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Leaving Neverland: 'A monster was hiding in plain sight and we chose to look the other way'

Child protection expert Shane Dunphy writes that the allegations are credible and consistent but cannot now be proven definitively.

Shane Dunphy

DAN REED’S TWO-part film, Leaving Neverland is, if nothing else, a well-made documentary.

What sets it apart from the other tell-all, confessional type films is the skill with which it tells a deeply complex story, in a deceptively simple manner.

It does this by escalating the viewers’ emotional responses in increasingly powerful ways.

First off, you are introduced to the key players: to the fore, of course, is Michael Jackson, the most successful musician of his generation and at the time the most famous man in the world.

The events the film deals with occur during the period he was at the pinnacle of his fame and his performing abilities – the BAD album was topping charts all over the world and Jackson was a constant presence on television, newspapers, magazines and radios all around the globe. 

Next up are Wade Robson, James Safechuck and their families.

At the outset, you are already aware they have a story to tell, and you are, initially, a little unsure of them. Both, though, are articulate, measured, good-looking men in early middle-age.

They do not come across as angry or hysterical, and the stories they begin to share are all about wish fulfilment in its simplest form.

Both tell of how, as children, they idolised the most lauded and fantastical pop star in the world, Wade almost became a pint-sized version of the singer

Then how they got to meet him and both went on to become an important part of his life.

In the first hour, you sit through home movies, concert footage, television advertisements, music videos – the viewer is immersed in the sights, sounds and fashions of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That was a time when our child protection sensibilities were a lot less developed than they are now.

There are some gentle prompts. Safechuck’s mother says she initially refused to allow her ten-year-old son to sleep in the same room as Jackson as it just didn’t seem right to her.

Wade’s mother was less astute and says she just didn’t see anything wrong with the proposal and of course her seven-year-old son was begging her to allow him to share Jackson’s bed.

What harm could it do?

At this point, you’re a little uncomfortable, but the hammer still hasn’t fallen.

You see, you’ve become used to the idea of Michael Jackson as an alleged child abuser. There were some well-publicised court hearings, none of which resulted in prosecutions.

You’ve heard the stories of him sharing his bed with small boys, but Jackson was always presented as a kind of over-sized kid, so there couldn’t be any harm in it, could there?

The world watched from a distance, tutted a few times, and looked away. Reed’s documentary pulls those gazes back front and centre.

Wade and Safechuck begin to tell of the sexual abuse they claim they experienced at Jackson’s hands without any real preamble.

Their story moves from joyful, exciting, fun-filled days with their hero to seemingly relentless sexual molestation rapidly and no detail is spared.

It is stark and painful and at times shocking viewing.

Their stories have polarised opinion and elicited emotional outbursts across both the mainstream and social media.

The main argument in Robson and Safechuck’s favour posits that everyone knew this was going on, and finally, we have evidence – two survivors are bravely stepping forward and speaking their truth. Jackson was a monster.

The backlash is equally vocal: both Robson and Safechuck have, in the past, denied any abuse took place, and are therefore just attempting to cash in on Jackson’s notoriety.

The pop star is not here to defend himself so all we have is one more allegation on top of the others. It proves nothing – Jackson is no more guilty now than he was before Leaving Neverland was released.

Both stances hold some merit. However, permit me to bring a child protection worker’s eye to the situation.

Arch manipulation?

Survivors of sexual and physical abuse often repress their experiences, to all intents and purposes forgetting they occurred.

This is a psychological tool to help the person cope with the magnitude of what happened – the pain, the shame and the guilt.

So the fact that the two men changed their story is not unusual and in no way diminishes the credence of their testimony.

Their stories are also consistent in detail. The grooming, the idea of being initiated into a secret form of love, the secrecy and manipulation.

What I found extremely compelling is the conflict that plays across Robson and Safechuck’s faces as they speak. There is still love there, still some damaged form of loyalty.

Both say they were not afraid of Jackson, that they believed they were having a relationship with him. They even hint at a form of consent being given.

To be clear, a minor cannot give consent to sexual contact.
It is one of the arch manipulations of the abuser that the child victim is made to believe he agreed to the abuse, maybe even wanted it to happen.

Over the years, both men defended their alleged abuser in the court cases against him.

Wade even admits to sobbing when he heard the singer was dead, something the mother states he did not even do when his own father died.

Definitive?

The confusion, the devastation, the sadness and the sheer, raw anguish that is evident in Leaving Neverland all hint at real validity. But is that enough? Can the details of this film be given the undisputed stamp of the definitive?

The answer has to be ‘no’.

Compelling or not, what the film presents is the unproven accounts of two young men and their families. While it is deftly presented and adorned with all the skills of a master filmmaker, it would not stand up in court and offers one view of a relationship.

Jackson can never be asked to corroborate, and too much time has passed for a forensic examination.

So in terms of clarifying whether or not Michael Jackson was a paedophile, Leaving Neverland is just one voice amid a choir of such choruses.

Hiding in plain sight

However, the film does offer a different kind of truth that might be just as important.

As a society for a long time we were unwilling to accept, because of the mask of fame, wealth and genius, the fact that this man could be mistreating the children he surrounded himself with.

Whether sexual abuse was a feature or not (and you can choose to believe or not as you see fit) he isolated them, he manipulated them and eventually disposed of them.

Whether you take the fundamentals of their story as true, what Reed presents in all their battered glamour are the damaged lives of two young men and the obliteration of their families. Robson’s father died by his own hand.

I believe the anger that has erupted since the documentary broadcast is as much an expression of collective guilt as it is a remonstrance against the two men at the centre of the controversy.

A monster was hiding in plain sight, and as a community, we chose to look the other way.

What he did when our eyes were turned cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt, but I think we can all be sure that it was wrong.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is Head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education. 

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