It has been apparent since the mid 1990s that Michael Jackson was a child molester. A great entertainer, yes, but almost certainly a serial abuser of little boys. That his attorneys managed to cast doubt on witnesses in a notorious 2005 criminal trial doesn’t inspire much confidence. As was the case with Bill Cosby, the pattern of grotesque allegations has become impossible to ignore.
Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40, have previously stated under oath that they weren’t victimized by Jackson when they were children. They are now saying their previous testimony was untrue and that it resulted from direct pressure by Jackson himself, who told them that he and they would be jailed if he should be convicted of sexual abuse. “I want to speak the truth as loud as I spoke the lie,” Robson says in the four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland, which has just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of being broadcast on HBO later this year. In the film, he and Safechuck tell their stories in gruesome, indeed sickening, detail. (A statement from the Jackson estate dismissed the allegations as uncorroborated “tabloid character assassination.”)
I haven’t yet seen Leaving Neverland, but those who have report that the film paints a damning picture. Safechuck was a child actor who says he met Jackson at age ten while filming a Pepsi commercial. Starting when he was eleven, he says, they engaged in sex acts many times at Jackson’s Neverland compound — in a castle, in an attic, in a pool, in a train station. Safechuck says the pop singer used to hold drills in which he would train the boy in putting his clothes on quickly in case any witnesses should appear. Jackson also told him that “if anyone ever found out that we were doing these sexual things, we would go to jail for the rest of our lives.” “I was terrified.” When Safechuck was 14, he says, Jackson staged a mock wedding with him, complete with vows and a diamond-encrusted wedding ring.
Robson, a Brisbane-born dancer who grew up to be a choreographer for Britney Spears and others, says he also met Jackson in 1987, when he was just five and performed in a dance contest that led to him meeting the singer during the Bad tour in Australia. When he moved to Los Angeles, the pair had sexual contact starting while he was seven, he claims. Jackson advised the boy to throw away his underwear after the first sexual encounter, Robson says. Jackson, who would marry Lisa Marie Presley in 1994, said his ostensibly heterosexual relationships with women were purely a public-relations exercise. This too was obvious to all at the time.
Why did the parents allow their children to spend so much time alone with Jackson? The film “captures how the parents found themselves under the spell, and the Mob-like pushiness, of Michael’s celebrity,” wrote Owen Gleiberman in Variety. “They thought he was creating opportunities for their children that might otherwise be taken away. And once inside their homes, he seemed the soul of gentleness.”
Robson and Safechuck filed civil suits against the estate of Jackson in 2013 and 2014. Both cases were thrown out for technical reasons; there was no ruling on the merits of their claims. The stories they tell are of a piece with other stories we’ve been hearing about for a quarter of a century. In 1993, the father of a 13-year-old boy named Jordy Chandler accused Jackson of engaging in sexual acts with the boy. The criminal case was closed for lack of evidence, but Jackson agreed to pay out a sum reported by Court TV to be nearly $25 million. In 2004–05, Jackson was accused in an 18-month trial of molesting and otherwise abusing Gavin Arizo, a 13-year-old boy. Jackson was acquitted of all charges, but the evidence that emerged was disturbing. Several adults claimed to have witnessed acts of molestation, but Jackson’s lawyers were able to raise reasonable doubts about their credibility for various reasons. Some were disgruntled former employees; some had previously testified that they had seen nothing.
To some extent, we as a society have set aside the many horrific and entirely credible claims against Jackson simply because we want them not to be true; for the same reason, Bill Cosby got a pass for a surprisingly long time. Jackson’s unfortunate early demise, his apparent closeted homosexuality, and his wounded, childlike nature have made fans fiercely protective of him, with the media largely sidestepping the issue since he died in 2009. What punishment can be visited upon him posthumously? Should he be erased from the culture the way Cosby has been? Should radio stations and deejays stop playing his many great records the way broadcasters have stopped airing The Cosby Show? I’m not sure they should. But the label of serial child molester must be forever attached to Michael Jackson’s name. It should be reiterated constantly like an anti-honorific, the way we take care to refer to President Carter or General MacArthur.