk Superior Court, the children first raised the charges of sexual abuse and demanded a separation of the assets at a meeting in November 2002. That meeting was the first in a series in which both sides negotiated a detailed separation agreement, confirming the children’s ownership of the properties, but providing a life estate for their father in most of them and an option to buy some of them.

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