The landscape has changed on a story I first began reporting some two decades ago, and newly released details demand an update to the sad saga.
Two men have come forward to discuss in graphic detail what they say was their yearslong sexual abuse at the hands of entertainer Michael Jackson. Their claims spill out in a new four-hour documentary released at the Sundance Film Festival. Titled “Leaving Neverland,” the biopic will be shown on HBO this spring.
A film critic who viewed the expose wrote that the shocking revelations of James Safechuck and Wade Robson are “devastatingly powerful and convincing testimony that Michael Jackson was guilty of child sexual abuse.” Another wrote that the audience was left “shellshocked” by the details. A third predicted, “You’ll never listen to Michael Jackson the same way again. In fact, you may never listen to Michael Jackson again at all.”
Safechuck, 40, says the molestation by Jackson started when he was 10. Robson, 36, says it first happened to him at age 7, and that when he had his own son, the reality hit him. He realized that what Jackson had done to him as a boy was a crime.
Both men met Jackson through their childhood interest in show business, Robson as a dancer, Safechuck as an actor. The boys — and their parents — were mesmerized by the superstar’s attention and expensive gifts.
Safechuck and Robson had not met until just before the screening. In separate on-camera interviews, they recount private times spent with Jackson that included watching pornography and lessons in kissing, masturbation, oral sex and anal sex, all cloaked in playful boyhood language. They were constantly reminded by Jackson, they said, to keep their activities secret or they would “go to jail.” Safechuck remembers he was put though drills on putting his clothes back on quickly and had a mock wedding to Jackson in a ceremony that included vows and rings. Robson reveals his idol once instructed him to throw away his underwear after a sexual encounter, and that as other younger boys were brought in to replace Robson, he became jealous of them. The film suggests Safechuck and Robson weren’t the only victims of the King of Pop.
Jackson’s fans, family members and estate lawyers were quick to label the documentary “tabloid character assassination” engineered by two men who are motivated by money and known “perjurers.”
The first charge is strange, since neither was paid for appearing in the documentary and lawsuits they filed against the Jackson estate years ago were dismissed. But the Jackson team does have a point when it mentions perjury. Both Robson and Safechuck have said in the past — and under oath — that while they slept in bed with Jackson, nothing untoward occurred.
But have we learned nothing about how child sex abuse victims react? Think about the countless number of adults who have come forward years or decades later to talk about molestation by a priest, or forced sexual activity at the hands of a doctor, teacher or other authority figure. That Safechuck and Robson kept the secret is not unique. Victims often deny abuse when asked and wait until they feel strong enough to endure outsiders’ reactions to their truth.
In a recent conversation with retired FBI Agent Ken Lanning, the man who wrote the profile on pedophiles for the bureau, I was reminded how charming and cunning pedophiles can be and, most importantly, how they seduce parents first as a way to gain access to the child.
“Maybe these men now feel safer to speak out because Michael Jackson is dead,” Lanning told me. “Or maybe it’s because they are both fathers now.” Or maybe they were just tired of carrying such an ugly burden all these years. The last section of the documentary is particularly moving, as the men tearfully explain how they finally disclosed their secret to their families.
Since 1993, when I first reported the story about Jackson and allegations of child sex abuse, and especially after the release of my book detailing the years I spent investigating the charges, the most frequently asked question has been “Do you think he really did it?” When asked, I always go through the names of the other young men who have identified themselves as Jackson’s victims: Jordan Chandler, Jason Francia, Gavin Arvizo and now James Safechuck and Wade Robson. I have knowledge of and suspicions about a dozen more males who, as children, were exposed to Jackson in very similar ways. Perhaps in the future, some of them will come forward, too.
In this #MeToo, #TimesUp era, there seems to be a measurable shift in public opinion about Jackson’s behavior with children and a deeper understanding of what victims of sex crimes go through. If, as I sense, more people come to the conclusion that Jackson was a pedophile after seeing this documentary, then there is only one remaining question: How did he get away with it for so long?