March 21, 2011 12:00 PM

On Feb. 25 three sisters and two brothers took the stage at a Colorado theater and sat at five Steinway pianos. The siblings, all raised strict Mormons and known as the 5 Browns, were playing their first concert since a shocking family event just eight days earlier. Yet their two-hour show, a rousing mix of classical piano pieces and showtunes, seemed flawless. “I feel this is the most honest music we’ve ever played,” the oldest, Desirae, 32, told the crowd of around 400 while introducing one number. “It’s about innocence and the loss of innocence, yet still believing in the good in humanity.”

Her words were especially poignant in light of the Browns’ ordeal. On Feb. 17 their father, Keith Brown, admitted to sexually abusing his daughters in the 1990s, pleading guilty to one count of first-degree felony sodomy upon a child and two counts of second-degree felony sexual abuse. That plea came just days after Brown, 55-who had been the childrens’ guiding force for most of their lives-drove his Porsche off a Utah road and down a 500-ft. cliff, seriously injuring his wife, Lisa, 55 (Brown suffered only minor head wounds). The wreck drew media attention to the sex charges, landing the popular quintet in a messy scandal that shocked their many fans. “I spent hundreds of hours with Keith, and he was the sweetest, nicest guy you ever met in your life,” says Joel Diamond, who managed the group for five years until 2008. “This all feels like a bad dream. It just doesn’t compute.”

The five Brown children-Desirae, Deondra, 30, Gregory, 28, Melody, 27 and Ryan, 25-declined to comment. But according to Utah prosecutors, it was Brown’s daughters who alerted authorities to the abuse in 2009. They “wanted their father to take responsibility, more than anything else,” said Utah County Deputy Attorney David Sturgill. “They felt there should be a serious punishment.” They came forward more than a decade after the last abuse incident, in 1998, because their father, whom they fired as their co-manager in 2008, told them he would look for new young talent to mentor. “He was going to represent other groups,” a source close to the family says Brown announced to his daughters. Fearing for other children and encouraged by their spouses (all three daughters are married), the Browns turned in their father.

Up until the abuse became public, the image of Brown and his team of prodigies had been squeaky-clean. Raised first in Houston, Texas, and then in Alpine, Utah, the children all began playing piano at age 3. “We haven’t pushed them,” their mother, Lisa, who met Brown when she was a voice major at Brigham Young University, told PEOPLE in 2002. “There’s a point where you think that they’ll quit and get interested in other things. But they never did.” The children weren’t allowed to watch much TV or play video games, and were home-schooled to allow for more practice time before enrolling in Juilliard-the first set of five siblings to simultaneously attend the prestigious Manhattan music school.

In 1998 talent manager Joel Diamond saw Ryan performing solo on PBS and tracked down Keith Brown. “I don’t know if you’re interested or not,” Diamond recalls the father telling him, “but there’s four more at home just like him.” Since forming in 2002, the 5 Browns have played hundreds of concerts around the world, appeared on Oprah and 60 Minutes and released three CDs that topped Billboard’s classical charts.

Yet their dazzling harmony onstage belied the strain of a dark secret. Not long after firing their father in 2008, the children summoned Diamond to a breakfast meeting and fired him too. “They said, ‘Joel, we love you, but for reasons we can’t really talk to you about right now, we have to disassociate from our father, and you’re collateral damage,'” recalls Diamond, who only learned of the abuse when it became public last month.

The charges came to light after Keith and Lisa survived a car wreck on Valentine’s Day. They were on the way home from a dinner at Snowbird ski resort in Utah when, according to police, Brown lost control of his Porsche while driving 90 mph and plunged off a cliff. Luckily, the car landed on its four wheels in a creek; Brown suffered minor head injuries, but Lisa spent a week in a hospital with broken ribs. Just three days later, Brown, his face bruised, pleaded guilty to the charges in a Provo courthouse. Was the crash a suicide attempt? Brown insists it wasn’t. “He said, ‘Would I be wearing my seat belt if I was trying to kill myself?'” says a source close the family. “He believes God spared him so he can repair his relationship with his kids.”

How long that might take remains to be seen. The children are in touch with their mom and are praying for her recovery, said their spokesman Kimball Thomson. But their father’s plea deal could earn him at least 10 years in prison at his sentencing on March 31. The Brown sisters approved the deal and “are at peace with the agreement,” says Thomson. “The women were well prepared for this day.” With hundreds of fans leaving hopeful messages on Facebook-“Play on, children, God is with you,” reads one-the siblings plan to keep touring, relying, as they always have, on each other for support. “Going on tour carries its own stress, but they love doing it,” says Thomson. “They find healing and comfort in playing.”

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